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Chef Almir Da Fonseca of Sebastopol grew up on a sugar cane plantation and cattle ranch outside of Rio de Janeiro, where he butchered his first cow at age 11.

His great-grandparents hailed from Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil. There, amid the vast, grassy plains known as the Pampas, the gaucho cowboys first developed the simple "churrasco" grilling style that would become sought-after throughout Brazil and, eventually, the world.

"The Pampas is the birthplace of the churrasco (shoo-haas-koh) barbecue," Da Fonseca said. "The gaucho cowboys cooked outside, over the flames, on long skewers made of wood and metal."

With the Labor Day holiday weekend looming and the backyard beckoning, grilling enthusiasts drawn to global flavors can take a tip from these gauchos when preparing their own feast of grilled meats.

Because the gauchos ate the tougher cuts of the grass-fed beef, they developed ingenious methods for tenderizing the meat. Da Fonseca brushes his beef with a Molho Campanha marinade, a salsa-like sauce made of onions, tomatoes, green peppers and vinegar.

"The vinegar flavors and tenderizes the meat," Da Fonseca said. "The tomatoes and vinegar hit the flame, and there's a sweet and aromatic flavor that is infused into the meat."

In his 25-year-career in the San Francisco Bay Area, Da Fonseca has apprenticed with French and Italian chefs, but the food from his native Brazil has become a singular passion.

As an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Da Fonseca introduces students to his native cookery during "The Cuisine of the Americas" course.

"Brazilian food is such a beautiful food," he said. "It's colorful and flavorful, with lots of history .<TH>.<TH>. there are so many influences on the culture."

In Brazil, Da Fonseca is known as "the ambassador of Brazilian cuisine," because he goes back on a regular basis to give lectures on everything from salt-curing to sustainable cuisine.

"I'm a Brazilian-born, French-trained chef," he said. "But tropical cuisine is in your blood."

During the week, the Brazilians eat their main meal at lunch, Da Fonseca said. It usually includes rice and beans and some kind of braised stew or street food. Dinner is just a light snack.

But during the weekends, the Brazilians enjoy coming together and celebrating with a feast.

"By nature, Brazil is a religious country, and there is a lot of emphasis on getting together," Da Fonseca said. "Wherever there is a gathering, there is food, dance and music."

The churrasco barbecue, a tradition that has spread throughout Brazil and all over the globe at popular churrascaria restaurants, provides an easy vehicle for a festive street party.

"Each family on the street will bring a side dish — a salad or rice or beans," Da Fonseca said. "And they listen to samba and drink cachaca (a liquor made from fermented sugar cane) and caipirinhas (cocktails)."

If you're invited to a barbecue on the beach, be prepared for nonstop eating.

"They light up the grill at 10 a.m. and then they grill something all day long — sausages, beef and fish," he said. "They are masters of grilling."

When grilling beef, the Brazilians like to infuse flavors by adding salts and marinades. And they keep the meat moist by cooking it slowly over burning embers.

When he grills beef churrasco-style, Da Fonseca likes to use the upper loin, or sirloin, a traditional churrasco cut from behind the shoulder.

In the Northern part of Brazil, the meat is smothered in sal grosso (sea salt). The salt draws the water out and makes it moist.

After he puts the salt on the beef, Da Fonseca makes a brush out of sprigs of cilantro, parsley and rosemary, which he dips into the vinegary Molho Campanha sauce, then slathers it over the meat.

After the meat is done, Da Fonseca slices it and serves it up with some extra Molho Campanha on the side. He may also drizzle the meat with a coffee barbecue sauce, for added flavor.

"Coffee is indigenous to Brazil," he said. "And it's a great flavor profile for savory cooking."

Typical churrasco side dishes include Brazilian rice, black beans, farofa (farina that has been toasted), chard sauteed with pork fat, and a salad of chayote, hearts of palm and oranges.

Da Fonseca also likes to make barbecued chicken that he brushes with beer as it cooks. It's a popular street food on the streets of Rio.

