At 6 AM one Saturday in September, Jacinta knocked on my door with bags full of black beans, rice, sausages, salted pork, dried beef, collard greens, manioc flour, garlic, and oranges. Her car was on the street with open doors and a backseat full of pressure cookers. She had come to our house to prepare a feijoada, and excitement had been building for a week.
Jacinta is regarded as the feijoada master by an extended circle of Brazilian families who live in the Washington DC area. She is often hired to prepare the meal for birthday celebrations, family gatherings, church fundraisers, or sometimes, just as excuse for a party! We had had asked for Jacinta’s help in preparing a birthday feast for my mother-in-law who was visiting from Brazil, and my plan was to learn the secrets of the intimidating dish from the master!
Feijoada is a slow-cooked black bean stew, full of pork, sausage and dried beef. Born of ingenuity and necessity, the story of the Brazilian version of the dish starts with slaves and a pig. When a pig was butchered on a plantation, the “undesirable” bits (the ears, feet, tail, snout etc.) were given to the slaves as a supplement to their standard diet of rice and beans. By slowly cooking the tough scraps of pork and other meats with black beans, a hearty stew was created that became so much more than the sum of its parts. Over the years, the recipe for Feijoada evolved, and the meal has secured its place in the hearts of Brazilians everywhere. Today, Feijoada is more an event than a dish – served bountifully with steamed white rice, farofa (fried, seasoned manioc flour), garlicky ribbons of sautéed collard greens, and slices of orange – always accompanied by a generous helping of friends and family.
Brushing past me that morning with a flurry of kisses and Bom Dias, Jacinta went straight for the kitchen and set to work. First, the beans… she sorted them to eliminate rocks and ugly ones, rinsed them, and put them on the stove in large pressure cooker pots. Next, her practiced hands set to work cutting Carne Seca (dried beef), smoked pork, dried sausages, and salted pork ribs with a loudly thunking knife – adding the meats to the slowly cooking beans as she went. I have watched her cook for years, and tried unsuccessfully to recreate the dish in the past, but I thought this time would be different. This time I would learn the secret! Throughout the morning Jacinta bantered happily in Portuguese with my mother-in-law, but was less than forthcoming with cooking tips… I watched, helped where I could, took notes when no one was looking, and tried to absorb as much information as possible.
At a certain mysterious point, Jacinta decided it was time, and lids were added to the pressure cooker pots. Soon, an occasional hiss of steam signaled that feijoada was bubbling away on pressurized autopilot. As the house became fragrant, Jacinta was still working hard preparing the side dishes – deftly chopping garlic, washing and julienning the collard greens, cooking white rice, slicing oranges, and frying farofa in a deep skillet.
Before noon, Jacinta announced she was finished and gave us some final instructions finishing and serving. She had another feijoada to prepare and was off as quickly as she came, leaving me only slightly more enlightened in the ways of the mysterious dish than the last time I had seen her prepare it. I was happy for the experience, but frustrated that I STILL did not have the recipe worked out.
It was not until later, after the day melted into a happy blur of guests, toasts, laughter, and family, that the real secret of Feijoada revealed itself to me.
Feijoada is not about a specific recipe or technique, but the convivial atmosphere the meal fosters, the hours spent in the kitchen with family and friends cooking, toasting with loved ones over a traditional and historical meal. The rest? Well, that comes with experience…
Anyone want to come over for Feijoada? I need an excuse for a party.