Tickle your taste buds: Brazilian cheese bread, grilled chicken hearts and avocado ice cream.

Wow, August has come and gone just like that. One week we’re in the middle of Olympics fever, swinging to the latest Brasilian tunes, and the next is planning forthcoming holidays (NOT in south america, as much as we like it there!) As I mentioned before, the media spotlight on Rio has brought back many fond memories of our previous travels, and reading thru old log entries I was reminded of some of the weird and wonderful culinary experiences we (or at least I) enjoyed. There was the time when we flew to the Argentinian/Brasilian/Paraguayan border to visit the Iguacu Falls and ordered Argentinian Chorizo ( it turned out to be a tough piece of steak instead of a spicy sausage),were served “orangeade” ( a lethal cocktail of cachaca – sugar cane spirit – orange juice, and honey) ) in a remote village on the bank of the Rio Paraguacu

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Freshly squeezed orangeade, and flamed sausage, yes, right on the tiled bench!

, or introduced to BBQ chicken hearts in the home of a French expat on the island of Itaparica

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New country, new flavours for this kid!

. The latter were an instant hit with my kids (then aged 5 and 10) who kept talking about it long after we returned to Australia. Back in these days I wasn’t into blog writing, let alone food writing. Now I wish I was, so that I could describe the fascinating process of anticipation, discovery, and appreciation one goes thru while tasting some (occasionally confronting ) new food.

Last month south american inspired dinners included a lot of comfort food (stews, grilled meats, rice dishes,…) as well as unusual food combinations with common ingredients cooked differently, or out of the ordinary ingredients served in a familiar way. So today, let me introduce you to food with a twist, a menu where your mind tells you one thing, but your taste buds say another : pao de queijo (cheese bread), churrasco do curaçao (grilled chicken hearts) and avocado ice cream.

But first, let me share one last story of our 2008 trip to Brasil. This is about an excursion at the mouth of the Amazon river, most remembered by my kids for wildlife watching and by me for the taste of buffalo mozzarella and avocado ice cream!

Soure and Marajo Island, Brasil
March 2 – 7, 2008
The town of Soure does not have much to offer, except being the main town on Marajo, an island as big as Switzerland at the mouth of the Amazon river and famous for its buffalos and mozzarella cheese. It is also a good base to explore the rest of the island which we did. Along with the crew of AtC, we set off for a 2- day excursion to the Fazenda do Carmo. Joining us were 3 other boats and Miles, a UK journalist on a week assignment writing about the rallye. Well, reaching the Fazenda (ranch) was an adventure in itself: crossing the river in a local punt, driving 40mn in a minibus on a dirt road, then hitting another river and hopping in a fast tinny from the fazenda for a 1 hour ride surrounded by jungle and mangroves. When we finally arrived at the ranch jetty, we were greeted into this 120 year farmhouse, an original pioneer cattle settlement in the jungle, with a breezy home, swimming pond and cowboys quarters! The next 2 days were to be filled with non stop activities interrupted by lavish meals all home cooked using the local ingredients.

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Fazenda do Carmo

First on to the jungle walk: after punting down a narrow channel, our guide found land above the high water mark for us to explore (no mean feat as most of this flat area gets flooded in the wet season). Equipped with gumboots (lent by the fazenda to those who forgot to bring their own), we sloshed thru the rainforest led by Claudio, our Amazonian Indian guide. He showed us the Quinine tree, then some vine with bark that smelled and tasted of strong garlic (in fact the Indians use it as an infusion). He pointed out to rubber trees (heveas) that had bled yellow sap which had turned into rough elastic bands. There were also other trees, which sap was used as an antiseptic (veronica), or yellow paint. We found a lot of palm fruits on the forest floor, some other fruits growing on trunks,…And these were just the plants! One nasty tree is the horny palm tree, which has very sharp spikes on its trunk and branches. Anne made the unfortunate experience, as she was sitting on Terry’s shoulders (little miss didn’t want to get her feet dirty), and as he bent down to avoid a branch, she forgot to bend with him and caught the spikes on her head. It’s amazing how much blood can come out of a scalp, but luckily there was no further damage. Around a corner, we found a giant fig tree and a favourite hunting spot. Claudio explained that the hunters would leave fruits at the base of the tree while sitting up overhead ready with a spear or blow darts. He proceeded to make a wreath of palm fronds, wrap them around his ankles and climb about 15m up the tree to the vantage point. We’ve never met such an athletic 70 year old! We kept going, crossing trunk bridges as the ground got swampier, and the group came to a sudden halt when Claudio held out a tarantula that happened to cross our path. He assured us this one was not venomous as it seemed to happily crawl on his arm. I used my zoom all the same for the photo, not taking any risks!

