Sunday, January 18, 2009

80 Plates: Cena en el Brasil/Jantar em Brasil/Dining in Brazil

So, tonight's cuisine was from Brazil. I don't know if it's due to the cold or what, but I am most definitely under the weather. Cooking today was a real labor of love, but I don't want to fall behind. We already missed out on cooking yesterday, so it was important to me that we get cooking today! But if I'm honest, my heart wasn't 100% into it. I didn't even get out of my pajamas today, much less feel like a chef!

Back when Michael and I lived in Boston, we went out with our friends Tim and Cheryl to dine at various restaurants around the city. We were far more adventurous, culinarily-speaking, at that time than perhaps any other time in our history together. One night, the four of us decided to go to a restaurant called Cafe Brazil in our neighborhood. I'd never eaten Brazilian food before, and we wanted to try something new and different, so the four of us agreed to eat there. We all really enjoyed the food there and then never went back.

When Michael and I were discussing this project, his first country request was Brazil. I recently picked up a bargain bin cookbook at Borders called Around the World in 450 Recipes. Around the world does not include Australia, the entire continent of South America, and Africa appears to be one big country. So I couldn't rely on that to be of much help.

I started doing some web searches. I found a good number of recipes that appeared to be very good, and I judged that they were authentic based on the fact that the English in them was rather broken. In fact, a couple times while following them, I was like, "Huh!? What the hell does that mean?"

But I forged ahead. The menu we divised for tonight's meal was:

* Barbecue de Brazil
* Torta de Couve-Fleur
* Brazilian rice

Like the coq au vin, there were no pictures of the food to follow, so I was just hoping that it looked edible. I honestly have no idea if anything I prepared "looked like it should have" but it looked plenty fine to me, so the heck with it!

Yesterday, we did our grocery shopping and I defrosted the steak and chicken we had in the freezer--an added bonus in that we already had some of the ingredients, which allowed me to invest in a *drum roll please* rice cooker! I have wanted a rice cooker for some time, as I absolutely HATE cooking rice on the stove--it always boils over and it always makes an incredible mess on the glass top stove, which I also HATE with a passion. Someday, we're running a gas line, and I'm getting a gas stove. So I was tremendously excited about the prospect of having a rice cooker and planned to break it in for this meal. An added benefit was that I was going to use brown rice instead of white rice, as it is a WW approved rice and apparently healthier, but I have hated brown rice every time I've made it and have never been able to cook it properly. So I was excited to see what the rice cooker could do with it.

Ok, so the first thing I needed to do this morning was to get the chicken marinating. This involved the perplexing directions "Cut each chicken breast into 3 width ways". What the heck are three width ways? Plus, considering the steak and chorizo were being cut into only 2 inch pieces, cutting the chicken into 3 pieces made them quite large. So I wound up cutting the chicken breasts into fourths and fifths. The marinade was very simple, just lime juice and garlic. Chef's tip #1: I found the chicken VERY easy to cut up because it was still partially frozen.

I put the bag of chicken and marinade in the refrigerator. Because it is Sunday, we are on a football schedule. However, I had been especially lazy all morning and it was now nearly 11am. So I realized that we weren't going to be able to eat before football kicked off. The chicken was supposed to marinate a scant 4 hours, so it would be ready around 2:30 to be done marinating. This isn't much of a problem except that I know from watching Top Chef that citrus juice cooks fish, which is how you make ceviche. So I wondered if my chicken would be in trouble if I allowed it to sit in pure lime juice for that long. My decision was to drain it after 4 hours and let it sit the rest of the time until it was ready to cook. Crisis averted.

Ok, my next plan of attack was to start on the Torta de Couve-Fleur, which in case you haven't guessed is a cauliflower pie. I like raw cauliflower a lot, and can tolerate cooked cauliflower if it isn't too mushy and gross--I feel the same way about broccoli. I was intrigued by this recipe because it a) didn't offer much in the way of measurements (one ingredient listed was simply 'melted butter'); b) had lots of cheese, cream, and butter; and c) didn't offer a whole lot in the way of direction. For instance, the cauliflower cooking times were all approximate based on the look or feel of the food (boil until tender but not mushy; bake until bubbling). I felt like a bit of an adventurer doing my own thing, and thought to myself, "Someone's mom must have written out these directions!" The reporter from our story a couple of weeks ago kept asking me specifics about what we were doing and I kept saying, "I don't know, I just kind of do it until it looks right." Annoying? Yes. But I always get it right. So I was confident.

