Wednesday, February 17, 2010

“Refogar” - a quintessential technique in Brazilian cooking

            Nearly all Brazilian dishes start with a “refogado”, that is, chopped onion and/or garlic (see variations below) sautéed in vegetable oil - or some other fat - until golden brown. To this, the ingredients to be cooked are added and briefly sautéed before the addition of liquids (if any). It is that simple, but it can make a huge difference in the final dish. For example: it is this initial step that sets Brazilian rice apart from other rice cooking methods, giving the grains a chewier and firmer texture, as well as a sautéed onion flavor.

            “Refogar” (the verb) can be the initial and, sometimes, the only cooking technique used to prepare a vegetable, as you will see from the recipes bellow. But most often it works as the “browning” step for braising (to cook food slowly in a small amount of liquid), a technique which is also widely used in Brazilian cuisine.

            The secret to a good “refogado” is: i) chop all the ingredients about the same size, so they will cook uniformly; ii) add garlic (if using) after onion, as it browns much faster; iii) sauté onion, garlic, etc. until golden brown, over moderate to high heat, without covering the pan - to sweat them (cook slowly in fat without browning) will not produce the desired taste and appearance.

            The fat of choice is, again, vegetable oil, although it was pork lard until a few decades ago, before vegetable oil became more readily available - very tasty, but not very healthy considering nowadays lifestyle. You can also use olive oil, butter (preferably clarified, so it will not get burned) and bacon drippings. Here are some other ingredients to include in your “refogado”:
  • chopped bacon (use less oil, add onion, etc. only after bacon is golden brown)
  • chopped scallion / green onions (add green parts after white ones, if using)
  • celery (finely chopped)
  • leek (sliced, white parts first)
  • green bell pepper (finely chopped, in small quantities)
            Now, a couple of very simple recipes for you to try. They all pair well with Brazilian rice and beans and the protein of your choice (braised pork loin seasoned with salt, black pepper and lime juice, in this picture).

Abóbora refogada
(Braised Squash / Pumpkin)

2 Tbsp vegetable oil
3 Tbsp thinly sliced onion
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
3 cups 1-in cubed peeled pumpkin, butternut or acorn squash
1/2 cup water, approximately
salt and pepper to taste
2-3 Tbsp chopped parsley and/or cilantro

1. In a heavy pan, heat oil over medium heat.
2. Add onion and sauté for a few seconds. Add garlic and sauté until golden brown.
3. Add squash and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
4. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add half the water, to start with, and stir well. 
5. Lower the heat and cook, covered, adding more water if necessary, for 15-20 minutes, or until most of the water has evaporated and the squash is tender and begins to fall apart.
6. Right before serving, sprinkle with chopped parsley and/or cilantro.

Verdura refogada
(Sautéed Green Leaf Vegetable)

1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp finely chopped onion
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
4-5 cups finely shredded collard greens, or kale, or escarole, or mustard greens, or cabbage, or any other tough, green leaf vegetable
salt and pepper to taste

1.  In a large, heavy pan, heat oil over medium-high heat.
2. Add onion and sauté for a few seconds. Add garlic and sauté until golden brown.
3. Add shredded vegetable and toss well so the onion and garlic are not in contact with the bottom of the pan anymore (or they will get too brown and become bitter).
4. Lower the heat, cover the pan and let cook for about 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally (or to the doneness of your preference - I like mine al dente). Add a few drops of water, if necessary.
5. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper (Brazilians would probably add pepper only to the cabbage) and serve.
Tip: if you are preparing cabbage, add 1 ripe tomato cut into wedges or cubed to the pan before covering it.

Bom apetite!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The "rice-and-beans" of Brazilian food

Rice and beans are so important for Brazilian cuisine that when we say something is “o arroz com feijão” (the rice and beans) of something else, we mean “the basics”, “the foundation”. So, let me try and explain some of the most basic, general differences between Brazilian and North American eating habits and their food staples to start with.

Brazilians usually have three main meals a day - a light breakfast right after waking up, a substantial lunch between noon and 2 pm, and dinner around 7 or 8 pm - in general, lighter than lunch (a full size soup with bread, or a salad, or some pasta, etc).

