30 July 2012

Gnocchi Day

Yesterday was Gnocchi Day! So did you eat your gnocchi? No? You didn't? But it's Gnocchi Day on the 29th of every month, everywhere in the world, isn't that right? Isn't that the one certainty in this uncertain world? Mark and I first learned of Gnocchi Day back in the '90s during a brief visit to Cordoba, Argentina. We happened to be in Cordoba on a 29th and some friends of ours, one Argentine and one Brazilian, suggested we meet them for dinner in an Italian restaurant. Silly us, we looked at the menu. "Why are you looking at the menu?" the Argentine asked us. "Don't you know what day it is? It's the 29th. It's Gnocchi Day." So we closed the menu and we ordered gnocchi. Nhoque da fortuna, to be more exact. We did as we were told and slipped a dollar bill beneath the steaming plate when it was served. That's what would bring the fortuna, the good luck and prosperity. "You don't do this when you're at home in New York on the 29th?" the Brazilian asked us. We admitted that we didn't. "But that's crazy," the Argentine said, his voice raised in indignation. "Everyone eats gnocchi on the 29th of the month. Everyone puts money under his plate." Whoa, easy boy, we're just eating dinner here. But there it was, complete culture collision. 

By the end of dinner we had heard the whole story of Gnocchi Day, this culinary vestige of Italian immigration to South America. With people getting paid on the first of every month, money was always tight by the end of the month. What was left in the pantry but potatoes and flour and, if you were lucky, an egg or two? There's your classic gnocchi . . . fast, easy, cheap, hearty and belly-filling. Our friends were so insistent that Gnocchi Day is internationally known and celebrated that Mark and I returned to New York believing we had missed something all these years. We went around to some of our local Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village to solve this mystery, but no one had ever heard of anything called Gnocchi Day. Then we decided to go right to the source and headed straight for Little Italy. If anyone had heard of it, we would find them there. But even in Little Italy we came up empty. Until, that is, we found an Argentine waiter. After a big laugh he shook his head. "No, Gnocchi Day is just a South American thing," he confirmed, still chuckling.   

As the 29th day of each month approaches, Mark and I smile as we see the Gnocchi Day Special signs go up in the restaurants around Búzios. We've even gone to a few, playing along with this "international" celebration. But no matter what day you eat gnocchi, it's delicious. I often make it from scratch at home, and it's fun and easy. And worth it. Here's my recipe, using a Brazilian potato called batata baroa, which has a most unusual, distinctive flavor that is a perfect foil to a gorgonzola sauce.

batata baroa

1 kg (2 lbs) potatoes (batata baroa if possible)
1 egg (or 2 yolks)
1 C flour
½ C fécula de batata (potato starch flour)
nutmeg, salt, olive oil, butter
a hunk of gorgonzola

Peel and boil the potatoes in cold water to cover. Drain and mash. Add salt, nutmeg, egg and stir quickly. Then add two handfuls of flour and mix in a bowl.

Form the dough with the remaining flour outside of the bowl. Knead until pliable. 

Roll into snakes and cut pieces off the snakes.

Cook in boiling water until the gnocchi rise to the top. Drizzle with oil after draining. You can use them right away, or store them for 2-3 days in the refrigerator (reboiling before using) or keep 3 months in the freezer (reboiling after thawing). 

Melt gorgonzola in butter and/or cream, add the gnocchi . . .

. . . and serve.

23 July 2012

Reading English in Brazil

Back on May 14th I wrote about three things I miss about the USA now that I live in Brazil. I realize that I forgot one. I forgot public libraries. I miss my frequent trips to the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library system. I miss the hush of a public library, I miss the anticipation I used to feel walking into one, not knowing what I might find among the rows of books waiting to be read and savored. Since childhood I've always found shelves full of books very reassuring. I find the act of browsing among books calming. And wherever I lived, I made sure to dedicate a lot of wall space to floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

. . . in Hoboken, NJ
. . . in New York City

. . . and in Búzios

Our sebo home away from home
Unfortunately, I'm unable to continue my romance with public libraries here in Brazil, certainly in Búzios, where the municipal and state libraries leave much to be desired. And although the gorgeous Brazilian bookstores like Argumento, Letras & Expressões, and Cultura fill the browsing need with their books, CDs and DVDs, they're still and all not the same as a free public library. But not to worry! I have found excellent sources of reading pleasure. First and foremost are the fabulous sebos (used-book stores) of Rio. My favorite? Baratos da Ribeiro in Copacabana, run by Maurício Gouveia, who's always happy to see "the Americans from Búzios" settling in for a good, long, bargain-filled shopping spree. Rio usually also has some book fair set up in a park or plaza, and I've managed to make some real finds at these fairs. 
This was someone's vacation read?
Most recently, on our trips to Rio we've been staying at a pousada in Santa Teresa which has shelves full of books that guests from all over the world leave behind. It functions as a book exchange. Mark is still reeling from putting his hands on David Foster Wallace's 981-page Infinite Jest, an amazing find. (Who would read that casually, and then even more casually leave it behind?) My latest coup at the pousada was Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" series. Can't get any more candy for this baby than that!

