Brazil is a land of astonishing natural beauty, a riot of color and sound, a bubbling cauldron of races, religions and cultures. And at no time of year is it more exuberant than during Carnival.
"For five days and nights the whole country celebrates," explains Yara Roberts, a native of Minas Gerais in east central Brazil who currently lives in Boston. "Everywhere in Brazil, people dress up in extravagant costumes and dance in the streets."
Politically, the country is in chaos, but the great samba schools in Rio manage to organize elaborate parades with 3,000 to 4,000 people. "People dance all night, invade the beaches during the day, and sleep as little as is humanly possible," says Roberts.
The term carnival comes from the Latin words carne (meat) and vale (goodbye). Originally, the holiday marked the end of meat eating for the 40 days of Lent (which begins today). In Brazil, Carnival falls at the height of summer, during school vacation, which may help explain why the holiday is feted with such exuberance. And one way Brazilians celebrate is with beans.
"The traditional dish for Carnival is feijoada, black bean stew," says Sheila Thomson, a Brazilian-American who lives in Newton, Mass. The beans are simmered for hours with a belly-bludgeoning assortment of salt beef, salt pork, brisket, baby back ribs, and sausage. The traditional accompaniments for feijoada are rice, collard greens, fresh orange slices, toasted manioc flour, and Brazilian hot sauce. Feijoada is usually served for lunch on Saturday. "You need the rest of the day to digest it!" quips Thomson.
There are feijoadas and there are feijoadas. The most impressive I've ever experienced was served at the Caesar Park Hotel on Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro. The beans bubble away in huge cauldrons tended by women wearing white dresses and bonnets -- the traditional garb of Bahia in northern Brazil. The meats served with the feijoada include every imaginable cut of pig: snout, ears, tail, even trotters. The accompanying salads, vegetables, and desserts occupy tables on three sides of the dining room.
But feijoada is only one of the glorious bean dishes of Brazil. Ask someone from the cattle and mining province of Minas Gerais about beans, and his voice will fill with longing for feijao tropeiro. "A tropeiro is the Brazilian equivalent of a cowboy," explains Roberts. "This dish used to be eaten during the long cattle drives from Minas Gerais to Sao Paulo." Cooked in bacon fat, feijao tropeiro might be thought of as rib-sticking Brazilian refried beans.
Another hardy bean dish from Minas Gerais is tutu, black beans flavored with garlic and thickened with manioc flour. Traditional versions call for bacon and bacon fat. I like to lighten the dish by using olive oil.
Anyone who has read the novels of Jorge Amado, particularly "Gabriela, Cloves, and Cinnamon" or "Donna Flor and her Two Husbands," will be familiar with acaraje. These black-eyed pea fritters are a popular bar snack in Bahia. The dried peas (which are really beans) are cracked with a hammer and soaked in cold water to remove the skins. They are often served with a spicy sauce of dried shrimp and dende~ (palm oil).
Brazilian food is perfect party fare. Most dishes are meant to be made in large quantities, while they are easily handled because Brazilians are less fussy than we are about demanding that everything be piping hot. The cooking techniques aren't particularly complicated, but there are several ingredients with which Americans may be unfamiliar.
The first of these is carne seca, salt beef, which is an important ingredient in feijoada. Another ingredient is farinha de mandioca, manioc flour, which is made from the starchy cassava root, which also supplies us with tapioca. Chourico is a spicy Portuguese sausage, while pimenta malagueta is a tiny, fiery chili that comes packed in vinegar. These ingredients are available at Brazilian, Portuguese, and many Latin American markets.
Below, in honor of Carnival, are three Brazilian bean dishes. For the best results, buy the beans in bulk at a health food store or Latin American market that moves its inventory quickly.
FEIJOADA (Brazilian Black Bean Stew) (12 servings)
Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil. The procedure may seem complicated, but it is really just a set of simple steps. This recipe comes from Shiela Thomson, a Brazilian American living in Newton, Mass.
7 cups dried black beans
2 pounds carne seca (salt beef)
2 pounds chourico sausage
1 pound salt pork
1 pound beef brisket
1 pound baby back spareribs
2 bay leaves
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
The night before, soak the black beans in a large bowl with water to cover by at least 4 inches. Soak the carne seca in water to cover, changing the water two to three times.
The next morning, drain the beans and place in a large (3- to 4-gallon) pot with water to cover by 4 inches. Gradually bring the beans to a boil.
Meanwhile, place the carne seca in a large pot with plenty of water to cover. Boil for 10 minutes. Drain the carne seca and, when it is cool enough to handle, cut it into 1-inch pieces.
Prick the chourico all over with a pin and place in a large pot with water to cover. Gradually bring the chourico to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain the chourico and cut it into 1-inch pieces.
Cut the rind off the salt pork and cut the pork into 1-inch pieces. Cut the brisket into 1-inch pieces. Cut the spareribs into 2-rib sections.
Add the carne seca, chourico, salt pork, brisket, spareribs, and bay leaves to the beans. Simmer the beans for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until soft, stirring from time to time, adding water as necessary to keep the beans covered, and taking care not to let the beans burn.
Finely chop the onion and garlic. Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Add 2 ladlefuls of the cooked black beans (about 2 cups beans -- no liquid) to the onion mixture. Using the bottom of the ladle (or a potato masher), mash the beans and onions to a pure'e. Stir this mixture back into beans; it will serve as a thickener.
