What are Hearts of Palm?

When I first came to Brazil in 2005 I had never heard about hearts of palm. My husband was quick to introduce me and I immediately fell in love with them. Hearts of palm are mild in flavor, tender, and perfect in salads, pies, or with pasta. Hearts of palm are considered a delicacy because of the labor intensive process of harvesting them. You can find them in almost any supermarket in the USA and if you haven’t tried them before I highly recommend running to your local supermarket, grabbing a jar, and adding them to your salad for lunch or dinner. I can never get enough of hearts of palm and use any excuse to add them to a dish. But, what exactly are hearts of palm?

Simply put, hearts of palm are the inner core and growing bud of the palm tree. The stem of the palm tree is harvested and the bark is removed leaving a layer of white fiber around the central core. This fiber is removed leaving the center core of the heart of palm which is eaten. The fresh hearts of palm tend to be crisp and crunchy whereas the canned hearts of palm lose their crunchiness and are much softer.

Here is a great video showing the whole process of harvesting to packaging the hearts of palm.


There are various varieties of palm trees that the heart of palm is harvested from, this includes the palmito juçara, açaí palm, sabal palm, and the pejibaye. The palmito juçara used to be the most popular uncultivated (wild) palm tree that was harvested for the heart of palm. Brazil was the largest producer of this heart of palm variety until the 1990’s when there was a lot of poaching for these popular stems which resulted in the threatened extinction of the wild palmito juçara. Today Ecuador is one of the highest producers of hearts of palms together with Costa Rica. The majority of hearts of palms that you find in the supermarket now are from domesticated (farmed) palm trees.

When the stem of the palm is harvested for the inner core the palm tree dies. The most common palm trees have only one stem and when it is cut the tree has nothing remaining to keep it alive. It is because of the single stemmed palm trees that palm trees with multiple stems, such as the sabal palm and the pejibaye, were domesticated (farmed) so as to prevent the killing of the palm tree when its stems were cut for the inner core. Today, most hearts of palms come from large farms which harvest the inner core of the palm from a tree that can have up to 40 stems. The multiple stems of the domesticated palm trees prevents the killing of the tree and harvesting hearts of palm becomes much more sustainable.

In Brazil hearts of palms are called palmito. In English there are several different names, some of which I had never heard of: hearts of palm, peach palm, burglars thigh, and swamp cabbage (not sure where burglars thigh comes from, anyone know?). Hearts of palm can be used in so many different ways, my favorite ways to eat hearts of palm is to slice them and add to a salad, cut in half and stand them on a plate and drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt, or to make a pie like this torta de palmito!

Resources
http://www.wisegeek.org/what-are-hearts-of-palm.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_of_palm
http://www.buzzle.com/articles/hearts-of-palm.html

Escondidinho

The last few weeks have been crazily busy for me and trying to get a lot of cooking done has not been easy, especially when I am trying to learn how to cook new dishes. Writing posts at the end of a busy work day has been almost impossible, so you will have to excuse my tardiness this week with my posts.

EscondidinhoToday I decided to dig into my collection of food that I have already made and share with you a wonderful dish for a cold day. When I made escondidinho a few weeks ago it was not my best cooking day, to say the least. While cooking the mandioca (manioc or yucca) I stupidly decided not to use my pressure cooker and ended up burning my pan because I did not put enough water in to properly cook the mandioca. As a result, I only half managed to cook the mandioca. Mashing the mandioca became a whole other headache: I couldn’t properly mash the mandioca because not all had been properly cooked. So, to make a smooth mixture proved very difficult and I decided to use my food processor to help me out. Oh man was that a mistake. After successfully pureeing the first batch the second load was too much for my small food processor to manage and smoke started to leak from the motor. I quickly turned it off and decided to settle with a lumpy mixture! I am not sure if my processor is actually working properly as I have not dared to try it again; I couldn’t bare to have to throw it in the trash. Anyway, the mandioca part of this recipe proved to be a challenge. It didn’t need to be, I just had a bad kitchen day and didn’t have my cooking hat on! But, to my surprise dealing with the rest of this dish was a breeze.

So, with my rant of the difficulties that I encountered with this recipe over, let me tell you what escondidinho is. The easiest way to describe escondidinho is by saying that it is similar to a Sheppard’s Pie, but at the same time it is really nothing like it. Escondidinho is made with carne seca, a dried, salted meat similar to jerked beef, and manioc/yucca. It is baked in the oven and perfect for a cold night or with beer. From what I have been told, escondidinho is not a dish that is commonly made at home, but instead can be found in bars. Popular in the state of Minas Gerais and other states in the northeast of Brazil it is simple and tasty. According to wikipedia it mentions that escondininho was invented for two young boys, Adolfo and Norberto Canelas who were hungry and only had manioc/yucca and carne seca. Out of these simple ingredients was born this wonderfully simple dish.

