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New World Cuisine

by Carole Kotkin

Most food trends seem to come and go as quickly as you can say quiche Lorraine. But happily, the growing appreciation of Southwestern and Latin cuisines is an exception. The unique flavors that define Southwestern and Latin-American cuisine--hot peppers, achiote, sweet canela (Mexican cinnamon), cilantro, mangoes, papayas, malangas and yuca were until recently ,relatively unknown to most of us, although they are indigenous to the Americas.

It all began when the search for pepper and other spices brought the first Spaniards and other Europeans to the New world in the late 15th century.  They didn't find any pepper, but they discovered chiles, squash, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, turkey, chocolate and vanilla and took these foods back to Europe. These foods from the new world revolutionized Spanish cooking; in fact, many of the foods that we consider to be the very foundation of European cuisine were not known in Europe until after the discovery and exploration of the new world. Of course, what the Old World brought to the New World--apples, pears, peaches and livestock was extremely important also.  According to Raymond Sokolov in Why We Eat What We Eat, "Old World crops and livestock were introduced to Mexico and Peru to support a civilized (that is, Spanish) way of life for the colonists, and New World exotic were sent to Spain as novelties and for agricultural exploitation.  But once tomatoes had taken root in Italy, once cattle provided beef and gave milk in Mexico, then local cooks put these wonderful new foods to new uses.  And the world changed."

The Spanish empire also established colonies in the Caribbean, Colombia and Puerto Rico where they adapted their cuisine to a new environment which led to unique regional cuisines. These island flavors were brought to the United States by immigrants during the 1960's and made a fresh and irresistible brand of American cuisine. The Southwestern food movement of the early 1980's awakened the Anglo palate to the rich mix of unfamiliar flavors. It freed the imagination of classically trained chefs to mix and match traditional techniques with new world ingredients. "The most interesting food in the world is being done in America thanks to this fusion of cultures and ingredients. We're doing things that have never been done before and creating a new style of cooking," says Chef Stephan Pyles of Star Canyon in Dallas.

In the late 1980's, Florida chefs pioneered a regional cuisine known as "New World", drawing on the diverse cooking styles and tropical ingredients of the Caribbean, Latin America, Central and South America.  They became fascinated by the tempting flavors of exotic tropical fruits and vegetables, including mango, guava, malanga and boniato. The current popularity of Southwestern and Latin-American cooking constitutes nothing short of a culinary revolution. In restaurants from Seattle to Chicago, menus list quesadillas and empanadas along with Caesar Salad and shrimp cocktail. Many factors are now converging to keep Southwestern and Latin cuisine on the map; the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, increasing familiarity with Latino dishes, more readily available ingredients, more knowledgeable chefs and greater acceptance in the fine dining scene. This influence is strongly evident from fast food to haute cuisine. Dardin Restaurant Group (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) is opening a chain of Caribbean Breeze restaurants nation-wide; Pollo Tropical, a Miami based Latin grilled chicken chain, is opening units in other cities; Los Angeles has a chain of inexpensive Peruvian chicken restaurants called El Pollo Inka.

 The acceptance of these foods by main-stream America was fueled by restaurant chefs who have access to special ingredients before their customers do. Eventually the more assertive home cooks began asking their grocers to provide some of those unusual ingredients for use in their own kitchens.  According to Robin Sprague, Marketing Director of Brooks Tropical, the largest shipper of tropical fruits and vegetables in the United States, "These products have crossed over into mainstream America and retailers are now taking a serious look at tropical ingredients". Major U. S. food manufacturers are actively taking steps to attract Spanish and anglo consumers to their products. Look for Stouffer's line of Spanish inspired frozen dinners; tropical baby food products, Cuban breads, and Latin desserts at your neighborhood supermarket.

Innovative chefs like Stephan Pyles of Star Canyon in Dallas; Robert Del Grande of Annie's in Houston; Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe and Washington D.C.'s Red Sage; and Dean Fearing of The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas opened up a whole new Southwestern territory of good taste.  For example, at Mark Miller's restaurants, the menu, which changes constantly, might offer grilled oysters drizzled with a spicy poblano chile pesto; Texas Blue Crab Cakes with Green Chile Chutney; or Yucatan Grilled whole fish wrapped in banana leaves. In Miller's Coyote Cafe cookbook he states, "Southwestern food is an indigenous regional cuisine.  It has evolved over a long period of time, and has been molded and shaped by a variety of influences, including Native American, Hispanic, Mexican, Tex-Mex, and the neighboring Cajun and Creole cuisines."  He goes on to say,"It is characterized by straightforward cooking techniques and defined by bold, strong, flavors."  The skillful blending of tradition with innovation has made Southwestern cooking phenomenally popular in restaurants from coast to coast. Chef Stephan Pyles says, "The difference between Tex-Mex food and Southwestern food is about $10.00! More seriously he explains that, "New Southwestern food was somewhat invented by chefs and is more sophisticated than Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex is Mexican food that came across the border and was cooked in homes rather than restaurants".

