By Eva P. Bueno
One time I mentioned my recipe book, the one I started in 1972, when I started cooking with my mother. These past days, looking at those first recipes, I had a snapshot of the kinds of foods we ate at the time, since I took the recipes straight from what we were cooking at home. What those recipes reveal is that we were almost complete vegetarians, and we ate a lot of fish, especially sardines.
Of course, if any of us was ever asked whether we were vegetarians, we would say no. Maybe we didn’t even know what a vegetarian was! And, like all Brazilians I know, we enjoyed a barbecue, a feijoada, and other dishes with a lot of meat. But we didn’t have either feijoada or barbecue in our house. The reason was neither religious, nor the product of respect for animals. We simply did not have a lot of money, so we cooked with the ingredients that were either cheaper, or that we grew in our yard.
Yes, we ate fresh eggs from our own chickens, ate the occasional chicken, and — to my horror— my father slaughtered a pig every now and then. But mostly, what we call today “red meat” we ate only on special occasions.
Perhaps this is why I had no difficulty becoming a vegetarian. Since we were vegetarians “avant la lettre” it made sense to forgo all meat, and just have a little fish every now and then. But there are many differences from being a vegetarian now, and being a proto-vegetarian then. The first difference is that there is availability of many different vegetables that we didn’t have then. One such vegetable is the mushroom, something I only ate in my thirties. Others are celery, asparagus, red cabbage, Brussels sprouts. Lately, we can also purchase different kinds of grains from different parts of the world. Quinoa — five times richer than rice in protein — is one of these, and it has become available in the US in the past 5 years. Now any cook with a supermarket in the neighborhood has access to many kinds of exotic spices from faraway countries that will enable him/her to experience culinary adventures never before dreamed about.
But my old recipe book, even though it cannot hold a candle to the culinary sophistication that is within everyone’s reach, teaches some important lessons about cooking: what matters is how you use the ingredients you have available and build with them a balanced meal.
I am sure everyone has in the family a few recipes that have the same origin: the need to cook a good meal without the ability to buy expensive ingredients. And if your recipe notebook is like mine, you will notice that we did not use store-bought mayonnaise; instead, you made your own mayonnaise with raw egg yolks (who would dream of such a thing in our salmonella-rich times?), a lot of lemon, salt and pepper to give flavor, and you were generous with the amounts of parsley, garlic and onion. Can we say that we were also calorie and fat conscious avant la lettre? Quite possibly.
I will write now a few of these recipes I have, and invite you to share yours with us.
Zucchini, orange and onion salad
2 fresh zucchinis, 2 mid-size oranges, one mid-size onion (any color)
Cut the zucchini in 1/3 inch slices (no need to measure! This is not brain surgery!), put the round slices in a pan with cold water just covering the zucchini, put a dash of salt, boil for about 2 minutes. This is just to soften the zucchini a little bit, do not cook it through. Remove from water and let cool.
Peel the oranges, cut in 1 inch chunks, put in a bowl.
Slice the onion in very thin slices. Mix with the orange. This will soften the onion and reduce acidity. Finally, mix the cool zucchini, carefully.
¼ cup of vinegar (any kind except balsamic), 2 tbsp. of olive oil, 1 tsp. of ketchup, salt and pepper to taste
You can either dress the salad before serving, or put the dressing in a container for each person to use as he/she wants.
You can make this salad the previous day and keep it in an airtight container in the fridge. It is excellent with any kind of protein, especially on hot days.
2 pounds of small potatoes (or two pounds of medium potatoes cut in half), 1 onion, 2 cloves of garlic, ½ cup of chopped parsley, juice of one lemon or lime, ¼ cup of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
Cook the potatoes in water with a dash of salt, until they are soft. Don’t overcook. Watch those potatoes because the duration for cooking depends on factors such as the kind of potato, freshness of potato, and alignment of the stars, things we cooks have no control over.
