There has been plenty of press about Brazil lately. Their national depression over losses in the recent World Cup barely registered with me. Reported problems readying venues for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro seem a minor glitch. These things usually work themselves out. Even if, at the deadline, there is little hot water in the hotels, as Sochi 2014. The Games must go on!
My interest in Brazil comes not from sports. It begins with a recipe that solved my first-dinner-party-dilemma when we lived in Singapore. An overseas friend recently reminded me of this. She was there, and it saved her too.
Mary was present in my life in the first three of our five international settings. We met in Singapore as part of a group of friends and families who celebrated Thanksgiving and went on beach holidays together. Then, in Cyprus in the early 1990s we became better friends. She lived in the apartment above us and was our son’s third grade teacher.
When Mary wanted to make a plan with me, an empty coffee can was lowered from her balcony, above our terrace, on a piece of string. When I saw a tin can swaying in the breeze, I knew there would be a folded piece of paper inside with a note: “Meet after school for a brisk walk” or “Come up for a wee dram of scotch”. Often it was both. Later, in Taiwan, we were part of a group of women who bonded in weekly TGIF afternoons in each other’s homes. Our “Wine and Unwind” parties solved most of the world’s problems during those years.
During our first year in Singapore we accepted many invitations to dinners, parties, and holiday events. By the second year, we were past due in repaying friends for their kindness. At the time, I barely cooked and had nothing dinner party worthy in my repertoire. I consulted cookbooks and fretted about what to make.
For the family I stuck to one-dish meals, everything mixed together without the fuss of separate courses. In planning a party, I took M.F.K. Fisher’s advice to heart. She said an in-home dinner party is best when served to no more than six invited guests. Since that required several weekend party paybacks, I needed a menu that was repeatable, too.
Singapore is awash in fresh seafood and world-class cuisine. The spicy mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian food cultures always made eating out an adventure. In the late 1980s, we frequently dined at a seaside restaurant on Punggol Point. The specialty was chili crab that made our lips and faces sting. It was served with thick white bread to mop up the sauce. No one stopped eating until the table was a littered mess of shells, claws and sauce. We ate with our hands, wearing a paper bib. When finished, chili sauce covered both hands, went up the arms, and was smeared across cheeks and chin. Hoses were conveniently available.
The other Singaporean dish I fell for was Nonya Laksa. This is from the Peranakan culture, a combination of Chinese and Malaysian cuisine. It’s a coconut curry-based soup with noodles, vegetables, prawns, and hardboiled quail’s eggs. I lost my taste buds to the heat of spices in this soup and never looked back. A walk from our apartment down Emerald Hill Road to the restaurant at Peranakan Place on Orchard Road is where I learned to eat this national treasure. It’s a double whammy to sweat from the heat and humidity of tropical temperatures while sweating from spicy food in an un-air-conditioned cafe. We adapted. And loved it all.
It was a different friend who solved the dinner party menu dilemma. Knowing that I needed simple and foolproof, she suggested Brazilian Shrimp Stew–a one-dish wonder. Finding fresh shrimp and produce was easy. Cooking everything all together in a large pan, even easier. A portion of rice for any size appetite with shrimp stew swimming over the top seemed like a hostess’ dream. Easy preparation, plenty of time for socializing with guests and a repeatable result, I couldn’t ask for more.
Mary and her husband were invited to one of the dinners. Like me, she was [and is] uninspired by daily cooking. This easy-to-make stew not only caught her attention with its’ spicy coconut shrimp tastiness, she carried it forward to her own in-house entertaining. Mary reminded me of eating shrimp stew first under our roof, then making it her own success story.
We both thank the Brazilians for saving two non-cooks from dinner party angst many years ago.
Preparing and enjoying Shrimp Stew is for everyone who loves Brazil, her fanatic football fans, and the simplicity of a guest-worthy one-dish meal. Just add dessert.
BRAZILIAN SHRIMP STEW
- 1 kg [2.2 lbs] peeled shrimp
- 1/4 C. olive oil
- 1/4 C. chili oil
- 4-5 large fresh tomatoes, diced, or 1 large can diced tomatoes [do not drain or seed tomatoes]
- 1 large onion, chopped [or a combination of red and white onion]
- 1 large green, yellow or orange bell pepper, chopped [or all three]
- 3 T. parsley [fresh is best, cut with scissors]
- 6-7 crushed garlic cloves [or more]
- fresh red or green hot peppers, chopped and seeded [optional, or to taste]
- 1 t. salt
- ¼ t. pepper
- ½ can unsweetened coconut milk [or the whole can because what else will you do with the rest?]
Heat oils. Add all ingredients except coconut milk. Cook 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add coconut milk. Serve over rice.
Use chopped green onions and fresh lime wedges as garnish. Squeeze fresh lime juice over the stew, table side. Serve with good bread to soak up the sauce.
In Mary’s words: “I have made this recipe many times. Since you don’t specify how many it feeds, I just add more of everything if it doesn’t look like enough.” Spoken like a true non-cook who adapts.
I made this recipe amount recently and it easily serves six people.