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I want to climb trees like this when I turn 70.

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An early boat ride in the jungle river

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Jungle trekking with a 5 year old. It can be done!!

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Tarantulas are friendly. Apparently.

On the way back to the ranch, Claudio pointed out to a sleepy sloth hidden in the branches, little squirrel monkeys jumping from trees to trees, dozens of birds of prey, toucans flying overhead and a primitive bird called a Hoatzin ( a cross between a yellow chicken and a blue crested pigeon). We did manage to spot lots of butterflies by ourselves, in fact they are so big and colourful, they’re hard to miss.

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Do not wake up the sloth!

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After lunch, it was time for buffalo and horse riding. Buffalos are very stubborn creatures, and they tend to move in close packs, which can mean “horn kicks” on your legs if you happen to be riding one of them. We all headed off into the paddock, which was in fact a flooded swamp knee deep in water sitting on a horse (even thigh deep sitting on a buffalo!) Oh what fun it was, sloshing thru the reeds, trusting the horses not to slide in the mud (they didn’t), realizing that the buffalos actually swim in the deep holes. Anne felt very special riding with the head “gaucho”, and Marc kept coaxing his bull to move faster (unsuccessfully). When we swapped “vehicles” things became even more exciting, with Marc and I enjoying a splashy gallop on the horses, and poor Terry wishing he’d never sat on a buffalo!

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Trying to go faster, not always working.

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How glamorous is buffalo riding!

The rest of the day was spent watching the birdlife around the homestead for me, swimming in the pond for Anne, playing billiard for Marc and chatting to the journalist for Terry. After dinner, Marc joined the crew from AtC for a nocturnal pirogue expedition and a bit of spotlighting: apparently they saw slithering snakes, capybaras (the world’s largest rodent) munching away, numerous egrets and falcons, but the kids were most disappointed that there were no crocodiles waiting on the banks of the river (in fact, they only appear in summer when the river is dry, during the winter they move further inland and reach for higher ground).
We all got a 5am wake up call the next day for a daybreak pirogue expedition (sunset and sunrise are the best times of the day to spot the animals, said Claudio). This is my favourite part of the day: as the sun came up, the sky took on fantastic shades of red, the forest slowly came to life with the murmurs of the birds, including some toucans, then a noisy chorus of howling monkeys, which we could not see, but certainly heard as they were marking their territory. Thanks to Claudio’s magical eyes again, we spotted green parrots, more hoatzins and squirrel monkeys running along branches, and capybaras on the prowl for breakfast.
We had to work for our own breakfast, with a visit to the buffalo shed to help milk the cows. The fresh milk tasted quite sweet and rich (yes, unpasteurised straight off the cow!!) and had Marc wondering why there was added sugar!

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Unpasteurised buffalo milk, ready to drink…Anne would have none of it!

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The brasilian version of a barn in the middle of the flooded field

Which brings me to the end of the stay, but not without mentioning the magnificent food, all home cooked: these buffalos make for the most tender roasts, their milk is turned into delicious cheeses (fresh mozzarella and drier cheese), we were treated to exotic palmitos (heart of palm) salads, feijoadas (black beans stew), wood fired crusty bread, carrot soup, scrumptious cinnamon cakes and guava tarts, and (my favourite) avocado custard for dessert! We certainly ate our fair share of buffalo cheese, and our tight clothes are there to prove it.

