Vitals: Leticia Schwartz grew up in Rio de Janeiro on Brazilian fare (think feijoada and pan de queijo), transformed into food she calls “magical” by her family’s cook, Dilma. She’s now assigned herself the task of bringing the taste of Brazil to households across the United States. With her highly acclaimed cookbook, “The Brazilian Kitchen: 100 Classic and Contemporary Recipes for the Home Cook” and her very own boutique culinary company offering recipe development, cooking classes and food styling, Chef Leticia is well on her way to fulling her mission.
Experience: Schwartz always loved cooking – “my mother was thrilled that I loved cooking, particularly because she didn’t cook it much!” and travels as a young adult to Europe exposed her to the world of fine culinary style. After finishing up her college studies in Brazil, Schwartz moved to New York City and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. She graduated with dual degrees in culinary and pastry arts and took refined her technique in kitchens at refined New York institutions like Le Cirque 2000 and La Grenouille before moving to Connecticut with her husband, where she now is in the midst of working on a cookbook focusing solely on the diverse cuisine of her hometown, Rio de Janeiro.
On her favorite food memory: “My earliest memories surrounding food always feature Dilma, our wonderful cook. She was the one who encouraged me to take part in the activity in the kitchen – I didn’t learn to cook with my mother or grandmother, just her. I remember being just six years old, what I first made under her eye. We rolled out brigadeiro (chocolate-fudge balls made from condensed milk and cocoa powder) and there was nothing as fun to me in that moment, making the balls and feeling like I was able to do it all by myself. To this day, I make brigadeiro with my children as a way for them to experience that feeling.”
Her love for Brazilian cuisine: “What many people don’t realize is that there’s so much more to Brazilian cooking – people assume it’s extraordinarily exotic or just barbeque. Instead, our food is a mixture of many different cultures: primarily Portugese, the native Amazonian Indians and the African. So these influences are really the foundation of Brazilian cuisine and what’s so fascinating is that everything we do in Brazil – from music to culture to the arts – is a mixture of those three and is mirrored in the face of our people. There’s no end to the discovery that is Brazilian cuisine because there is always something to discover along the coast or inland thanks to the melting pot of those three influences, and of course, I can’t leave out Asian and Italian influences – delicious and endlessly inspiring.”
Five summer ingredients she can’t live without: “I can’t live without limes to make caprihinas! They’re so utterly delicious and refreshing in the summer. And of course, black beans – that’s what I grew up on. In Rio and in other parts of Brazil, many other types of beans are used, but Brazil is a black bean nation. I also love sweetened condensed milk, a product that was introduced to Brazil in the early 1900s and which is an integral part of Brazilian desserts and cocktails. I also love coconut for summer desserts, whether it’s in a cake or something creamy. Salt cod is also a favorite and it’s perfect in every season.”
Her secret to the perfect churrasco: “Churrasco is one of those things that’s deceptively easy to make and will make you the star of any party you host. The secret is to season your meat at least 24 hours in advance – Brazilians prefer beef and pork – with plenty of salt, pepper, olive oil and two cloves of garlic per pound of meat. You should grate the garlic to the point where it’s a mash. If you only crush the garlic atop the meat, those pieces of garlic will burn on the grill. You absolutely must let the meat come to room temperature and then use a very clean, hot grill for the meat. Let the meat rest after cooking it and I can assure you, everyone will love it. I’m hosting a churrasco party this holiday weekend and I’ll be serving up churrasco with chicken, rice and stewed black beans and farofa (toasted cassava crumbs). Of course, chimichurri (a parsley-garlic sauce) is completely optional and not always served in Brazil, but I love it so will have plenty!”