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Old Friends, New Flavors

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Thursday’s exploration of Latin Flavors, American Kitchens, the theme of a three-day conference at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus included a few old friends seen in new light.

Chocolate and vanilla took center stage for side-by-side tastings of each ingredient as it grows in various regions.

These New World gifts to cuisine are not as simple as you might think. They’re not even simple to Maricel E. Presilla, who wrote the once-authoritative “The New Taste of Chocolate.” That book appeared in 2001 and has become obsolete in eight years, she announced.

That’s because the world’s view of chocolate has grown and shifted. Environmental forces, such as a fungal spread in Brazil, and political forces, including civil war in the Ivory Coast, have juggled the names of the top producers of this treat. More countries than ever, such as Vietnam, are growing cacao. New information on the health benefits of chocolate have occurred. New classifications of chocolate types have emerged as well.

All of these have forced the author and culinary historian to revamp her book for a forthcoming edition. Will it be called “The New, New Taste of Chocolate”? She didn’t say.

She did lead a tasting that showed just how different chocolates from various regions of the world can be. Brazilian chocolate has what she calls a lingering citrus-y quality on the finish, while chocolate from the Dominican Republic packs a fruity punch. Ecuadorean chocolate has an almost jasmine aroma, while the flavor reminded me of vanilla-poached pear. Chocolate from Venezuela displays an almost dried fruit quality, while Peruvian chocolate has a high astringency.


Moderator Greg Drescher of the Culinary Institute of America (standing) discusses the future of Latin cuisines in restaurants with chefs Wilo Benet (from left), Norman Van Aken, Robert Del Grande and Mark Miller.

There is also Mexican chocolate, which is different in the amount of sugar and cinnamon used. It has a grittier texture that some might not like, said CIA instructor Francisco Migoya, but it has its partisans, as most San Antonians already know.

Migoya demonstrated the lure of Meixcan chocolate in a side-by-side tasting of molded candies, one filled with Mexican chocolate ganache, the other with Peruvian chocolate. Both would be great on a sampler plate. (See recipes below.)

Norma Gaya’s family has been in the vanilla business for five generations. The spokeswoman of Gaya Vanilla Plantation in Veracruz said that there were more than 100 types of vanilla in the world and that the fruit of the orchid tastes different from variety to variety.

She demonstrated this with a taste of Tahitian vanilla against Madagascar vanilla and Veracruz vanilla, the latter two of which are different expressions of the same type of bean. All different, with tastes ranging from a touch of cedar on the Veracruz version to the almost-cinnamon quality of the Tahitian vanilla.

But no matter the variety, the process of obtaining a vanilla bean is painstaking. The flower must be pollinated and that must occur on the one day the bloom is open. And it is done by hand at vanilla plantations like hers.

Vanilla is a like a woman, Gaya said: “She is very jealous. You have to visit her every day.” And you have to be faithful to her, she added.

The future of dining

Are U.S. diners ready for Latin flavors on restaurant menus? And how do you sell them on flavors they’ve never tasted?

Those questions were supposed to be addressed in a panel titled “Menus 2010: The Business of Presenting Excellence in Latin Foods.” The group of speakers strayed from the topic into a discussion of the future of restaurants as a whole, and few seemed to mind.

In the past 40 years, Mark Miller, one of the founders of the Southwestern movement, has seen a greater willingness on the part of people to try new foods, but those same people seem less interested in what they’re eating, where it comes from or what culture produced it.

“We’ve lost our sense of sophistication and taste,” he said. “One of things about ethnic foods is a certain complexity.” And people don’t want that any more. They want bold, fresh, simple food.

Even more than that, they want a connection with the person producing the food. That’s why street food is exploding on the scene. It’s why sushi gained popularity.

“People want real food,” Miller said. “People want a connection with their food by the people who made it.”

Norman Van Aken, the Miami-based chef and cookbook author, took that notion a step further. More and more people also want a connection with the food their eating by asking for more locally produced items, he said.

That’s certainly what the Latin cuisines presented during the conference are all about, cooks creating memorable dishes using what’s available around them. But how do you stay local and introduce new dishes that sometimes call for ingredients that must be transported? That angle never came up with the panel, but Van Aken said afterward that it is forcing him to rethink items on his menu. Avocados, citrus and seafood are plentiful around him, but asparagus is not. So, what can he use in the place of something like asparagus? He’s doing his research to find out.

Robert Del Grande of Houston, whose famed Cafe Annie became RDG + Bar Annie earlier this year, said there has been a definite shift away from formal dining. He didn’t care for the term “fine dining,” because “I think street food can be fine.” Regardless of what you call it, fewer people want to spend hours over a restaurant meal. Dishes that were once considered miracles by epicures are now too slow for most people, he said.

Van Aken agreed. Years ago, it would have been deemed a horror for anyone to use a cellphone in an upscale restaurant. Now, people are hauling out their laptops and blogging or text-messaging reviews of their meals as they are occurring.

To close out the panel and bring the topic back to Latin cuisine, moderator Greg Drescher of the CIA asked each of the panelists which region of Central or South America would offer the next “big thing” in dining.

Wilo Benet of Puerto Rico said he thought it would be whichever country or area had a signature dish that caught on. He cited the growing popularity of ceviche, which originated in Peru.

He would like his own country to make its mark, but he admitted that he’s still trying to figure out which dish would have capture the market’s fancy.

Van Aken favors Argentina, because of our attraction to beef. It’s also appealing because the beef there is grass-fed, and there’s a growing interest in that. Brazil is another possibility because of its mixture of flavors such as coconut milk and dendê oil; it’s “where the flavor gods live,” he said.

Del Grande seconded Benet’s theory that a single dish that people can latch onto would signal the next big movement. He thinks it will depend on where people travel the most and what dishes they want to eat again once they return home. That could be Brazil because of the upcoming Olympics.

Miller agreed with Brazil for several reasons, including the economic status of the country. More than that, Brazilians love to cook with fruit and “Americans love fruit.”

But don’t rule out Mexico, Miller said. “Mexico seems to have finally found a confidence” to build on and expand its traditions, he said. Twenty years ago, Mexico was copying France; now it’s ready to present its culinary treasures to the world on its own terms, he said.

Mexican Chocolate Ganache

8 ounces heavy cream
8 ounces Mexican chocolate, finely chopped (see note)
4 tablespoons butter, cut in pieces

In a small saucepan, bring cream to a boil. Pour half over the chocolate and stir. Add the other half and continue stirring until the chocolate has dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool to 86 degrees and then stir in the butter.

Note: You can make this recipe with chocolate of  desired cocoa level.

You can use the ganache as a center of chocolate candies or top ice cream. Use it as a cake filling or cupcake frosting. Or, as one person exclaimed: Just give me a spoon.

Adapted from Latin Flavors, American Kitchens/Culinary Institute of America

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