Brazilian Cheese Bread

A popular savoury snack, this golf ball size bread roll is characterised by its soft and chewy texture, thanks to the main ingredient: manioc (tapioca) starch. This makes it a gluten-free alternative, for those having issues with wheat based bread. I like to stock up on tapioca starch when shopping in Asian grocery stores or health shops, so I can make a batch of these rolls anytime. However, I must confess that since discovering that my favourite green grocer sells the pre-mixed imported from Brasil, I sometime cheat and cook pao de queijo from a box! Here is the recipe to bake it from scratch.

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This is the cheat’s version, about to go into the oven

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The homemade version out of the oven

Makes about 30 rolls

Ingredients:

225g finely grated fresh parmesan cheese
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
275g manioc/tapioca starch
2 tsp salt
125ml/1/2 cup milk (full fat, not skim)
125ml/1/2 cup water
60ml/1/4 cup + 3 tbsp olive oil

  1. Place the parmesan, the whole eggs and egg yolks in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Blend for 1 mn or until you have a smooth paste. Set aside.
  2. Place the tapioca starch and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
  3. In a small saucepan, pour the milk, water and olive oil and bring to the boil. Transfer immediately into the starch mixture and start kneading at low speed. Mix until the dough is smooth and all the starch is incorporated, approx 2 mn.
  4. Pause the mixer and add the cheese and egg paste directly into the starch mixture. Mix the dough at low speed until it turns out a pale yellow. This process can take up to 10 mn, as you try to develop the structure of the dough (it is very much like bread making!). The dough should feel moist and sticky, not too runny.
  5. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours in the fridge or overnight.
  6. Pre-Heat the oven to 180C. Line a baking sheet with baking paper.
  7. Shape the rolls: wet your hands with olive oil and use a spoon or ice cream scoop to make 2.5cm balls, rolling them with you hands. Place them on the baking sheet, leaving a 5cm space between them.
  8. Bake in the oven until they puff up and look golden, about 12-15 mn. To ensure even baking, rotate the sheet once during the cooking time.
  9. Serve immediately while they are warm and chewy!

Grilled chicken hearts

I call this a “mind over matter” kinda dish. It tastes very meaty (almost gamey), crunchy on the oustide, chewy on the inside…Opinions are split in our house: father and son love it, so do I. Our daughter used to like these skewers when she was five, now 13 years old, her imagination got the better of her, and despite the garlic and spices, she can’t stop thinking beyond the fact that she’s eating hearts. Each to their own, I’ll let you decide.

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Makes 12 skewers

Ingredients

1 tbsp ground cumin
500g chicken hearts, trimmed
3 garlic cloves. crushed
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp red wine vinegar

  1. In a medium size bowl, mix cumin, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Add the chicken hearts, toss to combine and marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours or overnight.
  2. Thread the hearts onto skewers.
    Pre-heat the grill or bbq to high heat and grill the skewers in batches, turning occasionally until charred and just cooked, about 5 mn. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Serve with boiled rice and watercress (or any other green leaves).

Avocado ice cream

Did you know that technically avocado is a fruit? My mum used to serve it with a spoonful of sugar for dessert and it wasn’t until I came to Australia that I tasted it in savoury dishes. Here we are so used to have it as a spread, guacamole, or in salads, that serving it as a dessert seems un-natural. Yet, the buttery texture of avocado lends a delicious creaminess to any custard-like dessert (think, creme brûlée or chocolate mousse). Avocado ice cream is one of my favourite dessert, not only for the flavour but also for its simplicity: 3 ingredients and it’s done!

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Makes about 1 litre

Ingredients

300ml sweetened condensed milk
3 medium ripe avocados, peeled, stoned and cut into chunks
Juice of 1 lemon (to taste, try a tablespoon at a time)

  1. Place the sweet condensed milk and avocados in a food processor and blend until the mixture is very smooth, about 2 mn.
  2. Add the lemon juice, a tablespoon at a time, and blend for a few more seconds after each additions. Taste the avocado cream to check that the flavour is right (not too avocado-ey, not too lemony).
  3. Using a spatula, scrape the mixture in an ice cream maker, and churn for 20 minutes.
    Transfer in a suitable container and freeze for at least 2 hours before serving.

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