Latin flavors first found a place on Florida menus with South Florida "New World Cuisine" chefs Norman Van Aken of Norman's in Coral Gables; Douglas Rodriguez of Yuca (now at Patria, New York); Mark Militello of Mark's Place, Miami, and Mark's Las Olas, Ft. Lauderdale, and Allen Susser of Chef Allen's, Aventura; and roving chef, Robbin Haas, formerly of Bang, Miami Beach. The "Mango Gang" as they were called, paved the way for restaurants around the country to begin serving a dizzying array of cutting-edge combinations such as empanadas with rabbit, and ostrich stew with chorizo and fried plantains as served by French-trained chef Yannick Cam at Coco Loco in Washington, D.C.  In New York, chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who worked in South America, offers Chilean sea bass with black beans and salsa on the menu at Nobu. Chef Van Aken believes Latin flavors will dominate more and more as we approach the 21st century. And it's happening in places as far away from Miami as Houston, Texas in restaurants such as Americas and Churrascos; at C.T. in New York.  At Patria in New York Douglas Rodriguez is cooking the "Nuevo Latino" style foods which put him on the map at Yuca in Coral Gables. Rodriguez combines the indigenous ingredients of Latin America with the unexpected, sometimes giving a dish a typical Cuban name--although it is often a daring improvisation only loosely related to the original.  His empanadas (small turnovers), for example, are stuffed with Cabareles, a Spanish blue cheese, and sauced with a puree of poached pears. "There are a lot of things going on in your mouth when you eat it, as if you were tasting a good wine," said Rodriguez. He captured national attention with his originality and tropical flair, earning him the prestigious James Beard Award for 1996's Rising Chef of the Year. Perhaps because of their shared Spanish heritage, these bright and distinct tropical flavors have captured the attention of Southwestern chefs like Bobby Flay at Mesa Grill in New York who recently started using ingredients like yuca and plantains to crust fish. And Latin-inspired cooking now includes more Mexican-style salsas and jalapenos.

Resourceful chefs are veering farther south as they incorporate new ideas from the Caribbean and Central and South America. "There one can find unadulterated natural presentations, wonderful new foodstuffs and borrow from a nutritious and rustic history," says Norman Van Aken of Norman's who received the 1996 Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence.  For example, he discovered Ecuadorian Ceviche made with corvina, a fish that is not widely used here, "but the oiliness of corvina matches with the acidity of the ceviche." When Chef Stephen Pyles does research and development he now travels to countries like Cuba and Guatamala instead of going to Europe or Asia. He goes on to say, "I'm happier finding a new type of chile than I am eating in a three-star restaurant in France." Chef Douglas Rodriguez spent three months exploring the cuisines of South America and the Caribbean before opening Patria. He returned with a wealth of ideas: a roasted pumpkin soup from the Dominican Republic and a Honduran tuna ceviche marinated in lime juice, ginger and coconut milk are but two examples. His architectural interpretations may not be exactly authentic, but it doesn't matter, he and the other talented young chefs are cooking the food of the 90's--casual, earthy, bright, respectful of the past, but also highly original.

 In a Box:

Southwestern cooking once meant fat-laden tacos and chili and Latin cooking was perceived as "heavy". Boston's Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, the folks who developed the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, are out to prove that the traditional Latin American Diet with its emphasis on fresh fish, healthy grains and legumes, olive oil,  fresh vegetables has the potential to inspire and shape the future for healthy, delicious and environmentally sound American food choices. They will unveil a Latin-American Diet Pyramid at their October 15 conference in El Paso, Texas.

Texas Blue Crab Cakes
From Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe cookbook.

1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions (green part only)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoon clarified butter
1 pound fresh Texas blue crab lump meat (if you can't get Texas blue crab; substitute other types of crab meat)
2 tablespoons diced sweet red pepper
2 tablespoons diced sweet yellow pepper
1 large egg
1 pound fresh white bread (high-quality country loaf)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1-1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram

Wilt the green onions in 2 tablespoons of the butter, about 1 minute.  Place crab meat in a bowl, breaking up any lumps and removing any bits of shell or cartilage.  Add the cooled green onions and the peppers.  Beat the egg, and crumb the bread.  Add the egg, 1/2 cup bread crumbs, cream, and marjoram to the bowl, and mix by hand.  Form into 8 patties, about 3/4 inch thick and 2-1/2 inches across.  Lightly press more bread crumbs onto each side of the patties, and refrigerate if not cooking immediately.  To cook, heat remaining butter in a large, heavy saute pan, so that crab cakes sizzle when put in pan.  Cook at lowest setting for 4 minutes on one side and 3 minutes on the other.  Crab cakes should be golden but not brown.  Serve with Green Chile Chutney. Serves 4.

Green Chile Chutney

*2 pounds fresh New Mexico green chiles, roasted, peeled, and diced (or roasted Anaheim chiles, with 2 or 3 roasted jalapenos)
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon roasted ground Mexican oregano
2/3 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt

Mix the ingredients together and cook for 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat in an enamel or stainless steel pan.  Allow to cool, and serve cold.  For a hotter chutney, add 6 diced roasted jalapenos or increase the number accordingly if using Anaheims and jalapenos). Yield: 4 cups.

