In Mexican kitchens, many dishes were born out of leftovers and a desire to make something new. Women would see what they had on hand and create a wholly different meal with it.
A bowl of leftover boiled plantains and leftover black beans, if such a thing ever exists there, might be turned into Torundas de Platano Macho, or fried plaintain balls, with a black bean sauce.
That’s what Tomas Dominguez of Café Santa Cruz in Coatepec, Veracruz, and Iliana de la Vega of the San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America told the audience Wednesdsay at the beginning of the second annual Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference, a three-day event that’s drawn a host of international chefs to discuss the culinary treasures of Central and South America.
The same story was heard from chefs visiting from Brazil, Chile and Puerto Rico.
Take manioc, for example. It’s “the staple food of Brazil,” said Teresa Corcao from Rio de Janeiro. It can be known by numerous names, including tapioca, which is the most common form found in the U.S.
But it’s also the “invisible food,” she continued. “They eat it a lot, but they don’t talk about it.”
Yet you’ll find it in everything from farofa, a powdery dish used as a condiment, to a tapioca brulee.
Beans are the same with most of the Latin American cuisines. They are expected, rather than analyzed.
You might have one type of bean with lunch and another type with dinner, culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla said.
They could be as common to North American palates as pintos, garbanzos or black beans, or as select as Puerto Rican gandules.
The iconic foods of these countries will be explored more fully in the two remaining days of the conference. “There’s so much we still don’t know about the foods and flavors of Latin America,” Mark Erickson, vice president of continuing education for the CIA, said during his opening remarks.
That’s the focus of the San Antonio campus at the Pearl Brewery, according to Ken Halliday of Silver Ventures, which manages the site. “We see food at the center of everything we do here,” he said. “And a unique component to this project is education.”
So, if all goes well, the chefs in attendance will take what they learn “back into your kitchens and your menus,” he said.
Habichuelas Guisadas (Puerto Rican Bean Stew)
1 pound white navy beans (see note)
1 ham hock
½ pound smoked ham, cubed
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes
Whole culantro leaves
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
½ green bell pepper, seeded and chopped fine
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped or tomato paste, to taste
4 tablespoons Cubanelle chiles or Anaheim chiles, finely chopped (see note)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
¾ cup cilantro leaves, finely chopped
½ teaspoon dried oregano
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Soak the beans overnight in 2 quarts of cold water. The next day, drain and rinse in cold water. Transfer the beans to a medium-sized pot, and cover with cold water by 2 inches. Add the ham hock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour.
For the sofrito: While beans are cooking, heat the olive in a sauté pan on medium-high heat and add the onion, bell pepper, tomato, chiles, garlic, cilantro, oregano, salt and pepper. Saute for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. After the beans have cooked for 1 hour, and add the sofrito, ham, butternut squash and culantro leaves, and cook for 30 minutes more or until tender. If the beans are too dry, add a little bit of water or chicken stock. Remove culantro leaves.
Garnish with chopped cilantro leaves. Serve immediately with white rice.
Note: Either pinto or kidney beans can be substituted for white navy beans. Season with hotter chiles, if you prefer a spicier dish.
Makes 8 servings.
Adapted from Alfredo Ayala/Latin Flavors, American Kitchens