With my mother and five sisters fussing over the stove, and skillfully creating potions of accomplished taste, my Brazilian kitchen was the safest place of my youth. I learned to cook as naturally as I learned to tie my shoes and comb my hair; it was part of growing up. Today, my kitchen is still my sanctuary, a place of refuge where my love is best understood.
Growing up, we ate lots of greens in my mother’s kitchen; an incredible variety of greens made in countless ways. My mother was ingenious with a head of lettuce or a bunch of collard greens. The legumes, in abundance in every backyard of the neighborhood, were omnipresent in every meal. For protein we had pork, beef or chicken; occasionally some fish, but very sporadically — never lamb or veal or any of the exotic venison common in my Aunt Clara’s kitchen. My family did not care for the gamy protein, although I loved to eat it with my cousins at their table; every meal in my aunts’ house extended our traditions.
My mother and Aunt Clara had reshuffled their family legacy; mother took Aunt Clara’s abilities in the kitchen, and in return, offered whatever artistic talent she had with embroideries, needles and threads. They both excelled in their chosen domain. Aunt Clara married an excellent cook who enjoyed the kitchen almost as much as my mother. Although no one called it that, the kitchen in my aunt’s house was really my Uncle Ray’s kitchen.
Brazilian cuisine traveled well among the 26 states. Sometimes, the country’s vast territory and varied climate forced some of us in inland states to modify a recipe, or to make it only on special occasions on which we invested more time gathering the ingredients. During my youth in Minas Gerais, recipe adaptations according to local flavors were common because of precarious traveling conditions; we replaced the goods scarce on our side of the map without hesitation. Some dishes like the northern feijoada and the southern macarronada were consumed in their original recipe across the country with much jubilee.
For a long time, the international trading of our flavors was sluggish at best; the Brazilian culinary seems slow in crossing over the Atlantic. Even today, Brazil’s rich and inventive cuisine is mostly represented in the US by the “churrasco” (grilled meat in skewers), which is a renowned food, of course, but in no way can it represent Brazilian gastronomy. My writings intend to introduce a new look at Brazilian food.
In today’s reality, my Uncle Ray would easily find the right kind of beans for his acarajé in his small-town market. Spices and herbs natural from Brazil’s hot northern states or from its tempered south can be purchased with the click of the mouse in any part of the world. Let us celebrate it.
In my mother’s traditional kitchen and with my Uncle Ray’s out-of-the-ordinary foods, I learned to proclaim my love in most varied ways. My mother’s Sunday mid-day macarronada kept all of us inside her hug long after sundown; Uncle Ray’s spicy sarapatel had the warmth of his fleeting smiles and the tenderness of his care for the vegetable garden — my cooking assures my friends of my true feelings providing me sustainability.
Here, I will share with you the recipes I’ve adapted through the years. I am always adding or subtracting ingredients to them and encourage you to do the same; let it be your gift to the friends at your table. The Brazilian flavors will please — this much I guarantee.
Quiabo originated in Africa and was taken to Brazil during the slave-trading in colonial times. In languages spoken in Nigeria, the quiabo was called ókúrú, giving origin to its North American name: okra. In Bantu languages it was known as kingombo, introducing the word “quiabo” to the Brazilian-Portuguese language.
The quiabo flower is as beautiful as any hibiscus. Although I never heard a poet singing its grace, I have a memory of my elderly grandfather harvesting quiabos in his backyard and asking grandmother to cook him an ode to the okra’s flower.
2 pounds okra
1 whole chicken, cut up
5 garlic cloves, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
1 cup canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup chopped parsley — divided
1 cup chopped scallion — divided
1. Wash, dry and cut okra into thin slices, set aside.
2. Marinate the chicken with garlic, salt, pepper and paprika for 30 minutes.
In a heavy bottom pot, heat the oil and add the reserved okra. Stir occasionally with care not to break the small pieces. Okra will appear sticky, but after about 20 min the stickiness will dissipate. Remove it from stove, drain it and discard the excess oil, keeping about two tablespoons. Set okra aside.
3. In the same pot, fry the onion until golden. Add the chicken and sauté it to golden brown. Add 3 cups of water to the pot and partially cover it. Cook for about 20 min or until done. Add the reserved okra.
4. Turn off the heat and add ½ cup parsley and ½ cup scallion. Stir to incorporate.
5. Serve with rice or soft polenta.
6. Add the remainder of parsley and scallion just before serving. Serves 4