I got into cooking during my mid-teens during one of my prolonged periods in Fortaleza. I was living in my maternal grandparents’ home at the time – a mansion-styled house in Aldeota, one of the high-end neighborhoods in the city. My grandparents shared the house with my aunt (who was divorced) and her two daughters, who (as memory serves) were attending college at the time.
I loved to observe my grandmother, aunt and cousins (and especially their live-in maid Cecilia) as they explored their culinary interests, and soon I started helping out after I was done with homework. It was never ‘serious’ stuff but cakes and puddings – grandma was naturally skinny and hated it, so she liked to fatten the rest of us (and we bear the consequences to this day, but when you are kids it doesn’t seem like much of an issue).
Meals at my grandparents’ were remarkably simple. Beef was cooked with onions on the side, because only grandpa and I enjoyed them; my cousins couldn’t stand the sight of it, and everyone else had their quirks over certain spices: grandma didn’t like bell peppers, so poor Cecilia had to cook according to everyone else’s whims (they would all starve if they had me as a cook – I will only bend in case of food allergies, so stop whining and eat those veggies). Chicken was almost always roasted with few spices or breaded and fried, and of course the meal was always accompanied by rice, beans and farofa (yucca flour blended with eggs or the juices from meat or chicken).
In Brazil lunch is the big meal of the day, so when it was time to make something for dinner we were pretty much on our own. My grandma’s freezer was always filled with frozen hamburger patties or something of the sort. My cousins would make themselves ham and cheese sandwiches and warm them up on a “sanduicheira,” which was basically a metallic press in which you put the bread in and warmed on the stovetop (I don’t even think they make them anymore), and that is when I discovered that I had a knack for cooking, and I would make more elaborate sandwiches while learning to cook pasta or something else. At my grandparents’ elaborate dinners were a rarity – during the time I was with them, I recall few times that something was actually cooked – I remember them making a “peixada cearense” (fish stew) because someone was visiting from out of town.
Though today I do enjoy preparing elaborate dishes that I discover from time to time, I often resort to the simplicity of those early days. Every now and then I stumble into something flavorful that can be prepared without much fuss – I recently found a Dominican recipe that features nothing but garlic, rice, mixed vegetables and canned sardines in tomato or hot sauce (I use one of each, because using solely the hot version proved to be a bit too much) – It can be prepared in a few minutes and has very satisfying results.
Dominican Locrio de Pica-Pica (Rice and spicy sardines)
5-4 oz. cans of sardines in spicy tomato sauce
3 cups of rice
5 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup red peppers, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1/3 cup of peas
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/4 cup celery stalks, cut into slices
3 sprigs of cilantro, chopped
1. Take the sardines out of the sauce and reserve the sauce.
2. in deep-bottom pot heat 3 tablespoons of oil over low heat.
3. Add cilantro, garlic, peppers, carrot and peas. Cook and stir for about two minutes.
4. Add half the sardines (reserve the other half), mix well.
5. Increase the heat to medium and add the sauce that the sardines came in.
6. Add 4 cups of water and bring to the boil. When it breaks the boil add the rice.
7. Stir regularly to avoid excessive sticking.
8. When all the liquid has evaporated, add the remaining sardines and mix.
9. Cover with a tight fitting lid and simmer over very low heat.
10. After 15 minutes uncover, stir, and add the remaining oil. Cover again.
11. After another 5 minutes try the rice. It should be firm but tender inside.
12. If necessary, cover and simmer another 5 m