25 August 2014

Fire the Coach!

Brazil is in the early days of a general election and everything has just been turned upside down by the tragic death of one of the presidential candidates. The neighboring states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais are in a Water War over the few drops left in the Paraíba do Sul River basin due to the worst drought in 70 years, and no authority has yet had the guts to mention rationing. An Ebola outbreak in several African countries threatens to explode into a world-wide epidemic, if it hasn’t already. There are wars brewing and/or ongoing in the Gaza Strip, the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — so believe me, I do know that there are many important issues to discuss these days. But I find myself bogged down in the last dregs of the World Cup, trying to understand why — even after the embarrassing display put on by the Brazilian soccer team — Brazil’s soccer commission thinks that the solution to the problem was to fire the coach.

I’ve seen this for all 12 of the years I’ve lived in Brazil. Doesn’t matter if it’s the national Seleção, as they’re called, or one of the state A teams, or even a state B team. If you’ve had a bad soccer season, what do you do? You fire the coach. And sometimes, you dump the whole technical team as well. I think what I find most astonishing is that nobody here questions the move. For Brazilians, it seems to be the obvious answer. But for me, coming from an upbringing of "it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game," firing the coach seems terribly knee-jerky. It’s like changing accessories on a dress that doesn’t fit — change the belt, change the buttons, change a scarf or change shoes — the dress is still not going to fit.

As far as I can remember, if one of the baseball leagues in the States had a bad season, they just had a bad season. Period. And it’s not that managers don’t move around from one team to another, they do. But constantly? Hardly. Lou Piniella was manager of the New York Yankees for three years, win or lose, and of the Seattle Mariners for 10 years before that, win or lose. Mike Scioscia managed the Los Angeles Angels for 14 years, win or lose. And that’s just to name two major league managers. How many coaches have I seen lead the Brazilian Seleção in 12 years? I’ve seen four coaches (Felipão, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Dunga and Mano Menezes) be moved around six times, as if they were peas in a shell game.

Look, as the entire world now knows, Brazil has a serious problem with its Seleção, one that goes far, far deeper than the coaching level. Even if they kept the same coach for more than two or three years they probably still wouldn’t have a coherent, winning team. But there may be a lesson to be learned from Brazil’s two screamingly successful volleyball teams. The male volleyball team has been led for the past 13 years by Bernardo Rocha de Rezende, or Bernardhino, and they have 26 international wins to their credit. The female volleyball team has been led for 11 years by José Roberto Lages Guimarães, or Zé Roberto, with 24 international wins. Given the number of years each team has played together under each coach, you can imagine the bonds they have forged, the closeness, the respect they all have for each other, win or lose. Would that the soccer powers-that-be could pay a little more attention to one of the criteria that makes a winning team.

Bernardhino, boy's coach
Zé Roberto, girl's coach

18 August 2014

Dining Areas

"Where shall we sit tonight?" is not usually among the questions a couple or a family put to each other when they’re eating at home. Much more likely they ask, "What shall we have for dinner?" or "White or red?" or "Stay in or go out?" As for where you sit, well, what are the usual choices? The kitchen table is fine for informal meals. For a holiday, or company dinner, you move to the dining room. And for those summer barbecues, a backyard picnic table is the answer. At least this was my experience growing up in suburban America.

The first apartment I rented after college was an Upper East Side L-shaped studio. Best, if not only, solution to the dining table problem in that small space was the drop leaf table shown in this picture.

From there I graduated to a larger space in Hoboken, NJ, where I had my drop leaf table in the kitchen. Here, at least, I had room to open the table up for five or six people, something I was never able to do in the studio!

And when I moved to a Hoboken condo, the table came with me, and took its place in the living room’s so-called "dining area."

After I met and married Mark, I knew it was time to ditch the drop leaf and do something worthy of a Manhattan loft. We decided to set the dining space up as in a restaurant, with three tables, six chairs and a set of genuine restaurant tablecloths. And, even when we had dinner guests, we kept the tables apart, just as in a restaurant. Some people thought we were nutty, but I think most people got it.

