Please welcome Peter, chef and co-owner of Pousada do Capao, who with this, his first-ever blog post, joins The Perfect Pantry as guest blogger. An American living in Brazil, he will share his stories, original and local recipes, and photos, once a month or so.
Guest post by Peter in Brazil
I live in the interior of Minas Gerais, Brazil, but a peek in my pantry would never give me away. Could be New York, could be California. I have a small obsession -- I am a pantry hoarder.
I always wanted to run an inn with a focus on great comfort food. I never ever thought it would be in Brazil. How did I get here? Let's just say I was a misfit bank executive, almost empty-nester, with a knack for languages and a love for travel, who decided to celebrate his 50th birthday walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, and there I met a woman....
The region where I live has a centuries-old tradition of simple, hearty, working class food still slow-cooked in soapstone pots on wood-burning stoves and in wood ovens: rice and beans, squash and corn, cassava, greens, pork, beef, and chicken (with an occasional armadillo or mountain rodent), seasoned with the ever-present flavors of garlic, onion, salt, hot pepper and then innumerable breads, cakes, cookies, spoon sweets, and of course the famous cheese of Serro.
And so, the top 13 pantry items in almost any São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras kitchen are almost without exception: rice, beans, sugar, soybean oil, salt, garlic, various grinds of cornmeal, coffee, wheat flour, manioc starch (polvilho), baking powder, hot peppers, and eggs.
If we went up to 21 ingredients we could add: onions, cinnamon, anise seed, urucum (Brazil's word for achiote), probably some pasta and some tomato puree, condensed milk, and coconut milk. Pretty normal, pretty universal, with a few exceptions -- and quite simply just about the whole gamut of what is to be had here in the boonies.
Of course my pantry features all these regulars. But it's just not enough.
Every few months when we go to the big city of Belo Horizonte (and it is big -- up to 5+ million if you include the total metro area), I am drawn to the Mercado Central. I get lost for hours just cruising the booths of herbs, spices, dried fruits, nuts, grains, salted fish, smoked meats, fresh cheeses, imports from all over Brazil and from all over the world. Hundreds of kinds of peppers, fruits you've never even dreamed of, roots and leaves and pods. And I go on a spree, stocking my pantry with black sesame seeds and tapioca and dried mushrooms and dates. And mustard seeds and pink pepper and gersal and guava paste. And tahini and monster pine nuts and candied fruits and turmeric.
Then there's the required stop at Verdemar, BH's upscale supermarket, Brazil's answer to Whole Foods or Dean and DeLuca. I fill the cart with olive oil and pelati, risotto and giant shells, kalamata olives and frozen phyllo dough, barley and quinoa. Who knows when we'll get back to civilization again? I promise I'll use it. And my mind is already spinning with so many permutations.
When we finally get home and unpack, Marlene, our cook at the inn, just looks at the spoils and smiles and kind of shakes her head. As a child, one of ten, she says she often ate nothing but banana porridge for weeks at a time. Or cornmeal one hundred and one ways. I try to remember to remove the price tags before I get home.
But my pantry hoarding doesn't stop there. Family and friends who send presents or smuggle in contraband on rare visits are the best contributors. I have Grandma's molasses, Skippy Superchunk, 100% pure Vermont maple syrup, real vanilla extract, wild rice, Gold's horseradish, Maille Dijon mustard, and so much more.
As an aspiring young chef who trained with Madeline Kamman in Boston in the '70s, I bought hibiscus and elderflowers and linden and orrisroot by mail-order. I explored Chinatown and the North End's Italian markets, and came home with dried sea slugs and star anise and candied angelica root and chestnut flour. And eventually I experimented with them all. Successes and failures both, but it was always exciting and always rewarding.
And, really, thirty-plus years of pantry hoarding later, not much has changed.
Cheese-y cornmeal cakes (bolo de fuba)
A wicked simple and delicious cornmeal cake usually served for breakfast, this dish is pure Minas Gerais. The recipe uses 6 of the 13 basic pantry items, with the addition of that ubiquitous Minas cheese, and was given to me by Dona Zinha of Diamantina. She measures everything using a glass requeijão cup -- Brazil's version of a Welch's grape jelly jar (you should use an 8-ounce cup). She gives no baking instructions; we are just supposed to know these things. I ad libbed.
1 cup corn oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup fine cornmeal
1 cup grated cheese -- Monterey Jack or muenster or even fontina
1 tsp baking powder
Blend until smooth in the blender. Bake 45 minutes or so in a small tube or loaf pan in a preheated 350°F degree oven until a toothpick comes out clean.
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