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Grow Baby – Trials of Growing Baby Vegetables

Posted on November 13, 2007. Filed under: food, gardening, more food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Salad of baby carrots, broccoli, walnut oil, saba and parmesan shavings

I really want to be a gardener. I try hard. (Well, Walter tries hard. He’s our gardener.) I research hard. I pour over seed catalogs imagining myself walking through lush rows of possibilities for the kitchen. I have visions of tomatoes, greens and herbs rounded by hedges of roses and fruit trees. I dream of peppers and zucchini. I ache for a squash. But our vegetable garden has brought me so much frustration. We have had some successes like an unexpected hot, dry winter crop of jalapeñoes and poblanos and more arugula than I could give away to neighbors, friends and people I don’t even know. But mostly the results of our vegetable garden are plants that start off strong from seed, then peter out before they can finish producing their fruits. It’s like they ran out of gas. Then we started growing baby vegetables.

We dedicated a very ample piece of the yard to be the vegetable garden. Our house in on a steep hill, so we created plateaued beds. I know that growing vegetables is really growing soil, so we dedicate a lot of energy enriching the soil with organic matter. We use the compost we make and buy organic soil enrichers like bone meal and steer manure. The problem comes when with the rain. Being at the top of the hill is a hindrance. The rain washes away all the soil nutrients. After the plants mature, they yellow and rot, unable to nourish their dangling green young fruits. (My in-laws, by the way, live at the bottom of the hill. They have never had the necessity to buy any form of fertilizer, as any seed dropped on the ground there will grow). I thought- well I’m not going to wait for the plant to die on me. I’m going to plant things that I can harvest young, then build the soil back up for the next crop.

The plan worked. We planted carrots and beets. I don’t know which varieties we planted. The seed package had a picture of a carrot on it. Walter planted the seeds in little bunches as we were in a dry period. The carrots grew well right next to each other. We have been harvesting them as they become at least as thick as a pencil and not thicker than a magic marker. We have been reaping a steady supply of young carrots for 4 weeks.

carrot harvest

We applied the same methods for the beets, harvesting them as they reach the size of a radish. We used no pesticides and the bugs really didn’t come around. One of the best things about harvesting the beets young are their young and tender greens are still intact.

We’ve continued the logic of the underage harvest to the zucchini patch. We’re harvesting flowers and young zucchinisZucchini Blossom leaving a few male flowers for the plants to continue reproducing. Last year’s rains turned the zucchini patch into black goo. This year we’re planting in hopes of ratatouille. We’re stuffing and frying blossoms.

The most common broccoli here in Brazil is broccoli rabe (rapini). Every time we plant it, it grows very strongly, but the florets are overtaken by aphids. (We’re surrounded by tropical rain forest, so bugs are king here). This year we’re using a solution of coconut soap and water to keep the aphids away and harvesting the florets very small. The broccoli rabe is tender and bug- free.

This week we planted lettuces and spinach. We’re planning to stagger the planting as to have a more continuous crop of lettuces. I hope to write a followup of our baby greens.

By growing baby we found it easier to stay organic. The soil stays strong with a good dose of organic matter and we harvest before the bugs have figured out what we’re up to.

Baby vegetables aren’t just a quick harvest. They are quick to prepare and quick to disappear off the plate. My kids think they’re cute. They get involved with planting seeds, harvesting the crop and gobbling up the results.

Carrots: Harvest very young, pencil thickness or little more. Saute or quickly toss them in salt, sugar and a few drops of water to steam them in the microwave for a minute. Choose to go peeled or unpeeled.

Beets: Harvest them the size of radishes or superballs. Roast, boil or even microwave them. They are best roasted in their skins. They are beautiful peeled, and spilt lengthwise. Leave a little bit of the tender tops. They’re delicious. Prepare the young beet leaves by cutting them into a chiffonade and sauteing them in a little olive oil. Sprinkle with lemon juice. They are an excellent addition to chicken stock. They are subtler than at their adult stage. The really perfect young shoots add an earthy note to a salad mix.

