Federative Republic of Brazil
Whenever I meet someone from Brazil, I ask them what their favorite food is. After steak (picanha), it is almost always feijoada. It’s an old bean, pork and beef recipe, brought to South America, like many foods in many places, by those intrepid, globetrotting spice traders, the Portuguese, and then enhanced, like many other foods in many other places (and some of the same foods in the same places…), by African slaves and their descendants.
If you ask me, though, the finest gift of the Brazilians to the rest of the world is their irreplaceable, defiantly savory and happily chewy yuca-flour-based cheesy-bread, pão de queijo. It almost shouldn’t be allowed to exist.
Tell you what – I’ll make both.
Pão de queijo are basically little ball-shaped breads that are made from cheese, oil, milk and yuca flour. A good one should be toasty and even a little crunchy on the outside, but steamy, yielding and stretchy-chewy on the inside. The stretch comes from the starchy (but not glutenous!) properties of yuca – think of the way that potato makes the texture of gnocchi different from all other pastas… it’s the same deal with this bread.
Absolutely crucial to real pão de queijo is Queijo Minas, a cheese from the region of Minas Gerais in Brazil. It’s a cow’s milk cheese that is quite salty, and gives a unique flavor to the bread that I was unable to get out of any other cheese I tried. It’s usually balanced with queijo parmesão, which pretty much everyone else knows as Parmigiano cheese.
I had a real beast of a time with these, much to my chagrin – I expected pão de queijo to be my ace in the hole, my softball pitch. But, once again, breadmaking has shown itself to be my white whale. I made three separate batches of these, from three different recipes, and while each of them tasted right (one was way too eggy, actually), they just kept flattening out while they baked, melting down like the guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I went through two whole wheels of Queijo Minas before I realized that the type I was using (either frescal or meia-cura) was too wet for this application – I should have been using the drier, long-cured version called curado.
Here’s how my best batch came out:
Crunchy, chewy, cheesy… but the wrong shape, and wayyyy too big. Oh well, pretty damn close. We ate them all, anyway.
(Update: about two weeks ago, my Trade Fair started miraculously carrying Queijo Minas curado, so I’ll try to do one more batch soon and see if I can get them to stay spherical. Stay tuned…)
(Update 2: It worked! The picture below is how the new batch came out. I’ve updated the recipe to a final version, too. Enjoy!)
How about some lunch?
Aside from good quality, dried, black turtle beans, there are a few other crucial ingredients for this stew, and almost all of them come from a pig – rib, foot, ear, belly, tail and… well, whatever the hell ends up making it into sausage. The sausages are crucial – it won’t be feijoada without paio and/or linguiça. You also need a nice chunk of cesina, which is just salt-brined beef – you’ll find this in Mexican groceries anywhere, and it’s straight-up deadly in a taco.
If these ingredients seem rustic, they indeed are. Feijoada was born in the slaves’ quarters, out of necessity and ingenuity, and has evolved over time into a dish that has gained international renown. (You can read more about its history here.) It’s all about surviving, using everything at your disposal, wasting nothing, and taking nothing for granted.
I am very lucky to have met Selma from Ipanema Girl, a little Brazilian cafe and grocery store here in Astoria – she not only supplied me with everything I needed to make feijoada and pão de queijo, but also confirmed my recipes and even re-opened her store for me when I showed up, breathless, right as she was closing up for the night. She is a gem and you should give her your business!
There’s actually not much to the technique of this bean stew – like most stews, you throw a bunch of stuff in a pot, heat it up and then leave it alone for a while. There are, however, a few traditional accompaniments that you’ll need to make before you can truly eat it.
My favorite Brazilian resturant, Malagueta (the Portuguese name for the piri-piri chili we’ve seen before), serves their feijoada with medium-grain white rice, shredded and flash-fried collard greens and a big bowl of farofa, which is toasted yucca flour tossed with bacon and scallions. I followed their lead.
Once you have all the parts assembled and your stew (which you have diligently been skimming of excess grease) is ready, time to slice up an orange (which, along with the collards, apparently aids in the digestion of the beans) and plate it up for as many people as you can fit around a table. Whoever gets the ear has to do the dishes! I just made that up.
