Coconut groves, cacoa plantation, palm trees and seemingly endless white beaches: this is Bahia, the tropical state in northeastern Brazil where our food appreciation classes have landed this week on their virtual world food tour. Bahia is the fourth-largest of Brazil’s 26 states and in addition to being a major exporter of cacoa is now an important maker of automobiles. It is also home to what many consider one of Brazil’s signature dishes, moqueca de peixe, an intoxicating fish stew.
Moqueca can be made many ways and with all kinds of fishes, but it would hardly be moqueca without coconut milk and an ingredient we rarely see in our part of the world–dende oil, extracted from the kernel of palm fruits. Lobster-red in color and quite thick, dende is typically sold in small bottles and looks for all the world like Louisiana hot sauce. But the flavor is completely different, mild but utterly distinct and nutlike. It tastes faintly like walnut and is used as a flavoring, not for cooking. Imagine this bright red oil stirred into a pot of coconut milk.
You should be able to find dende oil if you have a Brazilian or African market nearby. The African version is said to be much stronger. You can also find it for sale online.
Moqueca is a wonderful way to deliver the benefits of the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut, along with healthful fish. To make our moqueca we used tilapia. Tilapia certainly is not the kind of fish you would be catching in the waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. It is a freshwater fish. But we like it because tilapia, originally from the Nile River in Africa, is now farmed sustainably here in the U.S. and other countries such as Ecuador. It is vegetarian, so other fish do not need to be exploited to feed it. Tilapia is reasonably priced compared to other seafood and its mild flesh does a great job of picking up the tropical flavors in our stew.
To start, cut 1 pound of tilapia fillets into bite-size pieces and toss in a bowl with the juice of 1 lime. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate while you make the rest of the stew.
You will need to cut into small dice 1/2 onion, 1/2 green bell pepper and 1/2 red bell pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons coconut oil (or olive oil) at the bottom of a heavy pot, toss in the diced vegetables, season with salt and sweat the vegetables over moderately low heat until they are soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped, and cook another minute or two. Stir in 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with their juices, 1 14-ounce can coconut milk and a generous pinch (or grind) hot red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil. When the soup begins to bubble, gently add the marinated fish plus 1 bunch each of cilantro and parsley, roughly chopped (about 3 tablespoons each of chopped cilantro and parsley leaves).
Boil gently until the fish is cooked through. Then drizzle in 1 tablespoon dende oil. The stew will take on an exotic orange hue. Ladle it into shallow bowls and garnish with more chopped cilantro. You can serve wedges of lime on the side and transport everyone at the table to a sandy beach in Bahia.
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