Zucchini Blossoms: Pick just a few. Always leave a few on the plant, especially the males. The males have long thin stems, while the females have the beginnings of a zucchini at their bases. Stuff flowers with ricotta cheese ( I season it with salt, pepper and a cut up red chili). Coat the flowers with a thinned-out pancake batter ( I use flour, baking powder and water). Fry them 2 or 3 at a time in at least 2 inches of very hot oil. Dry on towels, sprinkle with kosher salt and serve hot.

Throw whole zucchini blossoms into pasta dishes, an omelet or include them in a zucchini souffle.

Broccoli Rabe (Rapini): The plant grows big leafy stalks. From the center and along the sides of the stalks sprout the green flowers of the plant. Harvest the flowers and their accompanying young leaves as they begin to sprout. These are amazingly delicious in any saute or stir fry. You may also lightly salt them, steam them slightly (really just show them the steaming pot) and save them for a crunchy addition to a salad.

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Halloween Where There Is None

Posted on November 9, 2007. Filed under: food, Halloween, more food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

jack-o-lanterns

I have passed the last nine Halloweens without the bright faces at the front door smiling with “trick or treat” nor with the mountains of bags of snickers bars overflowing from supermarket shelves . I have spent the last nine Halloweens in Brazil. We have snickers bars here. In October they sit there next to the drugstore cashier, like they do in March or May.

I love every part of Halloween. I love costumes for all ages, home-made and even store-bought. I love decorating the house, and seeing others decorated. There is an understanding and an anticipation of the fun and cheer all those lawn tombs and skeletons hanging in the trees will bring. Each Halloween I try to create something of the Halloweens of my past, even if it is just for my husband and our two kids.

I make silhouettes of scared cats or witches on broomsticks to place in the windows. We always carve at least one pumpkin. I place these decorations strategically to be seen by an arriving visitor or passerby. It is instinctual to display them in that manner. But we live on a very isolated street within a gated community, so we don’t get much traffic. The scarecrow I built last year and this year’s “headless biker” caused a raised a raised eyebrow from the gardener. To him it must have looked like we were participating in some sort of umbanda ritual.

I share stories of past Halloweens with my Brazilian in-laws. I recall rituals of blind-folded kids fondling clammy hard boiled eggs to “feel the dead man’s eyes” and plunging their hands into bowls lukewarm spaghetti to “feel the dead man’s intestines”. Their faces show a deep worry dulled over by an attempted politeness. How could I ever tell them I even miss the more unpleasant, adolescent rituals like ding-dong-ditch and finding the rests of pumpkins smashed and mixed with leaf clutter along the sidewalks of my suburban childhood. To me they are the signs of a night when even that kind of misbehaving was tolerated.

Halloween is catching on in Brazil’s upscale, big city neighborhoods. Private, non-religious schools hold Halloween parties and fashionable stores and bakeries sell goodies in the form of pumpkins or skeletons. They even call it “Halloween” instead of the more popular moniker Dia da Bruxas, or Day of the Witches. Brazil is starting to embrace the fun of the tradition. But, in our small town Halloween is something kids have really only caught a whiff of by seeing on TV.

For the lack of trick-or-treaters, every year I try to throw some Halloween party. Our kids are 6 and 7, the prime age of appreciating an all out Monster Bash. This year I wanted to show their friends how to carve pumpkins. We decided that our Halloween would coincide with a backyard churrasco on Saturday, November 3rd. Getting the adults together to grill and drink beer seemed a great way to get the kids together to carve pumpkins.
During the week I went to a candy store with my son. It was the day of Halloween. I wasn’t expecting to find candy corn, but I asked the clerk if they had anything good for Dia das Bruxas. He looked puzzled. I said, “you know, like gummy worms or gummy dentures.” He showed me to the aisle of all things gummy. The worms were too pink and glittery to be scary, but we found gummy dentures and delicate little gummy skulls. I grabbed two bags and asked the clerk if they had anything else scary like the gummy skulls. He shrugged, absolutely not interested in making a sale. My son and I scanned the shelves working our way to a very dark corner in the back of the store. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned. There in a dark dusty corner, on Halloween Day, we found a huge stock of skeleton lollipops, jack-o-lantern lollipops and pirate lollipops. Each lollipop had a special effect of leaving an impression of the skeleton, jack-o-lantern or pirate design on the tongue. I quite literally yelled “Eureka!” I grabbed a large bag of each kind and headed for the cashier. Jorge meanwhile kept scanning the shelves. He found jack-o-lantern chewing gum in the shape of little pumpkins and another chewing gum called Baba de Bruxa, or Witches Drool. We headed to the cashier. While in line I looked at the packaging more closely. None of these candies were imported. All were made in Brazil. I thought to myself – Halloween is really catching on here. To pay for our bounty with a credit card I had to go to the manager’s desk after going through the cashier. As the manager swiped my card I mentioned to him, “Today is Halloween.” He gave a grunt typical to most merchants in my town. I added, “You have a lot of great Halloween candy here. You should put it at the front of the store. I bet you’ll sell a lot of it today.” He gave me that look of deep worry dulled over by attempted politeness. I felt a little like Jack Skeleton spreading around a little too much Halloween in the wrong places. I mean really, who could imagine a candy store selling Halloween candy on Halloween?

