This recipe is a very typical one for northeastern-style paçoca. It comes from the semi-arid interior of the state of Alagoas though similar recipes can be found throughout the region known as the sertão which extends for thousands of mile in a number of northeastern states. An area that is castigated periodically by harsh droughts, it's a region of cattle ranching, subsistence farming and little more.
Historically, the cowherds who wrangled the hers of cattle in the sertão were often out on the land for weeks or months at a time. They needed a food that was nutritious, filling and which didn't spoil in the intense heat of the stony plains. Paçoca fit the bill perfectly - it was nutrious, combining as it did dried and shredded beef and manioc flour; it was filling, with it's large carbohydrate component; and it didn't spoil, as the beef was salted and sun-dried prior to being shredded. All that a cowboy needed to do do reconstitute paçoca was add some hot water to the dry mix to moisten the ingredients and eat it. Perfect cowboy food.
What was once eaten as a necessity by long-ago cowherds has become a favorite food of northeastern Brazilians, in the large coastal metropolises as well as on the cattle ranches that still dot the sertão . To make paçoca outside Brazil can be a challenge, as the recipe requires carne de sol (sun-dried beef) and farinha (manioc flour.). Making acceptable carne de sol is quite easy as long as you have access to a freezer (click here to read how to make carne de sol at home), but you'll need to source farinha somewhere. Other flours, like wheat or ground corn, are not acceptable substitutes. Farinha can be found at Brazilian and Latin American markets in cities that have a Brazilian immigrant community.
RECIPE - Backlands-style Paçoca (Paçoca Sertaneja)
2 lb (1 kg) carne de sol, desalted
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 Tbsp butter
1 lb (1/ kg) fine manioc flour (farinha)
finely chopped green onion and cilantro to garnish (optional)
Cut the carne de sol into small cubes. Put the cubes in a medium saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, then cook at a slow boil for 15 minutes. Taste one cube for salt. If the meat seems overly-salty, drain the cubes, cover again with fresh water and repeat the process. Reserve.
In a large frying pan, heat the butter, then add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is tender and transparent. Do not let them brown. Add the cubes of meat and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is nicely browned on all sides. Remove the cubes, reserving the butter they were cooked in.
Put the cubes of meat in a blender or food processor and pulse until the meat is shredded (do not over-process. You want shreds of meat, not ground meat). Alternatively, and more traditionally, you can shred the meat by pounding with a mortar and pestle.
Return the shredded meat to the frying pan with the reserved butter. Reheat the meat then add the manioc flour in handfuls, mixing each in completely. Stop when the mixture is still slightly moist - it should not be completely dry.
Put into a decorative serving bowl. Garnish with chopped green onion and cilantro if desired. Serve immediately.