For breakfast, most people have coffee (strong coffee!), or coffee and milk (called “média”, when it's lighter, or “pingado”, when it's darker), and “pão francês” (similar to a baguette, but smaller and with a softer center - see picture; I’ll write more about it later) with butter. Some people make the meal more substantial by adding some cheese and ham to it, but bacon, sausage and even eggs are regarded as lunch / dinner (or maybe brunch) items, not breakfast. A variety of fresh fruit and their juices, sometimes mixed with milk instead of water, may be consumed as accompaniments. And there’s also the “pão de queijo” (a savory tapioca starch roll with cheese)... But this is worth a post itself, so I’ll leave it for later (pão de queijo post here).

For lunch, people usually have rice and beans, a small amount of protein (about 5 oz; beef, chicken and pork are the most popular meats), at least one cooked vegetable (frequently braised) - such as pumpkin, chayote, and broccoli, shown in the first picture of this post - and salad greens (lettuce, arugula, watercress), with tomatoes and/or other raw or cold additions, such as grated carrots or beets, hearts of palm, cucumber and sliced onion.

Well, this is the basic “rule” - which means there are countless exceptions. My point here is just to state that: i) rice and beans are the base of Brazilian cooking, and the preferred accompaniment to everyday meals, as opposed to, say, mashed potatoes in the U.S.; ii) although meat is an important part of the meal, it is usually consumed in smaller amounts. In a country where hunger has been an issue for so long, the “rice-and-beans” diet may have saved many impoverished people from starvation and even malnutrition, as rice and beans, when eaten together, constitute a high-quality, or complete, protein - containing the 20 essential amino acids.   

Brazilian rice is prepared more or less like a pilaf, but the fat of choice is vegetable oil (a plain, flavorless one, preferably) - as you can see in the recipe below. Beans are mostly cooked in a pressure cooker with water only and, after that, seasoned with garlic and salt, among other things (later I’ll post the recipe for cooking beans in a pressure cooker; for now, check the recipe with canned beans).

There are many types of beans in Brazil - the largest consumer and producer of the legume in the world, with approximately 3.5 million tons harvested every year. The most popular beans are “feijão carioca / carioquinha” (similar to pinto beans), with 85% of the market, followed by black beans, with 10% (more common in Rio de Janeiro state, but mandatory in the preparation of the Brazilian national dish, “feijoada” - more soon!). The remaining 5% of sales are specialty beans, such as “jalo”, “fradinho”, “rosinha”, “bolinha”, “branco”, “verde”, “azuki” and “roxinho”.

Brazilian white rice

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
1 cup white rice (long grain)
2 cups cold water, approximately (preferably filtered)
1 tsp salt

- If rice is not pre-washed, rinse it until water is clear and let it dry in a colander before using. Beware that you’re probably going to use less water to prepare it in this case.
- Heat oil in a saucepan and add onion. Fry over medium heat until it is soft and translucent.
- Add rice. Fry, over medium heat, stirring constantly, until grains are whitish and chalky (grains start forming lumps).
- Add 1 1/2 cups of the water and the salt. Stir well. When it starts boiling, lower the heat and cook, partially covered, until water has almost completely evaporated.
- Add remaining water (less, if rice was rinsed) and continue cooking until all water has evaporated and the grains are cooked but slightly al dente (cooking will continue after you turn off the heat).
- Cover the pan, remove from heat and let stand for a few minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork before serving.

Brazilian beans

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon diced bacon (optional)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 (16 oz) can pinto beans (or small black beans), cooked with salt only
1 cup water, approximately (preferably filtered)
salt to taste
1 tsp green onion or chives, finely chopped

- Place the beans in a colander and rinse in cold water until there’s no more frothing on top of the beans.
- Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add bacon, if using, and fry until golden brown.
- Add chopped garlic and fry until golden brown. Lower the heat.
- Add beans and, using the back of a spoon or ladle, smash some of the beans into a paste.
- Add about 1 cup of filtered water. Bring to a slow boil and cook until the broth is thick (heavy cream consistency) and brown colored - you might need to add a little more water. Season to taste with salt. Add chopped green onions or chives before serving.

Bom apetite!