I then crossed the street to the costume store. I went straight to the back of the store. Sure enough in the dusty farthest reaches of the shop I found a boy’s skeleton costume and a adult sized witch’s hat. Jorge passed on the ready-made costume preferring to buy only a pair of black pants. He had a plan to make the rest up at home. (That’s my boy!) We bought the pants and witch’s hat and home we went. Jorge tore into the candy as I drove wearing the hat all the way.Spider Gol!!!!!

The kids and I spent the rest of the week preparing the headless biker and making a skeleton out of plastic bottles. My daughter also made a cute little girl scarecrow having a cup of tea. The day before the churrasco my daughter, Juju and I baked sugar cookies in the form of pumpkins and ghosts, decorating each one with royal icing. We also made a chocolate layer cake with a spider web design. With fondant, Jorge made a spider kicking a ball into a goal to complete the decoration.

Our friends’ principal concern in getting their kids prepared for our get-together was about the costume. They kept saying “My child doesn’t have a Halloween costume.” I suggested that they use a costume left over from Carnaval. I think Brazilians have the idea that a Halloween costume has to be a scary witch or monster. Our friends were relieved and surprised when I told them that kids in the US often dress up like superheros or a fairy princesses for Halloween. For anyone arriving without a costume I knew could throw something together with a hat and some face paint.

Our friends arrived with beer and meat. Kids ogled the strange figure on the motorcycle. The kids anxious to be relieved of their heavy pumpkin load, ran off delighted to play. As is custom, churrasco was served all afternoon. The kids tucked in right away to heaps of rice, beans, farofa, sausages and corn on the cob. With lunch out of the way we all sat down on a large piece of orange plastic ready to draw and carve the pumpkins. Thais and Theo (both 5) had never seen real a jack-o-lantern. Handing them markers, I said, “go ahead, draw a face on it.” The two of them drew all over the pumpkin creating various faces among a spiderweb of scribbles. Together we finally settled on a place for the eyes, nose and mouth. They handed over their masterpiece to be carved. Thais and Theo had brought a moranga, a very thick and heavy variety that has every aspect of pumpkiness as has the one that was turned into Cinderella’s carriage. Struggling, I managed to get the moranga cleaned. I retreated into a corner to make my best attempts at fidelity to their design. I was worried about the knife slipping and hurting one of the very curious onlookers. The other kids, after scratching a few lines into their pumpkins, resorted to running around the yard. With help of one of the moms we cleaned and carved each pumpkin, doublechecking details with each artist.

The day had started with the sunshine that blazed through four rainless months. But midway through the second-to-last pumpkin it appeared our drought would be over. It ended very abruptly. As the first drops fell we moved the jack-o-lantern production inside. Juju and Jorge lead all the kids upstairs to play in their new tent. The moms went back out to the covered churrasco area outside. The rain began to come down very heavily. Those outside were stranded there in the covered area. Then the wind blew the rain hard on our hilltop home. We live high above a beautiful valley, but we pay for our spectacular view with, at times, brutally punishing winds. The wind hurled the avocado-sized raindrops horizontally into the front our house. The trees in the surrounding forest were bent in unnatural ways. We could see lightning strike across the valley below. The sound of the rain grew hard and crisp, like a snare drum. Hail pelted head on into our windows. Two living room windows blew with a bang unable to withstand the force. The kids screamed. I ran downstairs. Rain, ice, leaves and sticks were blowing into the living room. I closed the shutters along that side of the house stopping the incoming gale. With another thunder clap I heard the kids scream again. The wind blew rain and ice up under the roof tiles and were coming down into the upstairs play area. The eight kids crammed into the tent, rain running down its outer shell. I popped my head in, “Stay calm, it’s okay…let’s all go downstairs to the living room.” They all followed me downstairs where they sat in a circle on a dry rug. I served them juice and a huge tray of cookies painted with Juju’s smiling ghost and pumpkin faces. We stayed all together on the rug waiting as the fierce hail turned to softer rain and each rumble from the sky grew more distant.