Once cooked, drain and put in the airtight container. Dice the onion, crush the garlic, and chop the parsley. Mix with the potatoes. Add the oil, the lemon juice, and salt and pepper.
2 big eggplants, 1 green pepper, 1 big onion, 2 ripe tomatoes, 1/3 cup of oil, 1/3 cup of vinegar,
oregano, salt, parsley, pepper to taste
Cut the eggplants in ½ inch slices, and spread them in the bottom of a baking pan.
Cut the tomatoes and the onion in slices, and dice the green pepper. Put all in the same baking pan. Cover all the vegetables with the mixture of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 degrees (F) or about 180 (C) for about 25 minutes. As soon as the vegetables cool a little bit, remove them to a glass container. Add the parsley and the oregano. Cover well. Keep in the fridge and serve with meals or use in sandwiches.
Vegetable pie, Brazilian style
For the dough: 3 eggs, 1 cup of oil, 8 tbsp of flour, 1/2 tsp of baking powder, salt
For the filling: 4 tomatoes (remove the seeds) and cut in cubes, 1 cup of parsley mixed with green onions, 1 green pepper, diced, 1 can of peas (or a cup of fresh peas), ½ can of heart of palm (about 3 sticks) cut in thin slices, 3 to 5 tbsp. of grated Parmesan (or any other kind of hard cheese), ¼ tsp of salt
Prepare a casserole pan: put a spoon of oil in the bottom, and spread it well in the bottom and sides. Dust it with 1 or 2 spoons of flour. Set aside.
Turn on your oven at 350 degrees (F) or about 180 (C).
In a big bowl, beat well the 3 yolks with the oil. Add the flour, mixing well. Add the salt. In a separate container, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Add to the dough, folding the egg whites gently (so not to destroy the little air bubbles that have formed in the beating process). Add the vegetables, once again folding them in gently. Finally, add the baking powder.
Put the dough in the prepared casserole pan. Spread the cheese evenly on the top.
Bake for about 50 minutes. Do NOT open the oven during this process, or your pie will become flat. Of course you can still eat it even if it is flat.
In the years when there weren’t many canned goods available, we used to make this casserole using about 5 years of fresh corn that we cut off the cob and cooked in water and salt. We all know that Brazilian corn is very different from American corn, which is sweeter and softer. If you are using fresh Brazilian corn, you should cook it for about 30 minutes. American corn is ready in 8 minutes. Nowadays, I use cans, and this is the recipe I will give. When using Brazilian corn, once it is cooked, put half of it in a blender with some water, and blend it for about 1 minute, or until roughly ground, and add ½ cup of water in the dough.
1 can of corn whole kernel, 1 can of corn cream style, 3 eggs, ½ stick (or 4 spoons) of butter, 1 package of corn bread or corn muffin (if you cannot find this ingredient, you can substitute with 1 cup of yellow fubá, 2 spoons of flour, and 1 tsp of baking powder), sour cream – 1 container of 8 oz. (if you cannot find sour cream, use one can of crème de leite)
Choose your prettiest casserole container that can go in the oven. No need to prepare it.
Directly in the casserole, beat the eggs with the melted (or room temperature) butter. Add the two cans of corn. Mix well. Add the corn bread.(if you are using fubá, add it and the flour now, but only add the baking powder in the end). Mix well. Add the sour cream (or crème de leite), mix well, gently, with folding strokes.
With a paper towel, clean the sides of the casserole, if there is any dough on it.
Cover the casserole.
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover the casserole, and bake at 350 degrees for the remaining 25 minutes.
The casserole is a soft dish, so do not expect it to behave like a cake.
You can serve this dish with just about anything. Refrigerate leftovers to be eaten cold. Or warm. Your choice.
Eva Bueno is from Paraná and currently lives and teaches in San Antonio, Texas. She occasionally writes books and essays on Latin American and Brazilian literature, popular culture, women writers, politics, and the meaning of life.