Because he grew up surfing in the azure waters off Rio de Janeiro, Da Fonseca initially wanted to study marine biology in the U.S. and work in Brazil's oil industry.

Farming and food, however, were already in his blood. He sharpened his culinary skills at Lucas Wharf restaurant in Bodega Bay in 1984 under French chef Jacques Arpi.

"I worked my way up through every station, from dishwasher to executive chef," Da Fonseca said. "It was a full apprenticeship."

He opened his own restaurant, Jack London's Creekside Cafe in Glen Ellen, then served as corporate executive chef of the Marconi Conference Center in West Marin. He also worked as a corporate chef for Compass Group USA and Delaware North Companies.

Da Fonseca's first teaching job was with the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 2003. The transition to teaching was natural for this good-natured executive chef, who enjoys building a rapport with his students.

"I tell them, &‘You guys are the future chefs of the world,'<TH>" he said. "I need you so that I can retire.'"

Since 2007, Da Fonseca has taught everything from Mediterranean cuisine to cuisine of the Americas at the prestigious CIA at Greystone.

Since he moved to the U.S. in 1984, Da Fonseca has lived in Sebastopol, surrounded by Brazilian cookbooks and a collection of salts from 50 different countries.

He's already written about 2,000 pages of a Brazilian cookbook, which he hopes to publish in both English and Portuguese, and he recently returned from a research trip to the Amazon,

"I try to share what I know," he said. "With the globalization of cooking, people are now more open than ever to trying new flavors and recipes."

The following recipes are from Chef Almir Da Fonseca, chef instructor at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Gaucho-Style Brazilian Barbecue - Churrasco a Gaucha

Makes 6 servings

4 pieces beef sirloin with the fat cap, cut into 8-ounce pieces, folded and skewered on a large skewer

For marinade:

? cup lime juice

1/3 cup dry red wine

1 onion, finely diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons oregano, minced

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salt to taste

Combine all the marinade ingredients and marinate the meat for several hours, or overnight.

When ready to barbecue, remove meat from marinade, pat dry with paper towels, and grill on both sides to desired degree of doneness. As it cooks, take an herb brush and slap the meat with Molho Campanha. (see recipe below).

Molho Campanha

Makes 6 servings

2 onions, small dice

3 tomatoes, small dice

1 green bell pepper, small dice

1 cup white vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients well and let rest in the refrigerator for 2 hours.

Herb Brush

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

1 bunch cilantro

1 bunch oregano

1 bunch rosemary

Using a piece of butcher's twine, tie all herbs together to make the herb brush, and use to brush the molho sauce on the meat during grilling.

Brazilian Barbecue Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

1 cup ketchup

? cup water

1/3 cup vinegar

2 tablespoons instant coffee

1 teaspoon salt

? teaspoon ground pepper

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon celery seed

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

4 dashes Tabasco sauce

Mix all ingredients in a sauce pan and cook over low heat for about 30 to 40 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste. Drizzle over the grilled beef.

Chayote Salad with Hearts of Palm and Oranges

Makes 8 servings

1 chayote, peeled, julienned

4 ounces hearts of palm, julienned

4 ounces carrots, julienned

2 oranges, peeled and sectioned, juice reserved

1 bunch scallions, sliced thin

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lime

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chiffonaded

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chiffonaded

Cut the chayote, hearts of palm and carrots as directed and mix gently in a bowl with the orange sections and scallions.

Make a dressing with the oil, lime juice, sugar, reserved orange juice, salt and pepper. Add this to the salad with the chopped herbs and mix well.

Grilled Spring Chicken

Makes 6 servings

3 spring chickens, cut into halves

For marinade:

? cup white wine

2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves peeled garlic

1 cup olive oil

1 bottle beer

Place the marinade ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Marinate the chicken overnight in the fridge.

At grilling time, place the chickens on large skewers and season with salt and pepper. Using an herb brush (see recipe above), brush the chicken every five minutes with beer until done.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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