Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making Bahian-style moqueca in a clay pot

Few meals excite me as much as a seafood moqueca over rice with a tasty pirão. Include a fresh salad and I will think (no, I will know) I have died and gone to heaven. If everything is cooked in clay or stone pots it most certainly inspires a blog post.

A couple weeks ago I met a young neighbor who had never been to Niterói’s remarkable fish market. It always surprises me when I, the gringo new resident, know more about local treasures than folks born and raised here. I guess that is not all too surprising. Some of our friends who have lived here all their lives have never been to Sugarloaf or Corcovado in Rio. To be fair, I lived in San Francisco for more than 8 years before I finally visited Alcatraz Island (and then only when taking a tourist friend to see the place).

At any rate, I used my recent craving for a mouth watering moqueca as an opportunity to show my new friend what he has been missing in terms of quality fresh seafood at discount prices available only at the São Pedro Fish Market.

Some people like a fish moqueca. Others like a moqueca swimming with plump, flavorful shrimp. Me – I say use them both. If you are going for a full on seafood moqueca you may want to include mussels or clams, and maybe some squid, but for the sake of avoiding local mussels pulled from our polluted bay and the near-certain rubbery squid that would result from over cooking (it is a stew, after all, and squid is super tricky when it comes to cook times), I went with just fish and shrimp. Simple and delicious.

We perused the numerous stands at the market hawking shrimp in various sizes. I bought about ¾ of a kilogram from the cutest fish monger I could spot who was still selling his morning catch of crustaceans at a decent price. I paid R$10 even. They were pretty big little guys. I was happy.

For fish I went with two big steaks of firm flesh dorado, a little less than a kilogram overall. It is best to choose a fish with a firm flesh so that it holds its shape and does not disintegrate when cooking in the stew. I think I paid about R$8 for the fish, total.

Back in my kitchen the first order of business was to shell and de-vein the shrimp. I saved the heads and shells and boiled them up with some chunks of onion, celery, a bay leaf and salt and pepper to get a simple broth I would use later in the pirão.

After looking up a few Bahian-style moqueca recipes online I cross referenced that with what Luiz said he usually does. It’s essentially a fish stew made with coconut milk. You can feel your way around and do what pleases you without really running the risk of ruining anything. Just don’t overcook your seafood and you will be OK.

Here is approximately what I used:

- the fish and shrimp
- a red and a green pepper, sliced into thin rounds
- one large onion, sliced into thin rounds
- several cloves of garlic, crushed
- several tomatoes, seeded, sliced crosswise
- a couple little hot peppers, seeded, chopped fine
- a bunch of cilantro and scallions (cheiro verde), chopped fine-ish
- 400 ml coconut milk
- dendê oil for frying (this is the crucial ingredient for getting that Bahian flavor)

You will also need about a cup of yucca flour (farinha de mandioca) for the pirão.

The stew does not take very long to cook so be at the ready with your ingredients and cooked rice. You may want to fuss over a salad in advance. The pirão is quick and can be made after the moqueca is simmering. Just be mindful that once you add the fish and then the shrimp to the stew you don’t want to cook the crap out of it. Less is more when it comes to cooking fresh seafood.

So here we go.

Prepare your rice the way you like it. Have your shrimp broth strained, hot and at hand.

Luiz likes to marinate the fish and shrimp while working on everything else. So we finely chopped some onions, garlic and cheiro verde and mixed them with some olive oil. Then we tossed the shrimp and fish steaks in this oil mixture and set aside. I think you could skip this step if you are somehow pressed for time, but it is a tasty step.

Pour a couple tablespoons of dendê oil into your clay pot. Keep in mind that the flavor of the oil is quite strong. You want that flavor, just not so much that you overpower everything. Think curry – it tastes great – but a little goes a long way. If you like to drown things in oil for cooking, use half and half with canola oil. Heat the pot and the oil over medium high heat.

Toss in and sauté up your onions and garlic. Everything will take on the characteristic orange color of the dendê. Things should smell pretty wonderful at this point, taking you back to the streets of Bahia. Reduce heat and add the sliced peppers and chopped chilies. Cook just to soften. Add the coconut milk, about a cup of shrimp broth and the chopped cheiro verde. Salt to your taste. Bring the mixture to near boiling. Gently add the fish steaks and cover with a couple layers of sliced tomatoes. Cover and cook slowly for a few minutes, until the fish is nearly cooked. A few minutes before you are ready to serve, stir in the shrimp. Cover and cook until the shrimp are cooked, but not obliterated.

Scoop out a few ladles of your yummy, fabulous moqueca sauce and add it to about 1.5 cups of the hot shrimp broth. Bring to a boil. While stirring constantly, slowly sprinkle in the yucca flour until you have a thin meal (thinner than polenta). Heat slowly and continue to stir. The mixture will thicken as it cooks. Be careful not to add too much yucca flour or things will get thick and sticky. You want it thin, yet with some texture. For a real treat add a couple chopped up shrimp and some shredded fish from the moqueca. Stir, salt and otherwise correct seasoning to your taste, cover and set aside. It’s ready when you are but don’t delay too long. It continues to thicken over time.

OMG – I’m drooling just typing this. 

Set the table or just call your family to serve themselves from the pots on the stove. Fish and shrimp moqueca, rice, pirão and a bright salad. It doesn't get any better than that!


GingerV said...

Yummy, sounds just rithg but what is pirão. Do I know it but not its name. I am going to share your post so I can find this later and make it. We knew people from the Barra that would drive to that fish market. Terezinha our friend from Bahia used to make it with red fish.... I mean the Brasilian fish that is RED... Not the Gulf of Mexico reds.

Jim said...

Hey Ginger -- Pirão is a "cream of wheat" texture mush made with the liquids from whatever you are cooking up and yucca flour stirred in. I have a link in the first paragraph to a great write up about it in another blog. Go back and check it out. Good stick-to-the-ribs filler with loads of flavor.

Adam said...

And I was there for 6 months and never visited the fish market, lol, though I remember you telling me about it.

In Rio, it took me 4 months to visit Christ. In SF, despite living most of my life in the Bay, I never took a trolley car nor went to Alcatraz. Go figure!