Brazil food: manioc, mandioca, cassava (Recipe: farofa with liver and onions)
The third in an occasional series of posts over the next few weeks about Brazilian food and ingredients we discovered during our visit.
On a day filled with magical experiences in the village of São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras -- a second unsuccessful attempt to meet a cheese maker followed by a visit to Karine, who blessed us with sprigs of rue and incantations to help remove what was starting to seem like a "cheese curse", and a tour of Cynthia's multicultural organic garden -- we had the most magical experience of all in Lurdes' back yard.
In São Gonçalo, if you buy farinha de mandioca (and everyone does), you know Lurdes.
By any definition, she is an artisan, the third generation of women in her family to turn manioc (also known as mandioca or cassava or yucca or yuca) into farinha, used as both ingredient and condiment in Brazilian cooking.
Petite and lively, with natural grace and an entrepreneurial spirit, Lurdes collects manioc root from many people in the village and, over the course of a few days, transforms it into farinha de mandioca, which looks like a coarse-ground white cornmeal. She keeps half of the farinha to sell; the other half is divided among the people who gave her the roots they grow.
On the land behind her house, on one of the side roads in the village, Lurdes' husband constructed a shelter for the manioc business, to keep out both dust and rain.
Lurdes walked us through the process, which from start to finish will take a couple of days. First, she peels the manioc.
The roots must be soaked in water, to allow toxic enzymes to leach out. (Many tubers contain these enzymes and cannot be eaten raw.)
The roots are removed from the soaking water, and allowed to dry to the touch.
Lurdes feeds the roots through a grinding machine, into a sack hanging below.
The ground manioc mash still contains a lot of moisture.
To press the moisture out, she brings a bucketful over to this contraption, a homemade press levered into a hole in the tree. She loads more than 200 kilos of rocks onto the platform.
The weight of the rocks lowers the press onto a chamber filled with the ground manioc. After three or four hours, the liquid is pressed out and the manioc is dry.
This concrete oven has a chamber underneath, where Lurdes builds a wood fire. On the platform on top, she toasts the dried, pressed manioc, to turn it into farinha de mandioca.
She sells the farinha by the box-full, using this measure that has been passed down in her family. You can buy a whole box, or half a box. It's a standard size, but I can't remember what it's called.
Of the many uses for farinha de mandioca in Brazilian cookery, we experienced two while we were there: it's often found in jars on the dining table, where each diner can mix it into black bean dishes as a thickener and flavoring agent; and it's the key ingredient in farofa, a traditional dish with a hundred variations.
Farofa makes a great gluten-free alternative to couscous; the farinha de mandioca turns any combination of leftover vegetables (and meats) into a hearty main dish. If you don't live near a Brazilian market, you can buy farinha de mandioca online at Amigofoods.com or MercadoBrazil.com. For farofa, get the plain (not toasted), though either will work.
By the way, don't confused farinha with farina, the processed cereal grain. Farinha might look like a grain, but it's vegetable all the way.
And, if you ever find yourself in Minas Gerais, within hailing distance of São Gonçalo, stop in and see Lurdes. She'll bring a bit of magic into your day.
FAROFA (Manioc, with liver and onions)
Peter shared this recipe, which is more a method than a strict measure of ingredients, as it was made by Marlene, the cook at the pousada. Farofa is a great way to use up what you have; as long as there are onions and oil as a base, you can add any combination of raw or cooked vegetables and meats, if you wish. Here, urucum is called annatto, and you can buy annatto seeds or infused oil in the Spanish foods section of most supermarkets. Serves 3-4.
2 chicken livers
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp colorau (annatto mixed with cornflour), or 1 tsp ground annatto seeds
4 scallions, green part only, sliced
2 cups farinha de mandioca
Salt and pepper to taste
Marlene parboiled the chicken livers; then she diced them. Meanwhile, she grated an onion and fried it in vegetable oil until it began to soften.
Then, she added colorau, which is urucum (annatto) mixed with a bit of cornflour, and stirred to combine. She added the diced livers and let everything cook together for a bit, until the livers were done.
She threw in the scallion greens, and then began adding the farinha de mandioca a little at a time, stirring to mix flavors and toast a bit.
Adjust with salt. That’s all.
A few notes (from Peter):
I would have sautéed the livers in butter with salt and pepper. I would dice the onions instead of grating them, then use butter to sauté. Colorau is optional. Add the farinha a bit at a time over low heat to let it toast in the butter. In Brazil, the cooks usually don't use black pepper, but I can't live without it.
Eggs -- either hard boiled and roughly diced, and added near the end, or fried with a bit of garlic in the butter and cut up before adding the onions -- are often included. You can throw in some chopped parsley, and a bit of hot pepper, too.
There are millions of variations, and they are all delicious.
Thanks to Martin and Sandra for contributing photos to this post, and to Peter for the recipe and his photos of the preparation of the farofa.