Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pop up dining in Rio?

Could it be true? Has its time come? Are gourmet food trucks and an underground restaurant scene soon to blossom in Rio? One can hope.

Thanks to the ever-sagacious Eat Rio blog and various Face Book groups for gringos in Rio and beyond I have stumbled upon two exciting eating out options off the beaten path. A candle burns in the dining desert for wanna-be foodies on a budget.

Restaurant dining in Rio and Niterói (and other places, I presume) can be both boring and expensive. Admittedly I am at a disadvantage having spent so many years in the San Francisco Bay Area food scene. Not much gets me excited in my current local reality, and way too much is priced out of my reality.

I do very much enjoy many of the star Brazilian dishes so popular here and in other regions of the country. When we go out to eat we seek out those places that do these dishes very well.

On the international cuisine front, however, choices are quite limited. Restaurants serving what they present to be Asian, Italian, or “Tex-Mex” fare have clearly tweaked the flavor profiles to match the local (mildly spicy, please) palate. Unfortunately for me – who loves a fiery Thai chili paste or an unforgiving slow burn from a roasted Mexican salsa – spicy international or fusion food is hard to come by.

And pizza. I know São Paulo has a famously delicious, stylish and scrumptious pizzeria scene, but this reality does not extend to Rio, much less Niterói (with few exceptions). The popular and ubiquitous all-you-can-eat pizza restaurants serve a kind of pizza that does not inspire me to go out for pizza much. Alas.

But there is hope on the scene.

Luis and Daniel, our hosts, with hard-working server Jennifer

We recently gathered a group of friends and went to a once-a-week-only pop-up restaurant serving authentic Mexican food: Fiesta Mexicana. Two young Mexican-American entrepreneurs recently relocated from California have struck a deal with a Youth Hostel in Rio’s Cantagalo community to use their rooftop seating area (with a tiny, tiny food prep space) to share their love of Mexican foods. They serve real, homemade, traditional, heart-warming Mexican food. Lucky us.

In addition to the world class view of the sea beyond Ipanema, the smell of carne asada tacos and fresh corn tortillas was completely hypnotic. We instantly forgave the somewhat cramped and disorganized goings on when it was made clear that our friends could try their first margarita over a shared plate of cheesy nachos. And the super spicy salsa verde – OMG – I had died and gone to Mexican heaven.

Most of our friends were tasting their first plates of authentic Mexican food. Beef and pork tacos were the dishes of the night. One of our host’s mother was in town and working up a serious sweat in the summer heat pumping out fresh corn tortillas. The smell of dinner to come was enough to get our eyes burning with the promise of roasted jalapeño peppers.

Just one night a week. You have to search this place out. You have to want it. The borrowed location is tucked in the hillside favela overlooking Ipanema. Getting from the public elevator at the General Osório Metro Station to your dining destination is no easy trick, winding your way through the labyrinth of narrow stairways that characterizes the community. But it is worth the effort.

We’re hoping their obvious deserved success and word of mouth driven growth in popularity will result in a move to more spacious digs and a few more evenings of dining service each week. Fingers crossed. But until then, we will definitely go back for more. Fiesta Mexicana is now our favorite (and only) pop-up restaurant.

Then there is the question of food trucks.

Food venders on the street, both casual and very casual, are ever-present practically everywhere in Brazil. Whether you are at the beach, outside a music venue, at the central square in a small village or just wandering a neighborhood after hours there are invariably folks frying up hamburgers, cooking a skewer of meat over a grill or heaping hot dogs with every imaginable diced up accompaniment.  But for the sake of this post I would suggest the term “food truck” is not the accurate descriptor for these vendors.

In my yearnings for food trucks I am imagining a growing scene of passionate cooks putting out creative, flavorful, quality foods at affordable prices. That reality, I’m afraid, has yet to hit the streets in my area, with one notable exception.

All ferro e farinha images taken from their FB page.