As soon as I had drained off the chicken's marinade, I decided to get the cauliflower pie started. I know I raved about my Wusthof knife last time, but let me tell you, that cauliflower did not stand a chance against this little wonder. Honestly, I was afraid I might cut myself. I have never cut apart a head of fresh cauliflower--I've always used the frozen stuff. So I started by cutting off the leaves and carving out the stem. It was like cutting through butter, honestly. There was no work involved whatsoever. It was unbelievable. In no time flat, those florets were doing their dance of individual happiness in my pot.

I had to wait for it to finish cooking, as I needed 1 1/2 cups of the cooking water in order to prepare the sauce. The sauce was a roux, a mixture of butter and flour, into which you pour the cooking water and a mixture of heavy cream and 2 egg yolks. It bubbles up beautifully, though I did use the whisk to make it nice and smooth as the butter and flour clumped up some and didn't want to cooperate with joining the water. Once that came together, I added a dash of nutmeg--exactly what the directions said, "a dash".

Once that was combined and bubbling away merrily, I put the cauliflower into a greased pie plate (I didn't have a casserole dish) and poured the sauce over it. Then I sprinkled on some cheese, drizzled with melted butter, and it was ready for a 'medium oven' which I took to mean 350. I turned the oven on to pre-heat and got back to business with the meat.

I hacked up the steak and chorizo. The recipe also suggested using 16 mushrooms as part of the dish, I guess to give it at least a semblance of vegetation. I was not, however, foolish enough to think that I could convince the General to eat some mushrooms, so I cut this down a bit into an amount that I would eat, although to be honest, we had leftover mushrooms! I was VERY proud of him, however, as he did say he would at least try the cauliflower. He is very adventurous, perhaps more adventurous than I!

But I digress. The recipe said each meat should be on its own separate skewer and then all skewers should be grilled on a medium grill for approximately 10 minutes, during which time they are continually brushed with vegetable oil.

Ok, there are a number of flaws with this particular approach to Barbecue de Brazil.

1. Our grill. It was humorously dubbed "Vesuvius" by my father-in-law, and that is, in fact, what we now call it. The thing is massive, three burners, stainless steel, a real hulk. Regulating the heat on it is an adventure under the best of circumstances.

2. Virginia is in the midst of a definite cold snap. During the last few days, the temperatures have dropped to the single digits. I'll be damned if I'm going to stand outside (did I mention I didn't actually get dressed today?) in my pajamas for 10 minutes basting meat over a tempramental grill when it's 25 degrees outside.

3. Did I mention I'm not feeling well? Let's not tempt fate. I have a lot of cooking and an inauguration party to go to, and I want to get it all done. And I won't be able to if I'm not feeling well.

So, I decided to pull out our big George Foreman grill. We've got a monster Foreman grill too. Both Vesuvius and the Foreman were purchased for me by my dad (although I think when he got me the Foreman, my mom was also involved in its purchase). As you can tell from the size of them, my dad doesn't do anything halfway. He's very much the "go big or go home" type. This is, however, fortunate, when it comes to a project like this one where I need a good sized grilling surface.

However, I was again nervous. I still had to get the rice cooker going, and our breakers have a nasty habit of tripping if we get too many electrical gadgets going at once in the kitchen. I decided to plug the rice cooker in over by the refrigerator and the Foreman grill in over by the stove on the off chance they are on separate breakers, or that perhaps fate would intervene and I'd be able to cook without having to run up and down the stairs fixing the breaker and then trying to cook rice in the living room.

Thus, it occurred to me that I needed to get the rice going. I tenderly unpacked the rice cooker and washed out the innards. I read the rice recipe directions and got my ingredients ready.

It is a very simple recipe with basically 4 ingredients: rice, onions, olive oil, and water. I was fortunate to be able to avoid chopping onions because, as you can see, we had TONS of onions left over from last weekend's activities, so I guesstimated that 1 onion would be approximately 1 cup chopped, and used that as my guide. The recipe dictated that the onions should be sauteed in olive oil until soft, and then the rice should be added for one minute. The rice cooker directions dictated that the rice must be rinsed before being added to the rice cooker. So I rinsed first, then added them to the onions, then poured everything into the rice cooker insert, and added the water. I gingerly placed the basket into the appliance and prepared myself to be wowed by the gratification of rice cooking.

I pushed the "brown rice" button on the cooker, and it started doing its happy rice cooker thing. I gazed in wonder at the instructions, which assured me that I could even steam food over the rice and have an one pot dinner with this machine.

"Hmm," I thought to myself, "I wonder how long that will take and when I should start the meat?"

So I came to the conclusion that I should probably look up the cooking times for brown rice. I had a client who I taught to use a rice cooker, and it was pretty instantaneous. So I figured it would take 30 minutes at the most. And then I turned to the cooking chart. For the amount of brown rice I was preparing (8 ounces), the rice cooker would requre 1:45-2:00. My heart skipped a beat. However, since this fell under the "Minutes Cooking" column, I thought foolishly, optimistically, stupidly, that perhaps this meant one minute, forty five seconds. Still, the masochist in me thought we should look at the rice cooking times for white rice, and plain as day under the "Minutes Cooking" column, I saw 30 minutes.

