Brazilian cookbook is spiced with history and variety

October 04, 1992|By Barbara Sullivan | Barbara Sullivan,Chicago Tribune

Get out your map.

Food writer Jessica Harris has tackled Brazil, by far the largest country in South America, with 3.28 million square miles of territory, which makes it only slightly smaller than the United States.

The contrasts within this country range from the 4,560 miles of coastline, with such cosmopolitan cities as Rio de Janeiro, to the Amazon rain forests in the north, to the cowboys and vineyards -- yes, vineyards -- in the south.

About 175 recipes from these diverse regions, from the fish dishes created along the coast to the barbecued beef of the south, have been assembled by Ms. Harris in her new cookbook, "Tasting Brazil" (Macmillan, $23).

As she has done in previous books, including "Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons" and "Hot Stuff," Ms. Harris delves into the history of the country. Particularly interesting is how each new wave of arrivals -- the Portuguese and other Europeans, the Africans and now, immigrants from the Middle East and Asia -- have added their own foods and cooking habits to the Brazilian cuisine.

"History . . . is in every bite of the country's food," she writes. "It tantalizes in the spice mixture that goes into the fish stews of the northeast, speaking of the native Brazilian love of ginger and lemon juice.

"It boldly recalls West Africa in the dende -- palm oil -- malagueta pepper and coconut milk that are the holy trinity of Afro-Bahian cooking, and Portugal in the linguica -- sausage -- and kale that are found in hearty soups."

Ms. Harris' writing is wonderful stuff for those who love a hefty dollop of history with their recipes. Many home cooks, however, will find these recipes very different from anything they've experienced. There are new tastes and taste combinations, even for sophisticated palates.

Just a quick glance at Ms. Harris' listing of utensils, ingredients and dishes common in Brazilian cooking indicates that cooking from this book is likely to be a culinary adventure: aipim (cassava or yuca), chourico (Portuguese blood sausage), dende (palm oil), pimenta malagueta (malagueta pepper) and urucu (achiote) are a few common ingredients.

"Don't panic," Ms. Harris cautions. "A good part of the fun of cooking Brazilian is the wide variety of ingredients that are used. . . . When an ingredient is difficult to find, I've tried to offer suggestions for substitutes."

Most of the seafood recipes are simple, relying on the use of different herbs and seasonings for their special Brazilian flavor. Peixe vermelho escaldado, for example, is red snapper marinated in a garlic, lemon and cilantro mixture and then poached.

The reader cannot help but envy Ms. Harris because of her tales of eating in Brazil. There are grilled shrimp and steaks of pirarucu, a flaky Amazon fish, eaten on a cove in the middle of a stream leading into the Amazon; black beans and smoked meat (feijoada) eaten during a feast in the northeastern part of the country; chile peppers consumed along with steak and salad while listening to samba music in Brasilia, the capital.

Most of us will have to settle for the verbal pictures she paints of these meals and surroundings. But, with some adventuresome effort, the flavors and meals can be brought to the home table.

The appetizer that I find goes best with my caipirinha de maracuja (a brandy drink made with passion fruit) is this one, which is simple to make at home.

Salsichas fritas (fried sausage)

Makes 4 servings.

1/2 pound Portuguese sausage, like linguica or chourico (see note below), cut into 1/2 -inch rounds

20 large black calamata olives

Fry the sausage rounds in a heavy iron skillet over medium-high heat until they are browned on both sides, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels and place on a serving platter with the olives. Serve.

Note: If Portuguese sausage cannot be found, select a mild Spanish chorizo.

Most folks think only of Argentina when they think of pampas (grassy plains). However, Brazil, too, has its grasslands and its cowboys, who are also called gauchos. They have perfected their own methods of barbecuing beef. Their techniques have become the basis for some of the most popular restaurants in large cities like Rio, Sao Paulo and even Salvador. The taste of the restaurants can be approximated at home with an outdoor grill. However, for true churrasco, you need an open fire, the vast pampas and a gaucho.

Churrasco (gaucho-style Brazilian barbecue)

Makes 4 servings.

4 1 1/2 -inch thick shell (strip) steaks

3/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/3 cup dry red wine

1 small onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

salt to taste

Leave the steaks in a marinade prepared with the remaining ingredients for at least overnight (longer if possible). When ready to barbecue, remove them from the marinade, pat dry with paper towels, and grill on both sides to the desired level of doneness. You can prepare the churrasco indoors in the broiler, but you will not have the same taste.

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