Ferro e Farinha (Iron and Flour) is a break-out pizza truck (pizza oven on a trailer, actually) putting out high end, real Italian pizzas – at affordable prices. I am inspired. To catch up with where they will be on any given night you have to communicate with them on Face Book. From what I can tell, if they will be parked at a public event they will post the location. If they plan a more clandestine pop-up evening of pizza you have to msg them for a location.

Full disclosure: I have yet to enjoy a pizza from Ferro e Farinha. But I am chomping at the bit to do so. The excitement surrounding this new street food option has risen to a full roar. I have had the pleasure of meeting Sei, the NYC Italian pizzeria trained head chef in charge at FeF, and have witnessed his passion for his craft. (Actually, quite by coincidence, I met Sei at Fiesta Mexicana. Small scene indeed.) Everything I have seen and heard about this custom-built pizza oven on wheels operation and the pies it puts out has me (as you can see) promoting their success.

Rio diners deserve quality food at affordable prices. The Rio arts and music scene is WAY TOO happening for there NOT to be a flourishing fleet of hip food trucks. Dining out should not remain a class privilege in Rio. It is time to democratize great food. (Can you see me thrusting my fist over my head?) You can follow an effort to legalize Food Trucks in Rio at the Face Book page Food Truck Rio.

The SP food truck folks behind the effort to legalize trucks in Rio.

If you have a bead on other great food options in Rio like these I have described, please let us know about them in the comments. I am on a mission to ferret out and support these efforts.

Monday, January 20, 2014

2014 Rio Carnaval tickets

Sunday and Monday tickets. Tab at the bottom gets you in. Tab in the middle gets you into your Sector. The big badge you wear all night to get in and out of your sector.

Every year Luiz and I sit alert at our phones (and computer) to blast into the mad rush phone feeding frenzy that is the sale of Carnaval tickets in Rio. The tickets are made available at 9:00 a.m. on a set date via a series of telephone numbers. Depending on which Sector you are seeking tickets for, you dial that number and hope to get patched through to the business-like computer voice prompter to buy tickets. This year we got lucky and have some extras. More about that at the bottom of the post.

Prior to the sale date we coordinate with our friends to see where everyone wishes to sit and we all gear up to buy as many tickets as we can in that Sector. If one of us does not get through the hope is that someone else will and we can then buy them from each other. Ultimately we are working as a group to ensure our group can all see at least one night of the Carnaval Parade.

The big parade/competition takes place over two days: Sunday and Monday of Carnaval weekend. The neighborhood Schools of Samba are randomly assigned to parade at a particular time on either day. Which night is the best night to go is often a topic of great debate. Everyone has their favorite School(s) so if favorites among friends are split between two nights we have a debate on our hands regarding which night we should be trying to get tickets for. Some years the choice is obvious and clear. Other years some folks will follow the group on one night, but then spend the extra bank to see their personal favorite School on the other night.

Which Sector to sit in is a discussion that has been settled for many years. Among our group of friends the decision is largely a financial one. Carnaval tickets are expensive, even when buying them directly from LIESA, the Central League of Independent Schools of Samba, the official ticket vendor. The so-called “best” Sectors are generally seen to be Sectors 6, 7, 8 and 9. They are good because they are located far enough back from the beginning of the parade route that you can get a visual overview of nearly the entire School. The numerous sections of the parading School tell a visual narrative that corresponds to the music. Seen all together you get the best impact. Prices in these Sectors are way too steep for our crowd, especially for just one night out.

Sectors 4, 5, 10, and 11 are also good choices, if you have the cash. While not the ideal locations they still provide that long(ish) view you are looking for.

Us regular folks who go almost every year (some of whom have gone dozens of times over the years) look for a good value combining price and location. Since this is neither the first nor the last time in the Sambadromo we know the drill and are quite happy with Sectors 2 or 3. They are near to the front so the energy of the School is very high and the precision of their choreography is still on point and not frayed with fatigue. Sectors 12 and 13 can offer cheaper seats, but the Schools at that point (the end of the route) are often disorganized and sometimes running frantically toward the finish line to stay within the rigid time frame allowed and not receive a penalty for going over.