Strange what washes up here
When I first moved to Brazil I had some idea that I would read one book in English, then one book in Portuguese, then one in English, and so on and so forth. That discipline lasted about a year. I now admit publicly that I've taken to reading four or five books in English for every one I read in Portuguese. But I can't help it. The books in English that turn up here in Brazil are delightfully surprising and compelling. Sure, if you poke around in the sebos you might be lucky enough to find one of "the Jonathans" (that's Franzen, Ames, Safran Foer or Lethem), but you're more likely to find an oddity such as Thorne Smith's Night Life of the Gods. I'd never heard of Smith, but he wrote the Topper novels back in the '20s, and single-handedly created the modern American ghost. I've had the fun of finding a dark satire that's been out of print for 35 years, Stanley Crawford's Gascoyne. I've recently come upon Chester Himes, author of All Shot Up, a novel not quite Raymond Chandler and not quite Dashiell Hammett, but sharing space in that stratosphere. And I couldn't stop laughing at Calvin Trillin's Tepper Isn't Going Out. I knew Calvin Trillin, but I'd never read this book that only a New Yorker who's driven around and around, looking for a precious parking space, could embrace.

My Bromfield collection
I'm always coming across a Louis Bromfield novel. Who? Oh, just one of those fascinating early 20th century American characters, an Ohio farm boy who went off to drive an ambulance in France in WWI, and returned after the war to a distinguished career as journalist, music critic, advertising manager and agricultural expert. He also found time to write some 30 novels, none of which I'd ever heard of but many of which were turned into films that I saw on The Late, Late Show some 45 years ago. When I see his name, I grab the book. I've been struck by the number of Tunisian, Moroccan and Iranian women authors who've been translated into English and whose books have ended up here in Brazil. I grab them, too, when I see them, and have never been disappointed. There's a steady stream of Swedish and Dutch police thrillers that end up here as well, usually in their English versions, but sometimes in Portuguese. The big question, of course,  is just how do these books end up in Brazil? That would be an interesting mystery to plumb, but right now, with the 743-page Millennium III staring me in the face, it's time to settle down with a good book.

16 July 2012

Three Things We Would Miss If We Left Brazil For The Next Place

I'm not sure why I'm thinking along these lines, really. Neither Mark nor I plan to give up the view from our terrace anytime soon. But you never know, so many of our friends and acquaintances have come and gone these last ten years that I'm beginning to feel a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz — "My, people come and go so quickly here," she observed repeatedly. It's made me feel ever-so-slightly restless. Anyway, the what-we'd-miss game is fun to play, even if the reality is still distant.

1. O jeito de ser brasileiro — The Brazilian way of being. Easy to translate, more complex to describe. And I don't want to get lost in national stereotypes, either, you know, the French are this, the Germans that, the Argentines the other, the Japanese . . . and so forth. Putting aside the stereotypes, I still have to marvel at the jeito brasileiro. It's a remarkably seductive warmth and generosity of spirit, an ease and comfort in one's own skin that's contagious, an ability to relax and enjoy life, with and without life's adversities; it's an ability to break into song to make a point in the middle of the supermarket, it's a way of laughing and gesturing, of walking and talking . . . and speaking of talking, Brazilians also have another amazing talent: they can talk and smile at the same time. How do they do that? I've tried it, and it's not easy if you haven't grown up doing it. And it doesn't work with English at all, the neurons that control the mouth movements of English speakers just aren't programmed the same way as for Portuguese speakers.

2. Our friends — I left family and friends back in the States, and I miss them. I knew I would, and I do. But people were always so damn busy up there that the truth is I never even saw them that much. But I'm not too busy here in Brazil, at least not in the American way. I have lots of time for friends, and they for me. Perhaps the challenge and intensity of life in another country has deepened my new friendships, and made me hold on tighter. I sure would miss our friends. And it's not just our friends I would miss, but the style of Brazilian friendship, the curiosity they have about you without their being too intrusive, the ease with which they become your friends. I'd miss the way people come for lunch and stay for dinner, and how that seems perfectly normal. One thing I know for sure, all the friends we've made here would visit us in a nanosecond, anywhere we went, so Mark and I had better make sure the next place has lots of guest rooms!

My Dr. Paulo
3. Our doctors — I remember my New York doctors only vaguely. There was our Belgian "gate-keeper" with her thick French accent ("Zo, watt eez zee prawblem?"); there was the very chic Downtown Women OB/GYN Associates in Soho, more memorable for their location and design sense than for anything else. But if I left Brazil I would really, really, really miss our doctors. I'd miss Dr. Paulo, my hefty, Tennessee-Mountain-sized OB/GYN, who stands well over 6 feet tall (1.8 meters), with an almost equally large circumference. Dr. Paulo is always full of tips on new restaurants (no surprise) or eager to discuss the newest movie. I'd miss Dr. Anderson, a cardiologist who doesn't mind our using him as our "gate-keeper" and, in contrast to Dr. Paulo, probably the tiniest adult this side of the equator. I'd miss Dra. Eiko, Dr. Joaquim, Dr. Henrique, Dra. Tété, I'd miss doctors I haven't even gone to. I'd miss them all for their extraordinary good humor, for their caring and for their diagnostic skills. It's not inconceivable that even if we left Brazil, we'd plan yearly visits back to coincide with our annual check-ups.