 *Fresh chiles are roasted in a black iron skillet over medium-high heat, cook the chiles until blackened.  Remove the blackened skin, split the chiles open and scoop out the seeds and pith with the tip of a knife.

Corn and Red Pepper Soups with Southwestern Cream
From The New Texas Cuisine  by Stephan Pyles.

1/3 cup Ancho Chile Cream (recipe follows)
1/3 cup Cilantro Cream (recipe follows)

Corn Soup:

4 cloves roasted garlic
1-1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (2 large ears)
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped carrots
1/4 cup chopped celery
1 jalapeno chile, seeded and chopped
1 cup heavy cream
Salt to Taste

Place all ingredients except cream and salt in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes to blend the flavors.  Transfer to a blender and puree thoroughly.  Strain through a fine sieve back into the saucepan.  Add the cream and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt.  (If preparing ahead, cool, cover and refrigerate).

Red Pepper Soup:

3 medium red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and seeded
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped carrots
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder
1 cup heavy cream
salt to taste

Follow preparation instructions for corn soup.

To serve, gently reheat both soups in separate pans. Simultaneously ladle some of each into warm bowls, and drizzle with the ancho chile and cilantro creams in a zigzag or abstract pattern of your choice (follow your instincts!). Serves 4 to 6.

Ancho Chile Cream:

1 small dried ancho chile, roasted and rehydrated
3 tablespoons milk or half and half
2 tablespoons sour cream or creme fraiche

Place the rehydrated roasted ancho in a blender with the milk.  Blend until smooth.  Pass the mixture through a fine strainer into a mixing bowl and whisk in the sour cream or creme fraiche. Makes about 1/3 cup.

Cilantro Cream:

2 cups water
5 large spinach leaves, stems removed
1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
3 tablespoons milk or half and half
2 tablespoons sour cream or creme fraiche

Bring the water to a boil, add the spinach leaves, and cook for 1 minute.  Drain the liquid and place the leaves in ice water for 1 minute.  Place the cilantro, milk, and spinach in a blender, and blend until smooth.  Pass the mixture through a fine strainer into a mixing bowl and whisk in the sour cream or creme fraiche.  Makes about 1/3 cup.

Grilled Flank Steak over Mushroom Ceviche

This recipe is from Nuevo Latino by Douglas Rodriguez.

1 3-pound flank steak
2 cups Fresh Cilantro Adobo (recipe below)

Marinate the steak in the Fresh Cilantro Adobo for 12 hours. Heat the grill to medium-high and grill the marinated flank steak for 7 minutes on each side for medium-rare.  Slice thinly and serve over the Mushroom Ceviche with the mixed greens and toast triangles.  Serves 6.

Mushroom Ceviche:

2 pounds button or tiny field mushrooms, washed and stems removed
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and julienned
3 cloves garlic, squeezed through a garlic press
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Place the mushrooms in a mixing bowl.  Add the citrus juices and olive oil, and toss.  Let sit at room temperature for 1 hour, tossing occasionally. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper, and mix well.  Let sit in the refrigerator to marinate the mushrooms, about 2 hours.

6 ounces mixed baby greens, washed and patted dry
12 triangle-shaped toast pieces for garnish

Fresh Cilantro Adobo

1-1/2 cups fresh cilantro (leaves and stems)
3 bay leaves
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 teaspoons pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup coarsely chopped white onion
1/4 cup coarsely chopped garlic
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Place all the ingredients, except the vegetable oil, in a blender.  Puree on high speed.  Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl and whisk in the vegetable oil.  Yield: Approximately 2-1/2 cups.

Cuban Banana Rum Custard Tart
This is from Norman Van Aken's Feast of Sunlight

Crust:
5 ounces cashews, finely chopped
1/4 pound (1 stick) soft butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 cups flour
1 egg lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla custard

Combine all crust ingredients in a mixing bowl, using either an electric mixer or a wooden spoon.  This crust is difficult to roll out with a rolling pin so press the dough into an 11-inch tart shell using your fingertips.  Try to keep the dough an even thickness.  Chill the shell for at least 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line the tart shell with aluminum foil and fill the foil with dried beans or rice.  (This weight will prevent the dough from rising while baking.) Bake the shell for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and beans and bake the shell 5 minutes more.  Leave oven on but remove shell to cool slightly while you prepare custard.

Custard:

2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup dark rum

Beat eggs and sugar until light and frothy.  Mix in flour and stir until smooth.  Add cream and rum.  Pour into partially baked crust and bake approximately 20 minutes, or until custard is set.

6 to 8 Cuban bananas or 4 to 5 ordinary bananas
1/2 cup apricot preserves
Juice of 1 orange

After baked custard is removed from the oven and allowed to cool slightly, top it with sliced bananas.  Start at the outside edge of the tart and work your way toward the center, creating a neat pattern.  Warm the preserves and orange juice, stirring until the preserves have melted.  Pour through a fine strainer and then brush on the bananas to protect them from turning brown and to add a shine to the tart. Serves 8 to 10.

by by Carole Kotkin
This article originally appeared in Wine News Magazine.

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