Regional Brazilian restaurants are still not hot, hot, hot in the U.S.—but the buffet bars at the fairly popular Brazilian BBQ places are giving lots of Americans a broader taste of Brazilian cuisine. The management of these restaurants, perhaps anticipating someone in the party who doesn’t eat meat, often provides a fish stew on the buffet—and, more often than not, it’s a Bahian-style stew called moqueca. Bahia, a region far north of Rio de Janeiro (and therefore much more tropical), has a wild cuisine that combines Portuguese elements (like dried shrimp) and African elements (like dendê oil—a rich orange oil that comes from the African palm). Moqueca, with its coconut-milk base and its profusion of fresh cilantro, is a wonderful, eye-opening, little-known stew that will someday be a world classic—and not just as a substitute for beef. Serve with white rice, and a brace of caipirinhas, the great Brazilian cocktail.
Makes 2 main-course servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped (or more to taste)
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
leaves from 1 sprig thyme, chopped (or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves)
1 bay leaf
a 13 1/2-ounce can of unsweetened coconut milk
1 pound firm-fleshed fish, such as cod, boneless, cut in 1″ cubes
1 tablespoon dendê oil (see NOTE)
1 loosely packed cup of roughly chopped cilantro leaves
1. Heat the vegetable oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, and add the onions. Cook until onions are soft, about 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic, green pepper and jalapeno, and cook until the peppers are tender (about 5 minutes), stirring frequently so the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the tomato, thyme and bay leaf; continue to cook until the mixture looks dry, about 10 minutes (stir occasionally to make sure the tomatoes don’t stick.)
2. Add the coconut milk, stirring to combine. Reduce heat to medium; continue to cook until the coconut milk is reduced by one quarter and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
3. Add the fish to the simmering sauce and cook just until the fish is just done, about 5 minutes. Gently stir in the dendê oil and the cilantro leaves, reserving a few leaves for the top. Serve immediately.
NOTE: Dendê oil is a palm oil available at stores selling either Brazilian or African products. If you can’t find it, expeller pressed coconut oil is an acceptable substitute.