EscondidinhoNow, before I share the recipe with you, I have to be completely honest that this was not my favorite dish that I have made or tasted. Although I had the reassurance from my wonderful husband that I had done a really good job with making the dish and it tasted exactly how it should, I did not really like it. I figured out pretty quickly what I didn’t like about this dish and it was the mandioca. Mandioca has a slightly bitter flavor and although lots of people may like this, I cannot bring myself to enjoy the bitterness of it. On the other hand though, the carne seca was absolutely amazing and I couldn’t get enough of it. I think that next time I will put a european twist on this dish and make it with mashed potatoes!

But, I have not given-up using manioc. This week I tried out a manioc bread and it turned out wonderful. I will be sharing the recipe soon, once I have fine tuned it:)

Carne seca is not easy to find outside of Brazil. A solution that some people making escondidinho have come up with is using ground beef. Take a look at this wonderful recipe from Tiffany at A Clove of Garlic, A Pinch of Salt. Or if you are determined to make this the right way you can buy carne seca online.

Here you are, after all of my ramblings I give you the recipe for Escondidinho! Enjoy.

Ingredients

1Kg carne seca
500g manioc/yucca
200g cream
1/2 cup milk
2tbsp butter
salt
1 onion
parsley

Put the carne seca in cold water and leave to soak for up to 24 hours to remove all of the salt. Cook the carne seca in a pressure cooker for approximately 30 minutes. When cool shred the carne seca and set aside. Cook the manioc/yucca in a pressure cooker for 30 minutes. Remove from the water, remove the hard fibre in the middle and mash. Add the cream and milk to form a smooth mixture. Set aside. Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the onions. Sauté until the onions are soft but not brown. Add the carne seca, salt, and parsley. Sauté for up to five minutes. Preheat the oven to 200C/390F. Using an oven proof dish put the carne seca mixture on the bottom of the dish and cover with the manioc mixture. Smooth the top. Place in the oven for 30 minutes or until the top is crisp and brown.

For a PDF of this recipe CLICK HERE!

Tapioca Flour: What is it really?

Ever since I tried Tapioca (a type of pancake made from tapioca flour, typically found in the north of Brazil) I have been constantly thinking about tapioca flour. In Brazil there is not just one type of tapioca flour, instead there seems to be a gazillion different types (well that isn’t quite true, but it seems that way to me) and each one is used for making a specific dish or to suit different taste buds. Recently I have been thinking more about the advantages of using tapioca flour, one being that it is GLUTEN FREE, and how fun it is to bake with. The part that I like best is that tapioca flour becomes gooey (if you have tried pão de queijo you know what I mean). So, before I dive into tons of recipes that take tapioca flour I’m going to tell you a little bit about what it is and the different flours that you can find in Brazil.

Sagu or tapioca pearls image from www.wikinoticia.com/

Sagu or tapioca pearls
image from http://www.wikinoticia.com/

Tapioca flour, or manioc flour, is made from a woody shrub known as cassava, manioc, or yuca; a native shrub of South America. In Brazil, the cassava plant and the root that is commonly eaten is called “mandioca”, while the starch is called “tapioca”! The name tapioca is derived from the word tipi’oka which is the name for this starch in the Tupi language that was spoken by the natives when the Portuguese first arrived in the Northeast of Brazil. The Tupi word, tipi’oka, refers to the process by which the starch is made edible. The word has been adopted and is now used to refer to the flour in the northeast of the country. In the north and central west it is more commonly referred to as mandioca, and in the southeast and south as aipim.

Polvilho Doce image from www.mysupermarket.co.uk

Polvilho Doce
image from http://www.mysupermarket.co.uk

As I learned today from my mother-in-law and husband, tapioca flour is the primary flour that is used for baking in the northern areas of Brazil. Due to an inability to grow wheat, tapioca has been adopted as the primary flour. Breads, cakes, buns, and pancakes are all made with tapioca flour. I haven’t tried tapioca bread or cake yet, but I know that I will have to.

Brazilians use two types of tapioca flour: a fine flour that is used in cakes and cookies, and a course flour that is used for frying. Obviously, this is not where the story ends. Yes, there are two main types of tapioca flour, but the tree keeps on branching out. The fine flour, referred to as “polvilho” in Brazil has two different types, a sweet and a sour. The course flour, referred to as “farinha de mandioca” also has various types! Let me start by explaining a little bit more about “polivilho”!

