Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cuscuz - Brazilian interpretation(s) of couscous

I finally made some time to add another recipe to this blog. I’m sorry for being away for so long, but life has been hectic - cooking classes, academic research, cookbook translation review and now I became a regular contributor to a Brazilian cooking magazine (Sabores do Interior and to a blog about Brazilian food culture hosted by Mapa da Cachaça (, a website about the emblematic Brazilian hard liquor used to make caipirinha.

The term Cuscuz, also spelled cuscus and cuzcuz in Portuguese, refers to several preparations in different regions of the country. The origin of the plate is certainly the Middle Eastern couscous, but once it was introduced to the new tropical culture, several versions using local ingredients began to develop.

Cuscuz can be a plain, steamed, cake-like cereal made with flocos de milho pré-cozidos (yellow, precooked corn meal - “Milharina”, by Quaker, is a very well known brand). Usually served for breakfast, it’s made in the cuscuzeira, or cuscuzeiro (see picture), a steaming pan that has a perforated metal disc with a handle that seats on top of simmering water where you place the corn meal, previously moistened with salt water. This preparation is sometimes called cuscuz nordestino, especially by people that are not from nordeste, that is, the Northeast region of Brazil. It can be served with manteiga de garrafa (a type of clarified butter), queijo coalho (typical cheese from Northeast region), coconut milk, etc.

Then, there’s the cuscuz de tapioca, a sweet, flan-like version of the dish made with manioc/yucca tapioca pearls, coconut and condensed milk - I’ve never tried this one, but the pictures I saw are mouthwatering! And there is the cuscuz paulista (paulista means from São Paulo state), which is also traditionally steamed, but it is a savory dish that uses both farinha de milho (see picture) and farinha de mandioca (manioc / yucca flour).

The recipe I am going to post today is a simplified, more Minas-Gerais-style version of the later. A flavorful broth made with sautéed onion, garlic, tomatoes and your choice of shredded chicken, sardines, other fish and shrimp or vegetables is thickened with farinha de milho. It is then poured into a mold, usually a tube pan decorated with sliced boiled eggs, tomato and other vegetables such as hearts of palm and green peas. Once cooled and unmolded, it looks pretty, on top of being a complete, delicious meal.

Cuscuz de frango com farinha de milho 
(Chicken Brazilian Couscous)

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped (1/2 - 3/4 cup)
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 Tbsp tomato paste
3-4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 cups chicken stock or water, or a mix of both
1 chicken breast (approx. 8 oz), cooked and shredded (see the recipe for Coxinha filling)
1/2 cup corn kernels, frozen or canned (drained)
1/2 cup green peas, frozen or canned (drained)
1/2 cup hearts of palm, drained and chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley and scallions or chives
6 oz. (aprox.) farinha de milho (flaked corn meal - see picture)

To garnish:
2 hard boiled eggs, sliced
1 ripe tomato, thinly sliced
sliced hearts of palm
sprigs of parsley
olives or green peas
lettuce leaves

1. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Sauté onion until translucent. Add garlic and sauté until both are light golden brown. Add tomato paste and sauté for another minute, stirring constantly. Add chopped tomato and cook, on high heat, for five to ten minutes, stirring every now and then, until tomato starts to melt and release its juices.
2. Stir in stock, shredded chicken, corn, peas, and hearts of palm. Season with salt, black pepper and/or Brazilian preserved chili oil. It should be a little over-seasoned, because you’re going to add the farinha de milho later. Bring to a boil.
3. Meanwhile, lightly oil a tube mold and decorate with sliced boiled eggs, tomato, green olives, hearts of palm slices, peas and parsley sprigs, or any other ingredient you’re using to make the cuscuz or that goes well with the chosen ingredients (such as shrimps and sardine fillets, etc.).
4. Once the liquid is boiling and all flavors are all well combined, lower the heat and slowly add the farinha de milho, stirring constantly with a long handled wooden spoon. Watch out for the bubbles, as cuscuz spatters like polenta - use protective gloves to stir it until the flour is well blended with liquid and the mixture gets thick (it should be thicker than polenta). Then, cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring every now and then, until mixture is creamy and thoroughly cooked. Remove from heat, add chopped herbs and mix well to combine.
5. Adjust seasoning and pour the mixture immediately onto prepared mold, being careful not to displace the decoration. Hit the bottom of the pan lightly against the counter to eliminate air bubbles and smooth the surface with a spatula. Set aside and let cool almost to room temperature before unmolding.
6. To serve, give the mold a brisk shake, place a platter on top and turn upside down. Decorate all around it with lettuce leaves.

- Substitute 2 cans of sardines (drained), or 2 cans of tuna (drained), or 1 cup chopped shrimp and/or white fish fillets for the shredded chicken. Use water or fish stock instead. Garnish the mold accordingly.
- Make a vegetarian version by substituting extra corn, green peas, tomato, shredded carrots, shredded zucchini, sliced green beans, chopped green olives, and/or hearts of palm for the chicken.