You might have noticed that in each of my last four apartments, unlike the suburban house I grew up in, there was one place, and one place only, to eat one’s meals. Búzios has been different and disorienting. Here we’ve wound up with five — count them, five — distinct places to eat our meals. So, "Where shall we sit tonight?" is a real question, and a compelling one.

This "formal" dining room table was where Mark and I ate most of our meals when we first came here. Took us a while to understand that in Búzios you eat outdoors whenever possible. You eat inside only if it’s too chilly, too rainy, or too windy to eat outside.

So now we always, always gravitate to the veranda table, particularly if we have guests. Day or night, it’s the most pleasant place to dine.

But if it’s just the two of us, or only one or two people are coming in the late afternoon, we move down to the terrace. Not in the summer, mind you, when it’s too hot. But this is the right choice in our so-called winter, when there’s enough sun to keep us warm in the winter breeze.

Let’s see — maybe it’s late, or the weather isn’t cooperating. Mark and I (with room for one or two more) park ourselves at what we call "the Hugo table," a table we inherited from a friend who now sits at that grand dining table in the sky.

And for very informal meals, or an occasional breakfast, we like to sit at what we call "the breakfast bar," with room for up to three (plus one standee).

And if Mark and I manage to put a table and chairs down in our quintal (July 28, 2014 post), my goodness, then we’ll have six distinct dining areas. I feel like the Queen of England.

11 August 2014


Years ago, at a hotel breakfast in Recife, state of Pernambuco, I was offered tapioca as an alternative to eggs, and I declined. All I could think of was the tapioca pudding of my youth and, frankly, that flavor was never my favorite. (Give me butterscotch anytime.) But slowly, slowly I came to understand that tapioca here is so much more than that sad-looking glop sitting on the trays in the school cafeteria. Tapioca here, made from manioc (or yuca, or cassava — there are many names), is amazingly versatile. It comes in flour, in sticks, in flakes and in pearls, and it can be made into a variety of breads, puddings and porridges. Tapioca flour is the basis for the ubiquitous Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, and a mashed bean dish called tutu de feijão, both of which I’ve been eating and enjoying for years.

pão de queijo

tutu de feijão

tapioca pudding, brazilian-style

But the tapioca I was offered — and that I declined — was the grainy "pancake" that is most identified with Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, and that even many Brazilians outside of that state don’t know. It was only a few months ago, after a restaurant called Macaxeira — with the sign "Tapioca is our specialty!" — opened near us, that I finally tasted my first tapioca. I thought it was boring and bland and fairly pricey for what they offered. What’s the big deal? I thought. Then a friend of mine suggested with her wise smile that I try again, this time from one of the two street vendors here in town (if tapioca is known at all, it’s known as a street food). I couldn’t believe how good it was!

The tapioca cart in the center of town

Hurry, just a couple of bags left!
Then began the saga of our learning how to make tapioca at home, which included knowing what kind of flour to buy and where to find it. Again, not an easy task outside of Pernambuco. We learned that the special tapioca flour we needed was ready-made goma, but initial searches of the Búzios market shelves turned up empty. But we persisted, we asked around, and we finally found it in the one Búzios market that stocks it, Extra Supermarket (but even then it's hidden away in a corner of the store on a bottom shelf, as you can see from this picture).

Tapioca is absolutely the easiest thing to prepare, it’s good for breakfast, lunch, dinner and/or dessert. You can put anything, anything at all, in it or on it. Think crêpe, think tortilla, think arepa, think injera, think lavash — think tapioca! I don’t know if you can find the tapioca goma in the United States, or in Europe, or wherever you might be reading this, but if you do, here are the five easy steps:

1. Heat a small, teflon pan. You can put a little butter in the pan, or not.

2. Pour in about a half-cup of goma, or more, or less. (There are no rules.) Start spreading it out with a spoon until if flattens into a disk. It will start to "glue" together quickly.