The night of the event we arrive early and claim a large area for our group at the down-route side of the Sector. You quickly learn that you have to stake a big claim on space at the onset because slowly but surely that shrinks in the face of a growing crowd of spectators worming their way into fractions of space throughout the seating area. It is inevitable. But we have some practiced skills at maintaining our spot throughout the night.

It’s always a great night. As a group we bring with us plenty of food and drink to last the long 9 hours or so of the show. Everyone knows all the songs and have years of stories to correspond to every School. The friendly competition insisting which School has been best over the years, insider scandalous gossip regarding the current Carnavelescos (the creative director, like the futebol coach), and assertions of confidence as to who will surely be named Champion this year make the many hours pass quickly. And the show itself NEVER disappoints!

Sound good? Well, like I said. We have some extra tickets available for both Saturday and Sunday nights. Send me an email if you want more information.

Bom Carnaval!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Cheesecake in Brazil!

Not too many people in my circle of friends here in Brazil are regular cheesecake eaters (but they love it when I bring it to parties). It does not seem to be a very common dessert in restaurants or at family events. I can’t recall seeing more than a few over the years at our local sweet shops. They are out there, but just not a common thing. (I’m sure some urban areas – you know who you are - have wonderful cheesecake spots, but across the country this is not a ‘thing.’) Some folks will not know what you mean when you say “torta de queijo,” try “torta de queijo Philadelphia.”

In my experience, the cheesecakes I have eaten here have been a bit too wet and dense in texture and have been topped with a sticky, gelatinous, overly sweet fruit topping. Still, they can taste great, if you like that sort of thing.

Forgive me if I prefer my own version of cheesecake. I have been using this recipe for years and my friends plead with me to make it for big parties. At this point I do not know where I got the recipe and I am sure it has drifted in details from the original version. But it still works for me, even after moving to Brazil and having to use local versions of ingredients that are commonly found in the USA.

One big division among cheesecake makers/eaters is whether or not the crust should cover only the bottom of the cake or if it should climb up the sides of the pan and form a tall, wraparound crust for the entire cake. It is a personal preference. When done right, I prefer the tall, wraparound version. I like the texture and the subtle additional flavor accent it can provide. But it must be thin. A clunky, thick, often soggy cookie crumb nastiness encasing your fluffy cheesecake will take away the buzz. Practice makes perfect, but it must be thin. Strive for as thin as possible. (It’s not easy, but the practice can be delicious all the same.)

So here is my version of cheesecake. It makes a full-on tall cake in a 10” spring form pan, serving 12 people or more. The cheesecake itself is not flavored with fruit or whatever else, but I include a sweet topping recipe that can be tricked out with your favorite fruit.

¾ cup coarsely ground walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups granulated sugar, divided
2 cups finely crumbled vanilla wafers (in Brazil I use a good banana cinnamon biscuit cookie)
6 tablespoons melted butter
4 pkgs (8 oz.) cream cheese (in Brazil the packages are a bit smaller, so buy 5 pkgs to measure about 910 gms) 
5 good size large or jumbo eggs (get the fresh ones, but no need to get the super huge jumbo ones)
1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon lemon juice (in Brazil use limão Siciliano)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Lightly butter a 10” spring form pan. Preheat your oven to 350° F (180° C).

Place the cookies in a strong plastic bag and pound them into coarse crumbs. Then place those crumbs along with the walnuts, cinnamon and ½ cup of sugar into a food processor and pulse them into a fine mixture. Transfer to a bowl and pour in the melted butter. Mix well. It should be moist, not super wet or powdery dry.  Press the cookie crumb mixture into the pan pressing out from the center and up the sides of the pan. Use a flat bottom and right angle measuring cup or drinking glass to help get a thin flat layer. Be sure to press firmly into the corner between the bottom and side to avoid a thick crust elbow. Then place the formed crust into the oven for about 4 - 5 minutes to toast and set it but do not over toast it. Remove from oven and set aside. Leave the oven on.

