My first exposure to Brazilian food, if you can call it that, was at a three-level place in New York's theater district called Cabana Carioca. At lunch on all three levels, there was an "all you can eat" buffet where rice and beans, plantains, potatoes, hearts of palm salad, baby shrimp salad, chorizo, roast chicken and macaroni were some of the offerings. Depending what level you ate, you paid a given amount. The higher you climbed, the cheaper the buffet.
On the main level was a standard, somewhat formal restaurant. I don't think I ever ate there, but maybe I did. I just don't remember. The second level, where the kitchen was located, was a bit more casual than the main level and the most popular of the three. It was on the second level where I ate most of my meals. The third level was bare bones; dark and usually empty -- used probably only when the other two levels were packed or for private parties, but still serving the restaurants' enormous portions of steaks, fish, shrimp and the specialty: feijoada, also known as the "Brazilian National Dish."
Cabana Carioca's feijoada came in a cast iron pot stuffed with black beans and a variety of meats; pork shoulder, chorizo, kidney, beef and other cuts that at the time, I could not identify. They were all coated in the black gravy of the beans and, really, since by then I was probably on my second or third caipirinha, no longer cared what I might be shoveling into my mouth.
Along with the alcohol's numbing effect, the caipirinha, as opposed to beer, helped cut through the density of the feijoada and made it much easier to navigate. The only problem was the next day's hangover from too much cachaca, the Brazilian spirit made from pressed and then distilled sugar cane juice and used to make the caipirinha.
I think the last time I had a caipirinha at Cabana Carioca was in 1998 watching Brazil lose to France in the World Cup. The restaurant, all three levels, closed soon after and now, both its caipirinha and feijoada are just memories.
I've never had the fortitude to try to resurrect the feijoada in my kitchen, but the caipirinha is a frequent guest. The ingredients are simple; cachaca (available at most liquor stores), sugar, ice, and of course limes. Despite the easy ingredients, making a really good caipirinha requires a little sweat, or, as they used to say, "elbow grease." The result, however, is well worth the effort.
What follows is the first in the "Lime Cut Three Ways" trilogy: The Caipirinha
1 or 2 limes
2 to 3 ounces of cachaca*
2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar syrup **
3-5 ice cubes
*Spirit importers are beginning to market "premium" cachaca, which really just translates into a glitzy bottle design along with an upscale marketing campaign all in the hopes of selling a much higher priced product. I advise you not to go that route when purchasing cachaca for your caipirinhas. In Brazil there are two very popular brands that are used at most restaurants and clubs in making caipirinhas and they can be found here for well under $20 a liter. Seek them out. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
**Most caipirinha recipes call for granulated sugar. I prefer pre-made sugar syrup thus skipping the "dissolving" process that is necessary in making the drink. To make simple sugar syrup, combine equal amounts of sugar and water, bring to a boil, lower the heat and let cook until the granules have dissolved. The syrup will last for weeks in your refrigerator. I like to use Demerara brown sugar for my syrup, but basic white sugar works just as well.
To make the caipirinha you will need:
1 lime muddler.
Cocktail shaker and strainer.
Cut the lime into eight or 10pieces.
Toss the lime pieces into the cocktail shaker and using your muddler, it can be a pestle, if you have a mortar and pestle, or anything that can mash and muddle lime pieces, muddle mash the lime, extracting the juice from both the rind and the pulp. Don't be stingy with that aforementioned elbow grease.
Add the sugar syrup, cachaca and a some ice cubes.
Shake vigorously and then strain into an ice cube filled glass.
Do not be fooled by the drink's petite size. It will be tempting to down it in a few gulps, but try to sip slowly. Drinking the caipirinha too hastily will only mean a quicker return to the kitchen and more work for you to make another.