3. Add your filling on one half of the disk. Hear we're doing banana with cinnamon.

       4. Fold the empty half over the filled half.

5. Serve.  (It does taste better, however, if you dish the dish and eat it with your hands.)

Here are some suggested fillings, but feel free to go wild:

For breakfast — plain butter, jelly, butter and cheese, just cheese, banana, banana with or without powdered cinnamon, any other fruit you want, scramble or fry or poach an egg, pour maple syrup on it, or honey, some fried bacon, or incorporate whatever you usually have for breakfast into the tapioca . . .

Lunch/Dinner — ham and cheese, other lunch meats or cooked leftover meats, strips of chicken, chicken salad, tuna salad, egg salad, make a BLT, tomato with mozzarella and oregano, roasted vegetables . . .

Dessert — chocolate sauce, nutella, doce de leite (dulce de leche up there in the States), shaved coconut, nuts, caramelized fruits, butterscotch sauce, whipped cream, ice cream, fruit syrups . . .

(Oh, and for those who care, tapioca goma is gluten-free!)

04 August 2014

Festival Gastronômico

Voltaire, in the toque & beard, voted Best Chef Sensation
In about our second, or maybe third, year in Búzios, the powers that be decided to resurrect a once popular, but then-defunct, event called Degusta Búzios (Taste Búzios), a gastronomic festival designed, among other things, to spur tourism in the low season. Participating restaurants would prepare small portions of either an appetizer, main course or dessert, and offer them at promotional prices for people to get a little taste of what the chef could do, and maybe like it enough to return to the restaurant for a real meal. (To give you an idea, appetizers and desserts cost a mere R$5, about $1.50 at the time, and main courses R$10, about $2.90. At those prices, a person could really go to town!) Event organizers even held competitions, you know the type, Best Chef, Best New Chef Sensation, Best Appetizer, Best Main Course, Best Dessert, Best Presentation, and there was probably even a Miss Congeniality in there somewhere.

Well, I remember going to that first (for us) tasting treat. Now called simply the Festival Gastronômico, the event was, and still is, held in July, when there’s enough of a nip in the air for me to wear my still chic (I hope) men’s tuxedo jacket over jeans, with my gorgeous YSL scarf thrown around my shoulders in that studied-yet-casual way that I learned from watching Catherine Deneuve movies. (You can take the girl out of the city, etc.) The event took place in a fairly contained area in the center of town, so it was really easy to stroll from restaurant to restaurant, tasting, enjoying, talking to the chefs, meeting old friends; in those years the festival was not very well publicized and it really was just a great big private party for Búzios residents.

A glimpse of the 2014 version
But then, as inevitably happens, the festival got taken over by an outside event consultant, and the town’s business community saw a great opportunity to make money. Hotel restaurants got into the act, as did people who merely have informal catering businesses. The number of participants increased three-fold, better publicity brought in thousands of tourists and visitors from neighboring cities, and the festival spread to four distinct areas of town; strolling was out, need for transportation was in. Promotional pricing? Out the window. Instead of the R$5 and R$10 of previous festivals, we were now confronting R$10 (now $4.50) and R$15 ($6.80). For those of us who in the past enjoyed tasting many dishes, this actually made a difference. Say you tasted four appetizers, five main courses and two desserts at the earlier festivals. That would set you back a mere R$80, or $24. The tightwads among us now had to decide whether spending R$135 ($62) — mind you, this is still not dinner, it's just a bunch of little tastes — was worth it.

I admit that Mark and I boycotted the Festival Gastronômico for several years running. We were grumpy about the new prices, and we never found any dish so irresistibly creative as to drag us out of the house. But this year we decided to give the festival a whirl. It took careful, strategic planning. We selected the few dishes we thought we’d like to taste days ahead of time. We decided which night we’d go to which part of town. And you know, we had a great time! Here’s the dish that we thought was the single most creative and delicious of this year’s festival, from Zuza Restaurante — cocoa-flavored agnolotti with duck filling, with a sauce of saffron, cointreau, orange zest and cupuaçu (a chocolate-like fruit from the Amazon) — complex, textured, and scrumptious!