For the filling, beat the cream cheese until smooth; really smooth. In the States this will take a while, as the cream cheese is quite firm. Having a Kitchen Aid mixer is the bomb in this situation. Here in Brazil I have found the cream cheese to be rather soft in texture, so the creaming process is not all that challenging. But don’t be shy. Get that stuff smooth and light. Slowly add the remaining 1 ½ cups of sugar and cream until you can no longer feel grains of sugar when you rub some of the batter between your fingers. Then add the eggs, one at a time, combining thoroughly between each egg. Add the lemon juice and the vanilla extract. Scrape the beater(s) and the sides of the mixing bowl to get everything back into the mix. Beat well until perfect.

Pour the filling mixture into the prepared crust and place in the oven. I place a sheet pan under the spring form (directly if necessary or a shelf down, whatever your options are) to catch any dripping moisture from the cake while it bakes. Bake for at least one hour, until the top is mostly firm and golden in color. This is the tricky part. Baking should be slow and you should stop just shy of a completely firm cake. Test doneness by tapping the edge of the pan to see if the cake mixture is still liquid and jiggly. You want it mostly firm while still a tiny bit jiggly in the middle. Try not to over bake the cheesecake. Baking it in a too hot oven will dry it out and the surface may crack. My oven here in Brazil is VERY weird and I can never get the temperature right, even with a thermometer – for some reason. The last time I made this cake (quite successfully) I baked it for a full two hours.

I think the super soft nature of the cream cheese here makes the batter rather thin looking and wet. Fear not. Slow baking and patience will result in a beautiful light texture that is fully cooked. In fact, I have never gotten a dry cheesecake result here, perhaps due to the difference in the ingredients.

When you think the cake is done, turn off the oven and let it cool down in the closed oven, about 20 – 30 minutes. Remove the cheesecake from the pan and set on the counter to cool completely to room temperature. It should be beautiful! (If you are taking it to a party, feel free to leave it in the pan for transport.)

Strawberry topping
This recipe works great to create a clear, shiny glaze that can be brushed over strawberries arranged on the top of your cheesecake. Unfortunately, I cannot find the proper ingredients here in Brazil so my modified version works better as a sweet thick sauce that can be poured over a slice before serving. In any case – it is delicious without being ridiculously sweet.

2 – 3 quarts beautiful, fresh, ripe strawberries, stems removed (leave whole or slice, your preference)
One 12 oz. jar of seedless raspberry jam. Here I have never seen this, so I have substituted something referred to as “doce cremoso de morango tipo Schmier.” Ritter brand sells a 400 g little tub of the stuff. It is like strawberry jam without the chunks of fruit; it is not clear.
1 tablespoon corn starch
¼ cup cold water
½ c. Triple Sec
1 tablespoon lemon juice

When using the original ingredients, place the jam in a saucepan on low heat. Combine corn starch with the cold water in a small cup and stir until lumps-free. Mix it into the heating jam. Stir well. Add Triple Sec and lemon juice, stirring constantly over low heat until mixture is clear and thickened. Cool in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes stirring frequently to prevent a film from forming on the surface.

Arrange the strawberries on the top of the cheesecake (beautiful tall whole berries side by side or a spiral layering of sliced berries). Carefully brush the clear glaze over all the berries and bits of exposed cheesecake. Chill completely before serving.

If you are making the local version, think rustic yummy strawberry sauce. I omitted the Triple Sec (but you can leave it in) and just used water, a bit less than suggested. Otherwise I followed the procedure above. The final result is a thick, yet quite pour-able, topping. It is not clear. Do not brush it over the strawberries because its cloudy nature will result in a muddy finish. Pour the topping over a slice once it has been plated.

There you have it. It works for me! Cheesecake has a reputation for being difficult to perfect and many people have careful procedures they have found to help them create a true party-stopping dessert. If you have any tips, of any sort, please include them in the comments section.