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Flash in the Pan

Blame it on Bahia



Chef Boi Ari here, on location in a broken- down bus somewhere between Caete-acu and Palmeiras, Bahia, Brazil. When the tire blew off it sounded like a land mine.

I’m down here in Brazil with a group of UM students, studying agroforestry. Growing annuals, perennials, fruits, nuts, legumes, roots, berries and veggies in the same space, this method creates an incredible amount of edible biomass. Meanwhile, real estate that had been given up on as dry, dusty wasteland becomes lush, green, humid and fertile—without irrigation. The principle is simple: green biomass attracts and retains water.

Maybe the tire blew off as a result of our collective sorrow at leaving the Capo valley, our home for the last nine days—I think my belly was the saddest of all. The food where we stayed—a retreat center called Lothlorien—is a delectable combination of typical Bahian fare mixed with a twist of new-age-back-to-nature-vegetarian-hippie-haute-cuisine. I’m not sure what “haute” means, but it seems like a word that Chef Boi Ari should be using from time to time. By the way, in Portuguese, “boi” means “bull,” as in strong like a bull.

Breakfast at Lothlorien is a spread of homemade granola, homemade yogurt, homemade honey or molasses, and an assortment of local and homegrown fruits, such as mango, papaya, banana and melon. Morning tea is a variety of interesting herbs from the garden and the forest. All of this is laid out on a banana leaf.

Lunch is the ringer meal. I had the pleasure of hanging out in the kitchen one day while it was being prepared, and I learned some important things to share.

First of all, what’s really nice about the Lothlorien kitchen is that you can hang there with just one article of clothing, plus flip-flops. I stationed myself in the epicenter of a laid-back buzz of Bahian women of various shades of brown, with white things on their heads. A far cry from the frenzied kitchen infernos of Missoula. I felt so comfortable there I didn’t even bother to resist the urge to lift lids and stir and smell the contents.

As far as reporting, I had to make a tough call. Many things were being prepared that day with ingredients that are tough to come by in Missoula. So rather than tease and tantalize you with recipes you don’t have the means to follow, I will stick to one dish, squash soup, that you can in fact prepare at home in gringo-land. Sadly, I will skip the stewed okra, the manioc flour farofa, and the coconut pudding.

The other reason I need to discuss squash soup is the delicious irony of it all. You see, in the final days before my departure to the tropics I began pining with advance nostalgia for squash, thinking I wouldn’t be eating any for a few months. So I found myself eating a lot of squash those last few days. And there I was in the kitchen of Lothlorien in one article of clothing plus flip-flops, preparing the squash. Tudo bem!

The first thing that Jeu, the head cook, did that was super-interesting was add a few scoops of alho muchado to the hot pan. Alho muchado is mashed garlic with salt mixed in, about 12 tablespoons per liter. It can store many months this way, gets better with age, and smells fine in the pan.

Amazingly, Jeu adds this without oil, a maneuver that completely turns my cooking paradigm upside down. Had I not seen it with my own eyes I never in a million years would have recommended it. Obviously, I am not ready to leave the monastery. Jeu not only added the alho muchado to a dry, hot pan, but she then began mashing and smearing it into the bottom, until it quickly resembled a hopelessly scalded pan, aka a dishwasher’s worst nightmare. But the smell...let’s just say it did not smell like too much of a problem.

At this point, I noted the pile of flip-flops under the kitchen table, and the bare feet of my mentors. I kicked my flip-flops onto the pile. One article of clothing. Beleza. Sipping on coconut milk as well. No problem.

After the alho muchado is smeared and almost but not quite burned to the bottom, add cubed squash, chopped celery leaves, a few inches of water, and some salt. Keep it on medium heat with the lid on. Although Jeu did not stir it, I assume that the water soaked into the alho muchado and kept it from burning. A few minutes later, she began stirring. Soon it was done.

At this point, I was contemplating my stash of Brazilian mayo in the fridge, as well as the homemade spicy hot pimenta, both of which I intended on using with the soup. I was prepared.

Then Eligiana started to cry. No, it wasn’t the Roberto Carlos tune I began crooning at the thought of mayo...she was slicing onions for the farofa. Watching her push the onions rapid-fire into the knife blade with her thumb, I had to wince, although she claims she never gets cut. That’s when I realized they don’t use cutting boards in their kitchen, they just slice the veggies between knife and thumb. “It’s faster that way” she said. Mais rapido. Tune in next week for more Brazilian adventures.

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