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`My family has quite a number of very good cooks at home," says Brazilian native Nelson Diorio. "I got some of the passion for the food business from them."
At age 32, Diorio transported his culinary zeal and talents to Hartford. He introduced Brazilian cuisine to the region at Chale Ipanema restaurant in 1989, and enthusiasm for the authentic dishes continues to grow after 14 years.
"Brazilian food has a lot of influences," Diorio says. The primary origins are from the Portuguese, who colonized the region, and the Africans whom the Portuguese brought with them to work on the farms, he says.
Chale Ipanema means house of Ipanema, a section of Rio de Janeiro, where Diorio started his restaurant career at age 15. He apprenticed with chefs at upscale Brazilian restaurants and hotels before coming to the United States in 1981. Diorio immediately enrolled in a program in Vermont that specialized in teaching English needed in the food-service industry, and subsequently moved to Connecticut to study food and hotel service at Manchester Community College.
He showcased his skills at the Polytechnic Club in Hartford, Fine Bouche in the Centerbrook section of Essex and the Hartford Hilton. His colleagues continually mentioned that there was no Brazilian restaurant in the area and that, with his culinary flare and origins, he was the best person to fill that void. "I decided to take the chance," says Diorio, who bought a building on Wethersfield Avenue and opened Chale Ipanema. He has since relocated to Franklin Avenue, but the food remains Brazilian and homemade by Diorio.
Chale Ipanema's menu is dominated by seafood, beef and pork dishes, most of them Brazilian, with a few Portuguese dishes mixed in. Diorio finds it ironic that one of the more popular dishes is Bacalhau a Braz, made with dried codfish, onions, garlic, matchstick potatoes, eggs and spices. "A lot of customers, older ones, say, `My mother used to cook that.'" Diorio says. It was a dish eaten frequently by the poor, because it was inexpensive. "Today it is such a delicacy that poor people can't afford it," he says.
The national dish of Brazil, Feijoada, is most popular, with its hearty blend of black beans and smoked meats served with kale, rice and fresh oranges. It is complex and all-consuming to prepare at home, Diorio says. The chef has volunteered a simpler Brazilian dish, Galinha com Palmito, to introduce readers to a warm, rich entree with a new ingredient, hearts of palm, a food commonly eaten in salads in Brazil.
Galinha com Palmito is often served when hosting a large group of people for dinner, Diorio says. Customers who are reluctant at first to try the hearts of palm at Chale Ipanema, come back and order it over and over, the chef says. Diorio encourages diners to enjoy Brazil's unique blend of flavors, which range from banana to yucca, monkfish to smoked meat, raisins to pine nuts, sweet potatoes to collards.
GALINHA COM PALMITO
2-3 drops Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 breasts of boneless, skinless chicken
4-5 small hearts of palm
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon butter
1 shallot, chopped very fine
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh parsley, chopped fine
1 teaspoon fresh chives, chopped fine
1 pinch of fresh tarragon, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine Tabasco, lemon juice and 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil in a glass or plastic bowl. Slice raw chicken into 1-inch pieces. Add chicken to marinade. Cover and let sit 1 hour or overnight in the refrigerator.
While the chicken is soaking, strain and discard the juice from a can of hearts of palm. Remove 4 to 5 hearts of palm, cut them into 2-inch pieces and set aside in a separate bowl.
After chicken has soaked in the marinade, put a large, heavy saucepan over high heat. Put 1 tablespoon olive oil, butter and shallots in pan and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the marinated chicken and sauté over high heat for about 5 minutes until the color of the chicken changes to white. Watch the chicken and stir constantly.
Turn the heat down to medium, and add white wine. Continue cooking over medium heat until the wine is reduced by half. Add the chicken broth, tomato paste and cream. Mix thoroughly with the chicken and shallots. Simmer for 10 minutes to reduce the liquid by half. Watch and stir the sauce carefully so it does not burn or become too thick. Add the hearts of palm to chicken dish and stir ingredients until mixed thoroughly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in chopped parsley, chives and tarragon.
To serve: Put rice in the middle of the plate and surround with chicken and hearts of palm. Can be served immediately or held in a casserole on low heat. Serve with green salad on the side. Serves 2 to 3.
Chale Ipanema, at 342 Franklin Ave., Hartford, is open for lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday to Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Information: (860) 296-2120.
Mary Anne Lynch is a free-lance writer who lives in West Hartford.