Halloween Cookies

It the first break in the storm I rushed downstairs to recruit the moms’ help. They had hidden themselves in the sauna to escape the wind and debris. The guys, hardly flustered, maintained grillside, beers in hands even though the churrasco area had given little cover from the rain. A tree had fallen in the yard and the grass was white with hailstones. Kids and moms reunited I could mop up.

Night was falling, as the rain settled into a steady rhythm (which lasted four days), Mom’s gathered their things and their kids together, anxious about what the storm may have done to their own homes. I handed out bags of Halloween sweets. The guys remained steadfast at the grill. Of all the kids, only Gui stayed. His Dad was working and would pick him up at nine. Jorge, Juju and Gui were anxious for Halloween to continue. I suggested the face paints. They ran upstairs to the large mirror with glee.

I went outside to bring in sopping wet plates of rice, beans, corn and salad. There were still a few pieces of ice in the salad. The hail looked like some bizarre flavor concoction invented by Fernan Adria or Jose Andres. Droplets of sky formed into room temperature ice, in flavors of truffle, oyster and cilantro!


I found the kids had painted themselves, heads, hands, legs and all. They looked like members of the great Xingu, and they were hungry. I made mummy pizzas (as seen on FamilyFun.com), a cup of tea for me and set the table. As the kids settled into their pizzas I gathered the remaining pumpkins together. After arranging them on the front porch I lit one by one. Beside pumpkin faces aglow, I sat with my tea and the first slice of spidergoal cake.

Soon the guys gave up on the grill. The meat and beer was all gone. Shortly after Gui’s Dad came by to get him. His painted face lit by the car’s interior was animated by the excitement of retelling the day’s events. I think this Halloween was a success. Kids were scared out of their wits and found comfort with friendship and cookies. They went home with candy and pumpkins. A few of the moms have told me they lit their pumpkins for several nights, until the pumpkins could give no more. Word got out about the skeleton which is on loan for another Halloween party. I guess Halloween is catching on here.

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Welcome to my Kitchen

Posted on October 5, 2007. Filed under: Brazil, food, more food | Tags: , , , , , , |

cookbooks

Welcome to my kitchen in Brazil. I am an American living in Brazil for quite sometime. I am creating this blog to capture some of the interesting things that we do with the treasures from our butchers, bakers, green grocers and on really special occasions our garden. I feel extremely fortunate to live in a small town in the state of Rio de Janeiro where we have access to a great variety of locally produced materia prima, from meats and poultry, to year round fruits and vegetables and local fresh dairy and eggs. There is even a nearby cremerie making a french style chevre. It is ingredients paradise.

I am not a trained chef, but I have worked in kitchens. I teach cooking and do a culinary spot for a local TV station. My greatest experiences in the kitchen have happened in trying to bridge the gap between the world I left and the world in which I live. For instance when I learned to make my own tortillas in a world where there are none, or walked a local butcher through Martha Stewart’s Pork Crown 101. And, I have learned so much from Brazilian cuisine, since attempting a Brazilian recipe for the first time. It was João Ubaldo Ribeira’s fish moqueca. My pocket português-inglês dictionary couldn’t help me make a dent in his subtle ironies.

I hope that anyone reading these entries will come away with something new, something they didn’t know or only assumed about Brazil, or living abroad or cooking with local ingredients, or whatever comes out of this. I hope that the recipes are clear and easy follow. Most of all, I hope that what I have written will inspire the reader to cook with love and joy.

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