When we moved out of our house in St. Paul, which my sister, Becca, and her husband, Andrew, are currently occupying, we left them an inconvenient amount of food in the pantry and refrigerator. We tried to use up as much as we could before we left for Brazil, but it was hard! We had a lot of going-away events that took place around meals out, meaning we weren’t cooking at home much- and we also had a Costco membership. A bunch of hemp seeds, big canisters of oatmeal, a huge bag of baking soda, cans of coconut milk…the list goes on. (Sorry again, B&A.)
When we arrived at our condo in Brazil, Daniel had kindly purchased some basic food items to get us through our first few days, after which we needed to start building our pantry. This was no small undertaking because I really love to cook. It’s a discipline that holds the perfect balance of challenge and reward for me. I also find it relaxing, even the clean-up part. There is something about a stack of clean dishes in the drying rack after a good meal that is so satisfying to me.
When Matt made his first work trip to Dourados, back in early May, I requested two specific recon missions: the first was to scope out the quality and quantity of sidewalks, and the second was to report back on the grocery stores. What kinds of food could we buy there? Would we be able to keep cooking mostly vegan at home? Was there peanut butter? Sidebar: based on that trip and what the internet told us, peanut butter was the one food item that I was most concerned about not being able to find, and it was the one food item I brought with us from the States. Our kids love it, and I use it so often in cooking and baking. After a conversation with a friend back in St. Paul, I was ready to make my own once our Costco-sized jar ran out, and we bought a food processor here to do just that (on our second day in Dourados because priorities, hello). Happily, after a week or two, we did find peanut butter here! It’s expensive but delightfully unprocessed, and it fits right into my favorite recipes.
Peanut butter victory aside, I have run into cooking challenges. It’s been difficult to find fresh mushrooms at the three biggest grocery stores in town. (So far, I’ve only found dried shiitakes.) Quinoa is so ridiculously expensive that I just can’t justify buying it when there are other complete-protein vegetarian items I can get my hands on. And I haven’t found any chili powder, anywhere. That’s probably been my most unexpected kitchen hurdle. That flavor is so comforting, and the spice is just so versatile. It’s an integral part of many dishes I like to make, and it’s hard to come up with a decent substitute spice mix. When we go back to the States for a Christmas visit, please only give me presents of chili powder because that’s all I’m making room for in my suitcase.
Right now, I am mostly making food that’s already familiar to us, but I am paying attention to what I’ve eaten at other people’s houses and what we’ve seen at restaurants and markets. I’m making more polenta and more dishes with rice and beans. I’m tossing farofa into casseroles and onto baked tofu. I bought some mandioca at my favorite outdoor market last week, so I’m going to attempt to do something with that this week, and if it goes well, then I’m going to try to make these.
One Brazilian cooking tradition and passion we are embracing is the churrasco. I know plenty of Americans who own grills and use them often, but Brazilians literally build grills into their homes. Houses have kitchens, and then they also have these permanent indoor-outdoor fire pit + patio situations, and Sunday afternoons are often spent slow-roasting big lunches for family and friends. We aren’t really meat-eaters (me especially), buuuut you know, when in Brazil! We’ve been tasting whatever people make for us or recommend that we try without question or regret, so during our inaugural churrasco event, we made chicken linguiça, some sort of carne, eggplant, red peppers, onions, and pineapple.
I’ve heard a few funny comments from Brazilians about the foods Americans prefer, which can pretty much be boiled down to an assumption that we are obsessed with sandwiches and pancakes. This is hilarious because I made both of those things in our very first week here because YES WE ARE OBSESSED.
Also, we have to feed our kids. Bringing together our American tastes and the available Brazilian ingredients to make three meals for Oscar and August every day adds another level of fun to cooking adventures. I’m learning more about their appetites, which range from wolfish to dust mite-ish, and their preferences, which range from close-minded to shut-minded (<eyerolllllllll>). I’m trying to reframe their frequent refusals to eat the food I make for them as an exercise in patience and humility, and I sure will let you know when I reach that zen place and am no longer just pissed off about it. This week, I decided to expand my meal planning into a calendar of dinners and lunches, and then I did some serious meal prep while the kids were at school this morning. I’m not sure if it was my calmer approach to serving lunch because I wasn’t scrambling to pull together ideas and ingredients, but both of them ate much better than I expected.
Of course, when you expect them to eat half a chickpea and one spore of broccoli after twenty minutes of “negotiation,” you can’t be too disappointed.