Continue gently simmering the feijoada for 2 hours, adding water as necessary, stirring occasionally to prevent it from burning on the bottom of the pot. This long, slow simmering produces the creamy consistency that is the hallmark of a good feijoada. Remove the bay leaf. Feijoada is traditionally served with rice, farofa (toasted manioc flour), fresh orange segments, and saute'ed collard greens. The best beverage would be Antartica or Xingo beer, both from Brazil.
Per serving: 517 calories, 40 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 36 gm fat, 13 gm saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 1145 mg sodium.
FEIJAO TROPEIRO ("Cowboy-Style" Beans) (6 servings)
Farinha de mandioca (manioc flour) can be found at most South American markets. If unavailable, use bread crumbs. In Minas Gerais, the dish would be made with bacon fat or butter; we've lightened the dish by using olive oil. This recipe comes from Yara Roberts.
1/2 pound kidney beans
1 bay leaf
TO FINISH THE DISH:
1/4 pound lean bacon
2 to 3 medium onions
3 cloves garlic
1 bunch of scallions
1/2 bunch parsley
Approximately 5 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup manioc flour or bread crumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
A few drops malagueta pepper sauce or the hot sauce of your choice
Soak the beans overnight. The next day, place them in a large saucepan with at least three quarts of water. Pin the bay leaf to the onion with the clove and add it to the beans. Bring the beans to a boil, reduce the heat, and gently simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the beans are tender, but not too soft. Drain the beans and rinse with cold water. Discard the onion. The recipe can be prepared up to 48 hours ahead to this stage.
Cut the bacon into 1/2-inch slivers. Finely chop the onions. Mince the garlic. Finely chop the scallions, reserving the green part for garnish. Finely chop the parsley. Cook the bacon in a large frying pan over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the pieces are crisp but not brown. Transfer them to a paper towel to drain. Discard all but 1 tablespoon fat from the pan.
Beat the eggs in a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Add the eggs and cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, as you would to make an omelet. Cut the omelet into 1-inch squares and transfer to a large bowl. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the pan, with the onions, garlic, white part of the scallions, and parsley. Cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onions are soft, but not brown. Transfer the onion mixture to the bowl. Add the remaining oil to the pan and the manioc flour. Cook the flour over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly toasted.
Just before serving, combine the beans, bacon, omelet pieces, saute'ed vegetables, and toasted manioc flour in a large pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the beans are thoroughly heated. Add salt and pepper to taste and a few drops of malagueta pepper sauce. (The beans should have a pleasant chili afterglow.) If the mixture seems a little dry, add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Garnish the beans with chopped scallion greens. Serve at once with icy beer.
Per serving: 395 calories, 15 gm protein, 28 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 199 mg cholesterol, 479 mg sodium.
TUTU MINEIRA (Black Bean Casserole) (8 servings)
Like feijao tropeiro, tutu originated in Brazil's mining country. It's hardy, rib-sticking fare, the sort you want to eat before engaging in strenuous physical labor. You could lighten the dish by using olive oil instead of bacon fat (see note). We present the dish in its original form, without apologies for the fat. The recipe comes Yara's mother, Brazilian cooking authority Belita Castro.
1/2 pound black beans
1 bay leaf
1 small onion
5 strips bacon
4 cloves garlic
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley
1 to 2 cups manioc flour (cassava flour)
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 hard cooked eggs, cut in slices, wedges, or coarsely chopped
Pick through the beans, removing any pebbles. Soak the beans in cold water to cover overnight.
Drain the beans and place in a large pot with cold water to cover. Pin the bay leaf to the onion, using the clove. Add it to the beans. Bring the beans to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 2 hours, or until tender. Drain the beans, reserving 1 cup liquid.
Meanwhile, cut the bacon into 1/4-inch strips. Finely chop the onion. Mince the garlic. Finely chop the parsley. Lightly brown the bacon in a large skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the onion is soft but not brown.
Add the beans to the bacon mixture, mashing with a pestle, potato masher, or the back of a ladle or spoon. Stir in the reserved bean liquid and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the manioc flour. Simmer for five more minutes. Stir in the hot sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the tutu with parsley and decorate with sliced, quartered, or chopped hard cooked eggs. Serve at once. Tutu is often served with pork chops. (Arrange them on top.) It freezes well.
Note: a lighter version of tutu could be made by using 1/4 cup olive oil for the bacon fat and 3 tablespoons each pine nuts and chopped scallions in place of the bacon.
Per serving: 147 calories, 7 gm protein, 21 gm carbohydrates, 4 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 72 mg cholesterol, 84 mg sodium.
ACARAJE (Black-Eyed Pea Fritters) (Makes about 16 2-inch fritters)
Acaraje are black-eyed pea fritters from Bahia in northern Brazil. This recipe comes from Brazilian cooking authority Belita Castro.
2 cups black-eyed peas
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Approximately 2 cups oil for frying
Wrap black-eyed peas in a dish cloth and coarsely crush by pounding with a hammer. Place peas in cold water to cover; soak for 3 to 4 hours. Skins should float to the surface. Pour off water and rinse beans two or three times to wash away skins.
Pure'e the black-eyed peas in a blender, adding pepper flakes, hot sauce, salt and pepper to taste. Mixture should be highly seasoned.
Heat 1/2 inch oil to 375 degrees. Drop spoonfuls of batter into the oil to form 2-inch pancakes. Fry the acarajes for 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve.
Per fritter: 83 calories, 2 gm protein, 4 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.