Chef Boy Ari here, reporting from one of my favorite kitchens in the world, the vegetarian kitchen of the Lothlorien Retreat Center in the Chapada Diamantina, Bahia, Brazil.
The Chapada rises from the sertao (Brazilian drylands) into spectacular flat-topped, sheer-sided mesas that beg to be explored. The valleys between the mesas are laced with clear rivers, waterfalls and hidden forests. Little known outside of Brazil, the Chapada is one of the country’s outdoor Meccas, popular with hikers, climbers, cavers and other such types.
I’m here with a group of students studying agriculture and community in Brazil. The Chapada has plenty of both to offer, including an intentional community whose members work together in the fields and eat the produce together at the shared eating area. Brazil also has its share of unintentional communities, also known as villages, that have evolved over time.
Lothlorien is something else altogether. It began as a small intentional community of several families who bought land together and lived on it, growing their food and earning income in a variety of ways. Rather than remaining isolated from the outside community, as many intentional communities do, the people of Lothlorien have reached out to the greater community in the valley, opening a school for the local kids, creating a library that all are welcome to browse, and offering a free health clinic once a month. They also built some beautiful dwellings to house tourists who use Lothlorien as a base camp from which to explore the Chapada.
The Lothlorien kitchen is staffed by four local women, including Geu, the head chef and a personal friend of Chef Boy Ari. Geu created many of the recipes that are served here, including the carrot mayonnaise dish that I wrote about last week. I like the Lothlorien kitchen for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that there are no OSHA regulations to worry about, and I can flutter around wearing nothing but my new Brazilian “grape smuggler.” No shirt, no shoes, no problem. And because the cooks like to drink a lot of juice as they work, there’s never any shortage of watermelon, mango, pineapple and passion fruit juice. And finally, I like the Lothlorien kitchen because everywhere I turn, I learn something. Lunch always begins with a salad of shredded beets, shredded carrots and shredded cabbage. For reasons I never quite figured out, they don’t believe in vinegar at Lothlorien, so the salad was dressed with a mixture of oil, soy sauce and a paste of toasted sesame seeds. Although I would have liked a nice vinaigrette from time to time, I wasn’t complaining. This salad dressing tasted really good, and after the meals I always felt great. How you feel after eating is an important but often overlooked criteria for determining what to eat.
To liven up whatever was on the table, there was always a jar of homemade pimenta, or pepper sauce. Nearly every kitchen in Brazil has its own version of pimenta. Geu’s is extremely simple: Pack a jar with little hot peppers, crushed garlic and a little salt, and add oil. Leave the jar at room temperature and the oil will absorb the heat and flavor from the peppers. A spoonful of oil from that jar is a worthwhile addition to any dish.
Meanwhile, down the road from Lothlorien, in the village of Caete-Acu, there is a little bar on the corner of the plaza that mixes one hell of a caipiringa. To munch alongside your caipiringa, they also sell chicken dumplings, which are a perfect vehicle for their homemade hot sauce, which might be my favorite hot sauce in all of Brazil. To make it, put a few habañero peppers in a blender with oil, vinegar, garlic and cumin, and blend it all together. Sorry I can’t give you exact proportions, but getting even that much from the cagey barmaid was like pulling teeth, and so far away from my lab, I don’t have the means to fine-tune the recipe. If any of you home researchers discover a good set of proportions for this recipe, please let me know. In the meantime, please be careful with those habeñeros. Always wash your hands after handling them!
Back in Geu’s kitchen, I learned an amazingly simple recipe for a pasta dish that I couldn’t stop eating. The sauce is called Molho de Tomate Cru, which means raw tomato sauce. This is a great one to squirrel away for summer time, when all of the ingredients will be fresh. Or, if you can’t wait, take advantage of our global economy and go buy the stuff right now, imported from Chile.
In a blender, combine a pound of chopped tomatoes, 1/4 cup olive oil, four cloves of garlic and two tablespoons chopped basil. Blend it together and salt to taste. Heat just until it warms, but don’t boil. Serve on top of pasta with grated parmesan cheese. Try to stop eating before you get too bloated.