09 July 2012

Mousse de Maracujá

"Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first." Ernestine Ulmer

Who doesn't love dessert? In a less health-obsessed world, dessert could be considered the whole reason to eat dinner. There are the easy desserts (fruit salad, piece of candy, jello), the more involved ones (cookies, cakes, pies, baked fruits) and the extremely complicated ones (profiteroles, dessert soufflés, crêpes suzette — basically, anything French). Here in Brazil, when we have our Brazilian friends over to dinner I find I like making the American apple desserts — apple pie, apple crisp, apple crumb, apple cobbler — just to be a little different. Or I'll make a huge batch of chocolate chip cookies and watch them disappear before anyone can say "Tollhouse." And there's nothing like a good, Cointreau-infused chocolate mousse to get people asking plaintively for seconds. But there is one dessert I do repeatedly that is hands-down the biggest crowd pleaser in my repertoire. It's Brazilian comfort food, it takes minutes to prepare, it's called mousse de maracujá (that's passion fruit), and it's tart and tangy and silky and sweet all at the same time. It's a real plate-licker and even here in Brazil, where everyone makes it, people marvel over my version. And I got my best tips, oddly enough, from a Chilean.

Blend together one box of sweetened condensed milk, one box (a box, not a can, you don't want any water) of creme de leite*, and one cup of concentrated passion fruit juice.**


When the ingredients are well-blended, pour into a form and place in the fridge.

When the mixture hardens a bit (after ten minutes or so), cut open two old, ugly passion fruits (the oldest and ugliest you can find) . . . 

. . . and put the seeds and pulp on the top of your mousse.

Place back into the fridge. It's best the same day, but it's still plenty good after two or three days.

Mouths water . . .
. . . and eyes well up with tears

*creme de leite — This is a very difficult ingredient to find in the States and in Europe. Some people will tell you to use heavy cream — don't! It's not the same, not at all. Creme de leite is considerably sweeter than heavy cream, and has a different consistency. But if you want to try and make this dessert and can't find creme de leite, look for "media crema" in your neighborhood bodega. I'm told it's the perfect substitute, a cream manufactured by Nestlé in Mexico.

**concentrated passion fruit juice — As for this item, you can probably find it in that same bodega, or even in a well-stocked supermarket.

02 July 2012

Gorda Beach

The first time I visited Gorda Beach was just last week, in order to get pictures for this blogpost. Pathetic, huh? I know, and I'm extremely embarrassed. Look at this beach! It's a treasure, an ecological sanctuary, home to countless species of indigenous flora, including bromeliads, cacti and orchids at one end, and a unique stone mangrove swamp at the other end. Gorda Beach is studied by geologists, botanists and environmentalists from around the world for its extremely rare ecosystem. I couldn't get over the rock formations, their colors (various shades of purple and red and white), the variety of plant life, the wonderful and peaceful feeling I experienced just 15 minutes from my house.

Kind of makes you wonder why, then, our municipal government has approved plans for — listen carefully now — a 221-house condominium to be built immediately adjacent to this environmentally-protected area. Even before the ink was dry on the approval documents, the "Gran Riserva 95" (as it calls itself, trying to sound like a fine wine) had set up stands around town to sell these condos-to-be for prices ranging from R$195,000 to R$250,000 ($94,200 to $120,800), pretty cheap by Búzios standards and clearly priced for quick sales. The stage was set for the inevitable collision between developers and scientists/environmentalists, but even the most complacent bystander can see the harm such a huge condominium, with its leisure areas, tennis courts, pools, bars, barbecue pits, restaurants, convenience stores and parking areas would pose to a nearby fragile ecosystem. Anybody really believe the sewage from such a project will not run off onto Gorda Beach? And exactly how did a project that runs counter to the town's own legal development plan, with its carefully established directives as to what can be built where, get approved in the first place? It really boggles the mind, even one as cynical as mine.  

Right now the environmentalists hold the upper hand. A judicial decision handed down just last month has stopped the construction. Noncompliance with the court's order will result in prison terms and a fine of R$30,000 per day ($15,000). And the construction company's web site does have up the following announcement: "As vendas encontram-se temporariamente suspensas" (sales have been temporarily suspended). Let's see for how long, since we all know that history has proven time and again that money talks.

One end of Gorda Beach

With its purply-white rock formations

Peaceful, remote, and full of interesting indigenous flora

Heading towards the mangrove swamp end

Beginning of the mangrove swamp

It just gets more . . . 

. . . and more gorgeous

What can we do to help save this place?

One of five "villas" being projected for Gorda Beach. In order to get construction approval, the developers assured the authorities that the houses would be built far from the beach. But in order to sell houses, this promotional material shows otherwise. As if no one will notice a difference.