Brazil is preparing to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup this summer, with 12 host cities across the country building new stadiums, or renovating old ones, in anticipation of the biggest, single-event sporting competition in the world.
But first, the South American country famous for its "beautiful game" will get flashy with its flesh this week, as the world's largest street party — Carnaval — reaches an intoxicating climax on Fat Tuesday.
The 12-week, pre-Lenten party, exploding from the Northeast cities of Recife and Salvador to the Southeast cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, is accompanied by indigenous dishes as colorful and varied as its scantily clad, costumed revelers.
Brazilian cuisine boasts a unique hybrid of Portuguese and Afro-Brazilian traditions, offering many ways to fatten up before Lent, when the Roman Catholic country literally bids "goodbye to flesh" and abstains from eating meat.
While the Portuguese settlers brought collards and kale, salt cod and dried shrimp to Brazil, the Africans contributed their own smorgasbord, including okra, malagueta peppers, palm oil, peanuts, coconut and coconut milk.
In a cooking class this month at the Savory Spice Shop in Santa Rosa, cooking instructor Jennifer Torrey introduced locals to a few of Brazil's most venerable dishes, from the pork'n'bean extravaganza known as Feijoada to Vatap? a spicy, seafood stew.
Rounding out the menu, she shared a recipe for the beloved Pao de Queijo, a gluten-free cheese bread made with tapioca flour.
"I think most people are coming for the bread," Torrey said. "Everyone has either had it or heard of it."
Like many of the country's most popular dishes, the bread originated in the kitchens of African slaves who were brought to Brazil to work the sugar cane plantations of the Northeast.
After soaking the manioc root in water, the slaves would scrape the leftover starch into balls that they baked. Later, cheese was added for extra flavor and texture.
Torrey bakes the irresistible Cheese Bread from scratch, using the traditional tapioca flour that was once difficult to source here.
"You can find it everywhere now because it is gluten free," said Torrey. "They have it at Safeway."
Feijoada, known as the national dish of Brazil, has its roots in the Portuguese word for "beans" (feijao), but traces its roots back to the African slaves, who were often given the cheap beans and the unwanted remains of the pig to eat.
Rich or poor, Brazilians from all walks of life now enjoy the hearty stew with white rice and various condiments, including oranges, collard greens and farofa, a toasted manioc flour.
Like the humble paella of Spain, the dish provides sustenance but, more importantly, an excuse to party with family and friends on weekends.
Torrey, whose 15-year-old daughter raises pigs for 4-H, makes her Feijoada with pork from her own animals: neck bones for flavoring the black beans plus smoked hamhocks, pork shoulder, spicy chorizo pork sausage and smoked linguica sausage. She also throws in corned beef and cooks the beans in beef stock to boost the meaty flavor of the broth.
Vatap? a sinfully delicious seafood stew, hails from the Northeast city of Salvador da Bahia, where its African roots have been traced back to the Yoruba people of West Nigeria.
While there are limitless variations, key ingredients for the stew include ground nuts, chiles, palm oil and coconut milk, providing a luxurious texture as well as a nice kick of heat.
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