This past Sunday, my friend, Dipti Mistry, invited me to cook an authentic Indian meal…
Though Cidalia Brocca, a native of Porto Alegre, Brazil, has lived just two houses away from me for a few years, we only met once, at a neighbor’s home in February, 2020. At that time, we promised to get together again and visit each other’s homes but then…the PANDEMIC! This week, we finally fulfilled that promise! Cidalia accepted my invitation to be featured in Prime Time for Women’s blog, “A Yummy Year: Cultures, Cooking & Connections.” Agreeing to be my “cultural chef” for July, Cidalia arrived at my door on an exceedingly hot afternoon loaded down with a large bag containing the scrumptious ingredients to make Brazilian Light Moqueca.
Even before unloading the food, Cidalia peered out the kitchen window at our garden and said, “My husband, Joel, and I have admired your garden and watched your husband care for it from a distance for years. Now I can finally appreciate the beauty of his hard work up close.” With that, we walked outside and strolled through the garden. Cidalia admired the water lilies in the pond and oohed and aahed over the colorful flowers (bee balm, black-eyed Susan, heliopsis, day lilies, roses), aromatic herbs, and fresh vegetables ripening in the sun. We ambled over to stone patio, situated in the relatively cool shade beneath the overarching maple and birch trees, and started talking. Though excited about our cooking adventure, I also wanted to learn more about my neighbor from another land and hear her stories…the moqueca could wait a little while longer!
In no time at all, though we grew up on different continents speaking different languages, we discovered we had much in common! C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’” This quote perfectly described the birth of our new friendship! Turns out we are both gregarious extroverts that revel at every chance to connect with longtime friends or meet new people. We talk a lot, laugh even more and love to cook. Many years ago, we both married our high school sweethearts, both introverts who complement our outgoing personalities. Sharing our stories of meeting our husbands as teenagers, we marveled over the fact that combined we have been married close to 100 years. How is that even possible!!!
Seated in the shade, I asked Cidalia when she and her family came to the United States. In an unharried manner, Cidalia shared a fascinating story of multiple international moves and incredible job opportunities and talked of the amazing friendships and connections she made along the way. After marrying Joel in 1972, Cidalia came to the U.S. with their two-year-old daughter in 1979 to seek employment. “I was so fortunate. My mother-in-law, who lived near Washington, D.C., was able to watch my daughter while I looked for work and attended school to improve my chances of getting a job.” In a relatively short time, Cidalia secured a position at the Inter-American Defense College (IADC) and Joel joined her in the U.S. where they created a life together, working and raising their two daughters, Alessandra and Clarissa. Cidalia loved working at the IADC where she provided academic support for military officers attending the college. “It was a wonderful job! The faculty, staff and student body were all international and we worked together as colleagues and often became good friends.” Later, Cidalia accepted a position with the World Bank and started a career that would span 27 years, working in multiple capacities in both the United States and Brazil.
Anxious to start cooking and with the humidity seemingly getting worse by the minute, we returned to the comfort of my air-conditioned kitchen. I’m so glad we chatted on the patio because once back inside, Cidalia was a cooking whirlwind! She proceeded to unpack the food from the bag she had carried up the street from her home to mine. On to the counter she placed yellow and green peppers, jalapeno pepper, garlic, tomatoes, onion, rice, lemon, olive oil, cilantro, a can of coconut milk and a container which held cod and shrimp marinating in freshly squeezed lemon juice. Instacart advertises, “Whatever you want from local stores, brought right to your door.” Who needs Instacart…I had Cidalia! Lucky me!
As Cidalia prepped the ingredients, she explained that moqueca is a Brazilian Seafood Stew, usually prepared in a special clay pot and served over rice. We started with the rice. According to Cidalia, the secret to preparing delicious rice is patience. She explained that it’s important to slowly sauté onion and garlic in neutral oil before adding the rice. Cidalia added, “Only after ensuring that every grain of rice is coated in oil, then and only then, should you add the water and bay leaves.” After doing just that, Cidalia brought the rice to a boil and covered the pot before turning the heat to the lowest setting possible, giving the rice time to slowly absorb the liquid. Laughing, Cidalia said, “My daughter recently married, and my new Scottish son-in-law now likes to prepare what he calls ‘Patient Rice’.”
With the rice cooking on the stovetop, we moved on to the next step. Cidalia chopped the onion, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers for the stew. Not having a special moqueca clay pot, I heated olive oil in a large pan to which Cidalia added the shrimp. “Cook the shrimp just until they start to turn pink and then remove them. You don’t want to overcook them,” Cidalia advised. When the shrimp were pink, I scooped them into a bowl and Cidaila added the onions a little more oil. Once the onions were soft and transparent, she added first the peppers and then three minutes later the garlic. With the fragrant aroma of garlic wafting through the kitchen, it was time to add the tomatoes, paprika and salt and pepper. Cidailia explained that this recipe is easily adapted to please different palates. “If you like it spicy, add more paprika, jalapeño or red pepper flakes. And feel free to add more lemon juice if that’s your pleasure.” I asked, “Are traditional Brazilian foods hot and spicy?” According to Cidalia, Brazilian cuisine is diverse and encompasses many ethnic traditions, however she said, “Generally the food in the North is spicier than the food from the South, where I am from.”
When the vegetables were tender, Cidalia gently nestled the cod among the vegetables, seasoned it with salt and pepper and then poured coconut milk into the pan and over the fish. Cidalia said, “Bring the soup to a simmer, reduce the heat, cover and cook until the fish flakes, approximately 15 minutes.” OMG…the aroma of the gently simmering fish stew made my mouth water! In no time at all, Cidalia declared the fish, “Done to perfection!” She returned the shrimp to the stew, tossed it gently and then added a garnish of fresh, chopped cilantro. It was beautiful! Lots of color: reds, yellows, greens all floating in a creamy white broth that was pleasing to the eye and I knew would taste delicious!
Usually, I share a meal with my “cultural chefs”, the women I cook with each month. But Cidalia had a different plan. “This is for you and your husband, for your dinner tonight! I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed cooking with you. This was so much fun! Thank you.” And then she gathered up her possessions and left. It was like a magic fairy had appeared in my kitchen, granted me two of my three wishes, and then disappeared. I wished to make a new friend, learn about and celebrate another culture and visit Cidalia in her home. The first two wishes were granted before she left but the third would have to wait. And then…two hours later I found Cidalia’s cell phone on my kitchen counter. There was nothing else to do but walk to her home and return it to her! My third wish was granted as she welcomed me to her house and beckoned me through the door to meet her husband and daughter. Perhaps Cidalia left her phone on purpose…those magic fairies can be tricky!
Note: See Cidalia’s recipe in the photos or check out a very similar recipe here.