Consumers are ready to discover lesser-known Latin American cuisines, and these five staple recipes can kick off the journey.
This article first appeared in the 15 April 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Americans' hearty appetites for Mexican flavors and ingredients suggest that the time is ripe for menus to delve deeper into Latin America's rich culinary culture. All that diners need to embrace this colorful crop of cuisines are kitchens willing to lead the way.
For operators, delivering the bold, complex tastes diners already crave via approachable staples such as Peruvian lomo saltado, Brazilian feijoada and Salvadoran pupusas is an ideal place to start.
Pupusas provide an easy pathway into Latin American cuisine because they're unusual enough to draw attention, but they boast familiar core components-corn dough called masa stuffed with fillings such as beans, cheese and meat-that are easy for customers to understand.
"I usually describe it as being like a gordita or stuffed tortilla to get people to try it," Mendez says.
Plenty of Latin American recipes offer the winning combination of intrigue and approachability, but as a starting point, consider exploring pupusas and four other traditional, easily adaptable dishes: Puerto Rican tostones (a staple in multiple countries), Brazilian feijoada, Peruvian lomo saltado and Cuban vaca frita.
|Tostones >> ](http://recipes.rimag.com/recipe.asp?id=1711) [Vaca Frita >>A journey to Havana52.1% of consumers say Cuban is the ethnic cuisine they have not tried that they are most interested in sampling. (*R&I* 2008 New American Diner Study)|
These recipes offer selling points for kitchens beyond their ability to tempt diners. For the most part, only simple, budget-friendly ingredients such as rice, beans and secondary cuts of meat are required, and the dishes also lend well to advance preparation, making them easy to pick up during service. Meanwhile, each item affords ample opportunity for creative expression, so operators can recreate authentic versions or inject their own distinct touches.
Tostones: The Ultimate Pick-Me-Up (pictured above)
Many Americans have sampled the sweet fried plantains known as maduros. Tostones, the twice-fried snacks made from firmer, starchier green plantains, are a savory cousin.
At Havana Alma de Cuba in New York City, tostones are simple and authentic. Sliced green plantains are fried slowly until they are tender and are flattened using a metal spatula or a heavy saucepan. The thin discs are fried quickly a second time for a crisp finish before being salted and delivered to tables with garlic-lime mojo sauce for dipping.
"It's finger food, and you can eat it as an appetizer or a side dish," Chef-owner Beatriz de Armas says. What's more, she adds, tostones make a tempting vehicle for all kinds of fillings. Currently the restaurant menus tostones rellenos stuffed with shrimp fricassee, but the plantains can pair with any combination of meat, cheese or vegetables.
Pupusas: It's All Inside
Unlike ubiquitous tacos and tostadas that pile ingredients inside or atop tortillas, pupusas offer tidier packages. Components such as meat, cheese and beans are folded into thick, griddled masa cakes; the finished product often is served with a crunchy cabbage slaw called curtido.
In Mendez's kitchen at Carnivale, masa is rolled into balls and flattened into small, thick pancakes. Chihuahua cheese and black beans-simmered ahead of time with bacon, ham and garlic, then sautéed and smashed in the style of refried beans at service-are placed in the center of each piece. The dough is folded around the filling, flattened and seared on the flat-top grill. Braised oxtail garnishes each piece, and jicama, cucumber and carrot salad marinated in lime juice and olive oil is piled on the side.
The simple execution provides for tasty variations. At Bayona in New Orleans, Chef-owner Susan Spicer adds local flavor, menuing crawfish pupusas with tomatillo-chipotle salsa and cabbage slaw, while Chef Katharine Kagel at Cafe Pasqual's in Santa Fe, N.M., dishes out a Southwestern-accented vegetarian version with green chiles, zucchini, corn and Jack cheese.
Feijoada: Everything But the Kitchen Sink
In Brazil, feijoada isn't just a meal; it's an event. Often served midday, the large-scale spread can be something akin to American Sunday brunch. The stew of black beans and various types of meat-often including all manner of pork cuts, sausage and dried beef-typically is complemented by rice, shredded kale or collard greens, orange slices, chiles and farofa (toasted cassava flour).
At Ceiba in Washington, D.C., Chef-owner Jeff Tunks morphs the hearty recipe into a refined, single-plate format that has become the pan-Latin restaurant's top-selling meat dish. Tender pork shanks braised with smoked bacon, black beans and habanero chiles rest atop sautéed collard greens and rice cooked in coconut milk. Braising liquid and beans are spooned on top. Orange segments, toasted farofa and puréed Brazilian malagueta chiles finish the colorful presentation.
"It's got some intensity in time and labor to prepare during the day, but once that's done, it's a very easy pickup operation during service," Tunks says.
Vaca Frita: Frying Cuban-Style
Vaca frita is a close relative of the Cuban staple ropa vieja, but the braised, shredded beef of vaca frita is lightly fried to produce a crisp finish rather than being simmered in stock or tomato sauce.
De Armas favors skirt steak for her recipe at Havana Alma de Cuba. The braised meat is shredded, sautéed until crispy and tossed with caramelized onions, lemon juice, soy sauce, oregano and Mojo Sauce (sour orange and lemon juices with garlic and olive oil).
At Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., students enjoy vaca frita both because the dish is spicy but not swimming in sauce and because it's served with the recognizable accompaniments of grilled peppers and onions, says Production Chef Stephanie McCallister.
"It's not as different-looking as some other international foods that some kids just aren't eager to be adventuresome and try," she says.
Her recipe calls for flank steak that is braised, seasoned with a rub including cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper, refrigerated overnight and heated just before service.
Lomo Saltado: Peruvian Stir-Fry
Lomo saltado, a Peruvian beef stir-fry with fried potatoes, onions, chiles, soy sauce and tomatoes, reflects the coun-try's close ties with Asian cuisine and in particular the influence of Peruvian-Chinese restaurants known as chifas.
For American diners, the familiar pairing of beef and fried potatoes-tossed with or served alongside the meat and vegetables-provides a comfortable reference point, as does the stir-fry preparation.
"When people see 'stir-fried' on the menu, they have an idea of what lomo saltado is. They think of sliced beef, julienne vegetables and rice," says Manuel Amaya, director of operations at recently opened Alto Plaza in Centreville, Va., where the dish quickly has become the top seller.
Beef tenderloin tips, onions, green peppers and tomatoes are stir-fried with soy sauce, orange juice, sesame oil, garlic and red-wine vinegar. A similar version featuring shrimp and scallops instead of beef also is popular among diners, Amaya says.
Chefs can tailor Latin American staples to their own audiences with a few key changes.
- Seafood stars in the Brazilian Wild Sea Bass Feijoada at Avenue G in San Francision. Linguica sausage, black beans, acorn squash and cumin-scented caramelized onions round out the recipe.
- Panorama Restaurant & Lounge at the Sonesta Bayfront Hotel in Coconut Grove, Fla., menus lomo saltado for breakfast, pairing the stir-fried beef with two eggs cooked any style.
- A seasonal starter at Harvest restaurant in the Pheasant Run Resort & Spa in St, Charles, Ill., uses seared tostones as a foundation for grilled Szechuan shrimp with mango-avocado relish.
- Modern-American restaurant 2223 in San Francisco serves Queso Fresco Pupusas with BBQ Tiger Prawns alongside Salvadoran-style slaw with black beans and cilantro pesto.
- Pan-seared duck at Cuba Cuba in Denver is cooked "vaca-frita style" with sofrito and served with white rice, black-bean reduction and tostones.