Polvilho Azedo

Polvilho Azedo
image from http://www.produtosbrasileiros.co.uk

Polvilho – This is the fine-white tapioca flour. This is the basic tapioca flour you will find. In Brazil there are two different types, the sweet and the sour. So, what is the difference? Well basically one flour is more sour and the other is more sweet. Tasting them side-by-side you can really taste the difference. “Polvilho Doce”, the sweet tapioca flour is more commonly used for baking cakes or cookies. If you are baking anything sweet you will probably want to go with the sweet tapioca flour! “Polvilho Azedo” is fermented cassava pulp that is then made into flour. This flour is sour and is used in recipes like pão de queijo. More commonly used in savory recipes, the sour tapioca flour has a stronger flavor!

Farinha de Mandioca

Farinha de Mandioca
image from http://www.ibahia.com

Farinha de Mandioca – This is the course manioc flour that is used for frying and is commonly used in the side dish farofa (farinha de mandioca fried with butter, onions, bacon/jerked beef, and parsley). I still have no idea how many different varieties of this flour there are in Brazil, but it seems like a lot. Some flours are very course, others toasted for a more nutty flavor, and others have large flakes. Generally it is up to the preference of those cooking or eating the dishes made with farinha de mandioca. They all do the same thing, they just have slightly different textures and flavors!

Besides the tapioca flour you find in Brazil, Brazilians are also very fond of “sagu” or what is actually known in the USA as tapioca: the tapioca pearls. A delicious dessert “sagu” is usually made with grape juice, but you can find almost any flavor.

If you do not live in Brazil it is likely that you will not have access to the endless variety of tapioca flours that you can find here. Instead, you will be able to find the basic tapioca flour, this is probably the “polvilho doce” that we find in Brazil, but can really be used for any type of baking (pão de queijo made with polvilho doce is still a bite of heaven). Finding the “farinha de mandioca” will be much more of a challenge. I have seen it in some supermarkets in the international section, but this was only in the Boston area where there is a large Brazilian population. (Take a look at my links for ordering Brazilian Food online, there are some great places to buy farinha de mandioca!)

Pressure Cooker

When you see someone cooking in Brazil you are more than likely to see a pressure cooker on the stove. The other day, driving home, there was a man cooking on the street with a pressure cooker. A couple of nights ago I didn’t have enough time to cook a beef stew, and instead I tossed all of the ingredients into the pressure cooker, cooked it for 30 minutes, and I was rewarded with a tasty stew that was ready in record time! Every household in Brazil will at least have one pressure cooker and you can guarantee that it is one of the most used kitchen items. Having a pressure cooker is a must-have when cooking Brazilian food, and once you get the hang of it and see how much time you can save when using it, you will never want to cook without it.

Ok, so pressure cookers may be a little bit scary and make a lot of noise when cooking, but trust me they are a kitchen life-saver! Not just used for beans, pressure cookers are used for anything that may take longer than 30 minutes, potatoes, soups, stews, broths….etc!

So what exactly is a pressure cooker? We may have all heard about it, but let me explain a little bit about how it works as it is not a common kitchen appliance in all parts of the world.  A pressure cooker uses water, or other cooking liquids, in a sealed pan that does not allow air to escape. Pressure cookers heat food quickly because the internal steam pressure from the boiling liquid causes saturated steam (or “wet steam”) to bombard and permeate the food. Thus, higher temperature water vapor (i.e., increased energy), which transfers heat more rapidly compared to dry air, cooks food very quickly. Pressure cooking allows food to be cooked at higher temperatures, when using a normal boiling method water will heat to 100C and remain at this boiling temperature. With a pressure cooker the boiling point of water increases as the pressure increases. Liquid in a pressure cooker can reach a temperature of 121C resulting in much faster cooking times! After cooking, the built-up pressure needs to be released so that the pan can be safely opened.

History tells us that in 1679 a French physicist, Denis Papin, invented the “Steam Digester” an airtight vessel that used steam to increase the boiling point of water and as a result reduced cooking times. In 1795 Nicolas Appert developed a canning process of packing clean jars sealed with a cork and cooking them in boiling water. Appert’s invention combined with Papin’s “Steam Digester” helped in the development of the pressure cooker as we know it today. In 1917 pressure canning began to become popular in the US and was determined by the US Department of Agriculture as the safest way for preserving low acid foods. A 10 gallon pressure canner was developed for home use and together with it, homemakers began to discover the benefits of using the pressure canner to speed up the process of cooking foods. In 1938 Alfred Vischler introduced his “flex-speed pressure cooker”; the first saucepan-style pressure cooker. In 1939 the “Presto” cooker was introduced and became a popular pressure cooker in the USA.

