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May 25, 2008

The Brazil 13 (Recipe: cheese-y cornmeal cakes)

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.

Brazilbasic13

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.

Ingredients

1 cup corn oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup fine cornmeal
1 cup grated cheese -- Monterey Jack or muenster or even fontina
3 eggs
1 tsp baking powder

Directions

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.

[Printer-friendly recipe.]


Also in The Perfect Pantry:

Polenta dome
Baked polenta with braised wild mushrooms

Comments

Thanks for the trip down memory lane! My husband was born in Belo Horizonte and it's been a few years since we've been back. My favorite places to shop for food were the ones you mentioned--especially the Mercado Central. I'm excited to read your other guest posts.

Peter - what a wonderful treat to hear from you in the Perfect Pantry. Pantry hoarding is a good thing! I've only been to Brazil once, so I enjoyed your insight into the regional ingredients. The cornmeal cake sounds excellent!

Peter, I want to go shopping with you at the Mercado Central! Someday perhaps I can smuggle some Boston treasures to you for your pantry, too. Thanks for the recipe!

Oooh, now I know what we'll be having for breakfast once my oven is fixed :) Yum! I'm looking forward to reading more from you, Peter!

Very interesting and fun hearing from Peter!

Fabulous post and welcome to the world of (food) blogging, Peter. Love the back story.

Just something I noticed...what is it with the financial services industry that draws out inner bakers and cooks...you aren't alone in that...

j

Brazil is on my list of places to visit. I can't wait to try the Bolo de Fuba recipe. Thanks!

Paz

It ain't easy blogging with a dial-up connection...so please forgive me if I respond to a bunch of comments with a single pass. I know you'll understand.

First off, thanks to Lydia for propositioning me. I'm a frustrated wannabe writer and I needed a push.

Secondly, I appreciate the warm welcome and encouragement from all of you - I had a chance this AM to check out a few of your blogs (very slowly) while the guests were still in bed. There's a lot going on out there and I look forward to exploring.

So thanks CafeJohnsonia, T.W. Barritt, candy, Tatiana, Kalyn, Jasmine, and Paz. Come on down - and we'll do a Mercado Central and botequim tour.

Peter

Oh what a total delight Lydia!
Peter you are marvelous! Hope you come by often. The corn meal cake interests me, I've tried many this maybe another!

Your inn looks like something to dream about!

Kind of like cheesey grits...which are so yummy.

Welcome Peter! Your much anticipated guest blog was well worth the wait! I barely recovered from Annabel's kitchen yesterday (beautiful) and now this--- all your pantry candy. As a guest blogger at the Perfect Pantry, I recall how awesome it felt to see my first blog in print all thanks to Lydia. I also remember living in some pretty isolated places and stockpiling and hoarding pantry items I could NOT live without. And of course dial-up...

Your recipe sounds great. Our people have a similar baked good called bannock, made with wheat flour and I've been experimenting with adding a variety of herbs, spices, vegetables and cheese. Will be sure to let you, Lydia and the Perfect Pantry know how some of these work out!

Creators Blessings and keep up the good blogs!

Arlo from Ottawa

Hi Peter:

Great post! I look forward to visiting the pousada before too long.

Ted

I can't stop logging in to check for comments. It's kind of like a new addiction and I am afraid I may be hooked. Oh Lydia, you mave have unleashed the beast.
To Kitcheninhalfcups: I haven't checked your blog yet, but will - if only to decipher your name. Thanks.

To mae: So turn those dreams into reality and come on down!

To peabody: Send a recipe, please. I lost my best one for white grits with shrimp.

To Arlo: Thanks and I'm glad you understand. Waiting for your results. Before long there'll be bannock on the breakfast menu...

Ted - Thanks. We are waiting patiently, but it sounds like you've got a few other cool trips in front of the line. I wish I were you. Best, Peter

How wonderful Peter, to read your post on The Perfect Pantry! I enjoyed it greatly and also checked out the link to your inn. It's lovely! If you ever want to share one of your inn's best recipes, be sure to let me know!

Sandie - I had a chance to check out Inn Cuisine early this AM. Looks great. Parabéns. Would love to share anytime. Let's chat.

This is SO cool! How neat would it be to have other correspondents around the world? You'd be the BBC of pantries Lydia :-) Thanks for the glimpse into an unknown (to me!) Brazil Peter.

When I travel, I always love wandering around in the local grocery stores. I think it's a foodie thing... I'm just fascinated to see what is normal food for people in the area. You are lucky to have this exciting experience in Brazil, and thank you for sharing!

It's so exciting to see Brazilian things around here! And bolo de fubá is absolutely delicious!

Welcome Peter! Great post and the food sounds delicious

Hope everyone enjoyed the long weekend. You had Memorial Day, we had Corpus Christi.

To ann: Your kids reminded me a little bit of some other plants I used to grow on my fire escape in the 70s. Good luck and you are welcome.

To Erin: I'm with you - the first thing I do when I get to a new country is check out the markets. Not completely true. I must confess that in Brazil the first thing I did was flush the toilet to see if the water whirled in the opposite direction. IT DOES!!!

To Patricia: Adorei o seu blog. Vamos falar.

To Mike: Thanks. Promise I'll get to your table soon.

O destino levou você à Espanha para depois vir parar no Brasil. Não é interessante???

Agdá - O Santiaguito é bem forte e dá muito proteção, mas o caminho que me levou á Espanha iniciou bem antes, desde criança - uma longa história. E foi o destino que te levou aos Estados Unidos? O curry e peixe com tamarindo me dá água na boca...

Agdá -Santiago is very strong and protecting, but the path that led me to Spain began long before, when I was a child. Was it destiny that took you to the US? The fish curry with tamarind makes my mouth water...

Hi Peter!
Thank you so much for your post:) I came across it by accident when searching for pão de queijo recipe, and I almost cried! Brought so many memories... I was raised in Minas, in small cities like São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras (I lived in Rio Preto, Diamantina, São Bento Abade, Araçuaí, Lassance and Curvelo - my father was always moving as you can notice).
You write beautifully...please keep posting:)

Benita - I love it when that happens. Did you find your pão de quiejo recipe? Check out last month's mandioca post. And if you ever come back to Minas, visit us here at the inn!! Thanks.

Thanks for the recipe.. I will definitely try those ...I am going to sunrise my Brazilian friends by making the cornmeal cake. I loved the blog. It was an enjoyably read.

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