By Ernest Barteldes
Due to our very different work schedules, Renata and I almost never have the chance to have a proper meal together during the week, so I try to make weekends special every time, combing through my various cookbooks and other resources (which includes a box full of almost ten years’ worth of Gourmet magazines (no, I don’t have the book with all the recipes yet – hint, hint). I try not to be repetitive since weekday boxed lunches I make every day are pretty easy and quick – there is no time for real elaborate meals.
I often reach back to the Northeastern Brazilian traditions I grew up with – I spent many vacations in the Fortaleza (where I also lived in for about a decade), a city rich with culinary traditions inherited by the natives of the region and also the different European cultures that settled there – a vast majority formed by the Portuguese but also the Dutch, Africans, Western European Jews and a few others that came to call it home.
I still recall the many dishes that were always present in my Brazilian grandmother’s refrigerator – she always kept it stocked with many varieties of pudding and cake in addition to anything that the ever-present grandkids could make themselves for a snack or a light dinner. Many of these delicacies were firmly rooted in regional flavors – my grandfather had grown up in Sao Benedito, a small town in the hills of the state of Ceara – place where you can – as I discovered firsthand – still find out where someone lives simply by asking around.
Those traditions did not only involve sweets – many included breakfast dishes unique to the northeast that few in southern states have ever heard about. My grandmother was a particular fan of couscous, which has nothing to do with its Middle Eastern counterpart (the name probably has something to do with the Lebanese and Syrian immigrants that came to Sao Paulo in the early 20th century, but there is no specific documentation I could find about it). Instead of bulgur wheat, this version is made with moistened cornmeal and salt and then steamed, but everyone has their own version.
In Brazil most stores sell a steamer pot called a “cucuzeira” that is specially made for this dish, but you don’t have to travel there to get one – there are ways to go around it. Renata and I actually bought two of them in Fortaleza over our trips there – we also use it as a general steamer for vegetables.
My take includes shredded coconut and coconut milk, which gives the couscous a special taste, and it matches greatly with your favorite cup of coffee.
Recipe: Northeastern Couscous
(Cuzcuz de Milho)
Adapted from www.saborbrasil.it
Two cups pre-cooked flaked corn flour
1 teaspoon salt
1cup water, approximately
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 cup coconut milk
Mix the corn flour, shredded coconut and salt, together, in a bowl. Gradually add the water and mix well until all ingredients are moist and mixture has a crumbly texture. Let it stand for 10 minute. Fill the steamer pot half full of water. Place the couscous mixture into the steamer basket and gently level the top without pressing. The mixture should remain soft to allow the steam to penetrate just right. Cover and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, until it begins to release its aroma. At this point the mixture starts to pull away from the sides of the steamer. Cut into slices, pour coconut milk over it and serve hot.
Add butter, molasses, coconut milk or milk (hot or cold, sweetened or unsweetened), if you like. It is a very versatile side dish to vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, cheese, coconut and sweet courses.
How to steam couscous with a deep plate (or pot lid)
Transfer the couscous mixture to a deep plate that has a larger diameter than the pot diameter. Wrap the deep plate with a clean cloth, making a knot on the bottom of the plate. Fill the pot one third full of water, bring to a boil and “cover” the pot with the wrapped deep plate (the couscous mixture must be facing downwards). Simmer over low heat for 10-15 minutes. Serve the couscous hot straight from the “cooking plate”.