Today, pressure cookers are not widely used in the USA. Finding one for sale in a store can be a challenge. While living in the USA I gave-up trying to find a pressure cooker and instead acquired one in Brazil! The pressure cookers in Brazil are slightly different from what I found in the USA and I like the ones here much better. But don’t despair, you can buy great pressure cookers in the USA. But, you are better off purchasing it online. Here are a couple of links to point you in the direction of making your first pressure cooker purchase.

  1. A search on Amazon.com gives you pressure cooker options from $25 to over $100.
  2. Wiliam-Sonoma will give you much more expensive options.
  3. Macy’s gives you mid-range prices.
  4. This is an excellent pressure cooker that I have used and highly recommend!

Before you use a pressure cooker for the first time there are two things you need to remember, (1) that the lid is properly sealed before turning on the heat, and (2) release all of the pressure, once finished cooking, before you open the lid.

A little story about what happened to my husband and I when our pressure cooker was not sealed properly: everything in the kitchen was eerily quiet, the pressure cooker was not singing its usual song, when suddenly it started with a loud bang. This was clearly not normal so we both rushed to the kitchen. To our horror (probably more mine) purple steam was flying out of the pressure cooker staining our ceiling and walls. There was only one thing that we could do…wait for all the steam to be released onto our walls and ceiling…! Needless to say I spent the next two hours trying to wash the purple bean-steam off my white walls and ceiling. This has only happened once, but when the lid is not sealed properly you can expect similar results!

For my simple bean recipe that uses a pressure cooker CLICK HERE!

Sources:
The History of Pressure Cooking…
Wikipedia – Pressure Cooking
História da Panela de Pressão

 

Brazilian Cuisine

Before I dive more deeply into cooking Brazilian food and learning about the different ways to cook the traditional dishes of Brazil, I want to tell you a little bit about where the Brazilian cuisine comes from. Brazil is a large country, approximately 8,515,767 km² and has a population of approximately 200 million people. Brazil is the largest country in South America, and remember, they speak portuguese, not spanish. Brazil is a country that is built up of immigrants, every Brazilian has a mixed heritage. The diverse population of Brazil with many different cultural influences, Italians, Germans, Japanese, and Africans alike have all had a distinct impact on the cuisine of Brazil.

Brazil can be divided into four main regions, each with a distinct cultural heritage and cuisine. The north of Brazil, which consists primarily of the Amazon, has a population made-up of indigenous tribes and people of mixed Indian and Portuguese ancestry. The main foods that can be found in the north of Brazil are fish, manioc, yams, peanuts, and a mix of tropical fruits. The northeastern region of Brazil, best known for the cuisine of Bahia has its influential roots in African and Portuguese cuisine. Central ingredients to Bahian cuisine are coconut milk, palm oil, and malagueta chili peppers. In the south of Brazil a larger mix of cultures is visible, immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain boast a rich variety of foods. Finally, the southeastern region of Brazil has a large influence from the gaucho, the cowboys of the pampas. In the south they like meat Brazilian Foodand are famous for their churrasco; barbecue.

Many different foods abound throughout Brazil, but staple foods can be found throughout the country: beans, coconuts, dende oil (red palm oil), dried and salted codfish, dried shrimp, rice, and manioc. Rice and beans are a staple food that is found in every home and is served at almost every meal. (If you don’t like beans, no need to worry, you will not be forced to eat them. It took me many years to enjoy eating beans and I am still not the most avid bean eater!)

Brazilian cuisine revolves heavily around meat. It is easy to say that Brazilians LOVE their meat. It is difficult to have a meal that does not consist of some type of meat while in Brazil. When having a celebratory meal, such as for Christmas, you can expect to be greeted with ham, turkey, and fish; there is never just one type of meat on the table. You will never leave someones house hungry in Brazil.

Besides a heavy diet of meat and starches, Brazil has an amazing abundance of fruits and vegetables. Walking into a grocery store or visiting the local street market you will soon learn that there is no such thing as one variety of fruit. Bananas come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, oranges are small, large, sweet, or watery, there are normal looking fruit and odd looking fruit. In Brazil, I am always learning about a new and different fruit that I have never seen or even heard of. Surviving off of fruit and vegetables is easy here!

Food shopping is an enjoyable chore in Brazil. The choices of where to go and what to shop for is endless. Everyday there is a street market, with time you learn where the street markets are, and which are the good ones. The local market where I do shopping and my mother-in-law and friends go to has an abundance of different foods. To read more about the Brazilian shopping experience read a recent post from a fellow blogger in Rio.