This dish is so warm, so filling and so utterly comforting (and so high in sodium), I think I understand why, for many Brazilians, it is a defining aspect of their culture. It takes some very humble ingredients – the throw-away parts, even – and transforms them into a blanket made of dopamine, serotonin and cortisol. It’s a wondrous thing.
(NB: This post is dedicated to the memory of my dear student and friend Elígio, who, along with his wonderful wife Cristina, first introduced me to pão de queijo amid laughter and kindness. Eu me lembro, amigo.)
Now you go:
Pão de Queijo UPDATED AND FINALIZED!!
1 lb. sour manioc starch (aka polvilho azedo)
1 lb. sweet manioc starch (aka polvilho doce)
1 cup canola oil
4 cups whole milk
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 lb. finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano (aka queijo parmesão)
3/4 lb. finely grated AGED Minas cheese (curado) (the softer, younger meia cura Minas cheese will NOT work in this recipe!!)
1 tbsp salt
Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F).
Sift flours and salt into a large bowl.
Heat milk and oil in a small saucepan, whisking CONSTANTLY (I’M NOT JOKING, CONSTANTLY) until just boiling. Slowly add to flour/salt mixture and incorporate gently – it should still look dry and lumpy. Leave to cool to room temperature.
One at a time, knead the eggs into the dough until just incorporated. Try not to over-mix. Then, knead in the cheeses, again trying to stop when it is juuuuust incorporated.
Oil your hands well and make golf-ball sized balls out of the sticky dough, making sure they are smooth and evenly shaped. Place them evenly on a lightly greased cookie sheet.
Bake at 375F until the outside is moderately browned, about 30 minutes.
Serve piping hot!
1 1/2 cups dried black beans (turtle is preferred, for texture)
1/8 lb. carne seca/cesina (about the size of your flat hand)
1/8 lb. pork ribs (about 2 thick ribs)
1 pig foot, split
1-2 pig ears
1 pig tail (smoked, if possible)
4 strips smoked bacon, finely chopped
1 paio sausage, cut into thick slices
1/2 lb. of linguiça calabresa (Portuguese-style smoked pork sausage), cut into thick slices
1 white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 bay leaves
1 orange, peeled (remove all of the white pith!)
8 cups water
The night before, soak the pig foot, tail and ear in cold water to draw out blood/impurities. Separately, soak the cesina in cold water overnight. In yet another bowl, soak the beans in cold water.
The next day, put the foot, tail, ear and cesina in a pot with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, boilf for 10 minutes and then drain. Refill the pot with cold water, bring to a boil again and cook until the meats are tender and beginning to fall apart. Drain well.
In a large pot or dutch oven (preferred), place the beans and 8 cups water, bay leaves, and peeled orange. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmering. Cook for 45 minutes. Add all meats, and cook for 20-30 more minutes.
In a saute pan, fry the onion and garlic on olive oil. Add about 1 cup of beans from the pan, cook briefly and mash well with the back of a spoon. Return the whole mess to the dutch oven and adjust for salt (YOU WILL NOT NEED TO ADD SALT.) Let simmer for about 20-30 more minutes, until beans are tender and meats are falling apart willingly. Remove from heat and let cool about 10 minutes.
Serve with boiled, medium-grain white rice, orange slices, farofa and (chiffonaded) collard greens (that have been quickly fried in canola oil and drained on paper towels. I’d write the recipe but that’s seriously the whole recipe. So…).
2 tbsp canola oil
1 small onion, minced
4 slices smoked bacon, minced
1 cup toasted manioc flour (farinha de mandioca torrada)
1 bunch scallions – only the dark green tops! – thinly sliced
salt and black pepper to taste
Saute the onion and bacon in the oil over low heat until the bacon is fully rendered and crisp. Add the flour a little at a time, stirring to coat. Add the scallions when the flour has just begun to brown. Remove from heat, mix well.
Serve at any temperature, and refrigerate any unused portion – there’s bacon it it, duh!