Two hours!? TWO STUPID HOURS to cook brown rice?! No wonder my brown rice never tastes done!!!!! Well, it was too late anyway, the dish was in there, everything had been fried, rinsed, drained, etc. So I'd just have to have a rice course. (The General, of course, had opted out of rice and requested mashed potatoes.)

Ok, so back to the meat and mushrooms and pie. By now, the grill was well and truly hot, so it was time to start cooking. I put the torta into the oven and turned my attention to the barbecue. As I mentioned earlier, I was concerned that the lime juice was going to pre-cook the chicken, and so I decided to cook that first, as the outside layer actually did look kind of cooked to me.

I needed not worry, however. I wish, honestly, I could transmit smell to you via this blog. As soon as the chicken hit the grill, the most heavenly smells of lime and garlic began to permeate the air, and the kitchen became an oasis of delicious smells. Even The General came down from the football game to say how good it smelled in there.

Once the chicken was done, I put on the chorizo, beef, and mushroom skewers, a few at a time. I was somewhat concerned about the beef. The chicken had been nicely marinated. The chorizo has a very strong flavor, but one that Michael and I are already familiar with and love, as it is a popular sausage in Portugese cooking and his mother is 1/2 Portugese. Most of the population of Fall River, MA--the neighboring town to his hometown of Tiverton RI--it seems is Portugese, and so when his parents come to visit, they bring us chorizo a lot. One of the first meals I had at the Kosiors' home was a chorizo sub. So I wasn't concerned about the flavor of that. However, I did expect that the beef would be rather unappetizing as plain ole beef. And the General and I are not exactly steak people to begin with. I checked the recipe to make sure that I shouldn't have done anything to it, but the only mention I could find of anything that addressed my concerns was that the entire dish should be served with the salsa of my choice. I rummaged through the cupboards and found a bottle of Pace salsa, and the General said he'd have ketchup, so we were saved from bland beef land.

Everything cooked up beautifully. Unfortunately, there were still 2 minutes left of the football game and it looked for a moment as if the Eagles might mount a comeback, so we waited a few minutes to see if that would be the case (it was not--the Cardinals won).

Once the game was over and I ascertained that the rice was cooking merrily, albeit slowly along, I got everything dished up. We each had some of the meat, and the General had mashed potatoes. I decided to hold off on the potatoes because I wanted to try the rice later. I had some mushrooms and cauliflower, which he declined.

My plate

However, midway through the meal, as I was exclaiming how delicious the cauliflower was, he told me to give him some on a fork and he would try it.

This is the unhappy face of a man who does not like cauliflower. But honestly, I'm just proud of him that he tried it.

We both agreed that we really, really liked the meal. We also both agreed that if we eat it in the future, it will be without the steak. The General stated firmly during dinner, "I think I've outgrown steak." I concur. I have eaten as much steak in 2009 as I ate in all of 2008, and it's plenty. Not to say we won't eat beef--the food we have planned for our Maltese meal is another beef dish. But we won't be sitting down to just a piece of steak on a plate.

The chicken was delicious. The lime was such a bright flavor, for lack of a better term, but not overpoweringly so. The torta was probably the best cooked cauliflower I've ever eaten, although no doubt it was helped immeasurably by the butter, cheese, and cream. I was impressed by the chorizo--it's not as good as what you can get in Fall River, but considering it came from a regular grocery store, we both thought it was quite tasty. The mushrooms had picked up a lot of flavors off the grill, and were absolute heaven.

The rice cooker finally dinged at 8:30 and I must say, it looked and smelled pretty good when I opened the lid and let the rice have a quick stir, before putting the lid back on for another 10 minutes, per the cooker's instructions. When it was finally done, it looked like this:

I had a taste of it, and honestly, particularly for brown rice, which I'm not too nuts about, I have to say it was pretty good! It was certainly the best brown rice I've ever eaten. I made up a small dish of what I supposed the finished product could have looked like if everything had been done at the same time.

I said over dinner, "Well, if we ever find ourselves in Brazil, we definitely won't go hungry!" It was a great choice of country and we had a great meal and have plenty of leftovers for lunch or whatever. I'm hoping to feel better soon so I can enjoy more good food as we cook Maltese tomorrow!

Recipe Links:

1. Torta de Couve-Fleur
2. Barbecue de Brasil
3. Brazilian Rice

Mashed potatos by Betty Crocker :-)

1 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Unknown said...

Wegmans has instant brown rice - cooks in the microwave in 5 mins and is very tasty...I highly recommend it! :)