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Griffin to Go: Take a Tip or Two from the Professionals


Get together a hastiness of cooks (yup, that’s the collective noun for those apron-clad folks) and you’ll likely learn more than a few tips to make your kitchen life easier.

Such was the case at the recent Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference at the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus.

Here are few of the tips as well as some of the opinions and a few little-known facts that filled the demonstrations and seminars.

Vinegar isn’t vinegar

Not all vinegars are the same.

When you try a recipe from Mexico that calls for vinegar, don’t just grab your white vinegar and start to pour.

According to Iliana de la Vega, Mexican/Latin cuisines specialist for the CIA, white vinegar in the United States is made from potatoes. White vinegar in Mexico is made from cane sugar. The flavor of the former is more acrid, while the latter is sweet.

So, if you don’t have Mexican white vinegar on hand, use mirin or rice vinegar instead. Either is closer to the flavor that the recipe calls for.

Grill sense

“When grilling, tongs are better than your fingers.”

Sometimes, a little common sense goes a long way. Chef Robert Del Grande from Houston offered up some sage advice for grilling before making Beer-mopped Rib-eye Steaks with Bacon, Onions and Garlic.

Don’t build your fire until the entire grill, he said. If you do, you won’t have any place to move the meat. So, he likes to build the fire at the back of the grill for searing at  the beginning. As the cooking process goes along, he will move the meat to the front to finish it off.

This way you can manage the fire without letting the fire manage you.

The fire in the outdoor pit tried to get the best of Del Grande as he was demonstrating his recipe for Redfish Grilled on Banana Leaves with Avocado and Queso Fresco Relish. As he was speaking, the banana leaf caught on fire. The chef simply moved the fish to a cooler spot on the grill and tamped out the flame.

Using banana leaves on the grill does more than impart an flavor to the fish. It also prevents the fish from falling apart. Add a second leaf over the top toward the end of grilling and you’ll create a little oven where you let the fish “steam a little before finishing,” he said.

Herb mops

Herb mops

When Almir Da Fonseca of the CIA’s Greystone, Calif., campus demonstrated the way to make Rio-style Grilled Chicken, he used an herb brush to baste the meat with beer. The bundle of cilantro adds a light herb touch to the chicken.

This was a new technique to me, but not in the culinary world. Del Grande said his grandmother, who was Italian, would often use rosemary branches to baste with.

They have other uses, too. I saw one of the student chefs using an herb brush to brush salt water on the hot rocks used for the pachamanca.

And, yes, you can use an herb mop on Del Grande’s rib-eye recipe.

A little seedy

Roberto Santibañez, chef and owner of Fonda restaurant in Brooklyn, is on a mission to change people’s minds about all those seeds in small chiles.

You may have taken a cooking class or two in which the seeds and the veins of a habanero or serrano pepper were removed to make its heat less intense. That isn’t accurate, the chef said. If the heat of a small pepper is too hot, just use less of it. (Not large peppers like guajillos or anchos, he added.)

To seed or not to seed? That is the question.

“When you choose small chiles for any purpose, you choose it for its heat,” he said.

Removing the seeds removes flavor and half of its nutritional value, he said.

The seeds in chiles de arbol, for example, will cook and produce a different flavor, he said. If you find the seeds indigestible, simply pulverize them in a blender and you’ll be able to absorb the nutrients better.

Santibañez couldn’t get this message across to all of the students, some of whom seeded the chiles for his demonstration. “And again and again and again and again — do not seed the peppers,” he said.

It’s wasn’t entirely the students’ fault, as not every other chef at the conference agreed with this approach. The recipes from the women chefs of Guadeloupe all called for the chiles to be seeded before using.

Don’t want a lot of heat in your dishes but want some of the chiles’ flavor? Don’t cut them, de la Vega said. Use them whole and remove them before serving.

Salt, pepper and …

Think that the end-all of seasoning is salt and pepper? Not so, said noted Florida chef Norman Van Aken, who has long promoted Floribbean cuisine.

Salt, pepper and lime juice are the real foundations of seasoning, he said.

This is one we knew from eating at plenty of taquerias and taco trucks that include a bowl of lime slices next to the salt and pepper shakers. But it’s nice to hear it verbalized by a professional.

Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayless was one of many more to sing the praises of fresh squeezed lime juice, as opposed to the stuff in the plastic green bottle or even the stuff in the market that was bottled earlier in the day.

Lime juice begins to change quickly, so its freshness is elusive. “Always take the time to squeeze your lime juice,” he said.

Another seasoning Van Aken used was yellow curry. It’s a spice blend that has its detractors. The chef tries to get around that by toasting it to let it cook out its raw flavor. You don’t want it to burn, so if you feel your saucepan is getting too hot, just pick it up off the stove and give it a good shake, he said.

Handling okra

Okra

Okra is one of those divisive vegetables that people either love or hate. And it’s easy to see why: it’s the mucilage that is sometimes produced when you cook it.

But there are ways around the mucilage, culinary historian Jessica Harris said.

One is to not cut the pods but cook them whole. Another is to soak them in an acid, such as lemon juice, before cooking. A third is to cook the okra thoroughly until it turns an olive green.

If the latter is unappealing, then divide the okra in half. Cook half “to the point of disappearing,” said Cuban-born culinary historian Maricel Presilla. