Brazilian Fish Stew with Manioc Polenta and Preserved Peppers Sauce

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

Another extraordinary Brazilian fish stew, this one uses a whole netful of fish. The manioc flour is cooked into a savory mush with the fish cooking liquid. You have some leeway in choosing what kind of fish you’d like to cook up (the Brazilians prefer the cheaper, oilier varieties like bluefish and mackerel), but pick varieties of approximately equal size so they’ll all be done at the same time. Any good fishmonger will sell you the fish parts for the stock, but order ahead to be sure. Moqueca is definitely party fare, as it cannot be made for fewer than eight hungry people.

NotesThis quintessentially Bahian meal was contributed by Yara Roberts.

Preserved peppers in vinegar, palm oil, and manioc flour are available at Latin American and Brazilian markets.

How to make friends with a coconut

Dealing with a coconut in an American kitchen can be quite a frustrating experience—especially in an apartment kitchen, where most of the old-fashioned instructions just don’t work (“To crack the coconut, throw it repeatedly onto a hard surface, such as concrete”). Here is our method for establishing a better working relationship with your coconut: When cracking the coconut, work over a medium bowl, so that when the coconut opens you can collect the coconut liquid (this clear liquid is not coconut milk). Cradle the coconut in the palm of one hand, and grasp a hammer with the other hand. Rotating the coconut in your hand as if it were a ball, knock firmly with the hammer around the coconut’s equator. (We learned this method from a Brazilian lady who tapped the coconut in a jaunty conga rhythm, rolling it in her hand like a star baseball player.) Eventually, depending on the age of the coconut and your aggressiveness with the hammer, the coconut will crack, and its liquid will be caught in the bowl. An alternative method, one that skeptics or the weak-hearted may prefer, is to first pierce the soft “eyes” of the coconut with an ice pick or a hammer and nail. Then place the coconut on a baking sheet in a preheated 350F oven and bake it for 20 to 30 minutes, which shrinks the flesh slightly from the shell, making it easier to crack. Working over the bowl, hold the coconut in one hand and knock it a few times with the hammer to crack it. But learning to open the coconut dexterously, without the trip to the oven, saves you plenty of time.

To peel the coconut, pry the coconut flesh out of the shell with a small sharp knife. Using a vegetable peeler, peel the dark skin from the flesh. The peeling is an optional step, as the skin will not affect the flavor, but it is normally done for visual effect. To shred or grate the coconut, the quickest, most efficient tool is a heavy-duty food processor fitted with the finest shredding blade available. If you are making desserts or candies, where a delicate, fluffy texture is desired, it’s best to finely shred the coconut on a hand grater’s small holes (but not the tiny ones for grating nutmeg and the like). Coarsely grated coconut will not hold together well, and its rough texture is unpleasant.

To make about 3 cups of fresh unsweetened coconut milk, break or chop the coconut flesh into 1-inch pieces. In batches in a blender or food processor (the blender works best), process the coconut pieces with the reserved clear coconut liquid and 3 cups boiling water until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl, and let it stand for 30 minutes. Then take a large piece of cheesecloth (about 16 inches square), rinse it, and squeeze it dry. Set a sieve over a medium bowl, and line it with the cheesecloth. Pour the coconut mixture into the lined sieve, gather up the ends of the cloth, and squeeze every last bit of the liquid into the bowl. This is the coconut milk.


Total Timehalf-day


Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, peanut free, soy free



Taste and Texturecreamy, hot & spicy, nutty, savory, spiced


  • 5 pounds fish heads, scraps, or bones (non-oily varieties such as cod, snapper, or scrod), in any combination
  • Shrimp shells from 1½ pounds medium shrimp (see Moqueca, below)
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed through a garlic press
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 parsley sprigs
  • 1½ quarts water
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon chopped hot red peppers preserved in vinegar (see Note)
  • 3 tablespoons minced onion
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 pounds fish steaks, (such as cod, kingfish, bluefish, or mackerel), cut 1 inch thick
  • 1½ pounds medium shrimp, shelled and deveined, shells reserved for stock (see above)
  • 1 pound large sea scallops
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 4 scallions, chopped
  • 2 cups Fish Stock (see above)
  • 6 plum tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 1 (14-ounce) can peeled plum tomatoes in juice, drained and chopped
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 cup coconut milk (see Notes)
  • 2 tablespoons palm oil (optional; see Note)
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 12 mussels, well scrubbed and debearded
  • ½ pound fresh crabmeat, picked over to remove cartilage
  • 2½ cups Fish Stock (see above)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1½ cups manioc flour (see Note)


  1. Make the fish stock: In a 5-quart Dutch oven or soup kettle, combine the fish parts, shrimp shells, onion, garlic, scallions, bay leaf, and parsley. Add the water and bring to a boil over high heat, skimming off any foam that rises to the top. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer until reduced to about 5 cups, about 2 hours. Strain the stock and discard the solids. Set aside.

  2. Make the molho de pimenta: In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, peppers, and onion. Let stand for at least 1 hour, then mash to a paste. Whisk in the olive oil, and set aside.

  3. Make the moqueca: In a large mixing bowl, combine the lemon and lime juices, two thirds of the garlic (4 cloves), salt, and pepper. Add the fish steaks, shrimp, and scallops, toss to combine, and cover. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, but not more than 2 hours.

  4. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large stockpot. Add the onion, bell pepper, scallions, and the remaining 2 cloves of garlic. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until well softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the 2 cups fish stock, tomatoes, and cilantro, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour.

  5. Puree the vegetable-fish stock mixture in a food processor or blender. Return the sauce to the stockpot and stir in the coconut milk, optional palm oil, and cayenne. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.

  6. Place the fish steaks, shrimp, and scallops in the sauce, along with their marinade, and arrange the mussels on top; bring to a simmer: Cover, and simmer until the mussels have opened and the fish is cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the crabmeat, remove from the heat, and cover tightly to keep warm while making the pirao,

  7. Make the pirao: Bring the 2½ cups fish stock, tomato paste, salt, and pepper to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to blend in the tomato paste. Gradually sprinkle in the manioc flour, stirring constantly until the mixture has the consistency of soft ice cream, about 2 minutes. Immediately transfer the pirao to a warmed serving dish.

  8. To serve, spoon the pirao into deep soup bowls and ladle the stew over it. Pass the preserved peppers sauce on the side.

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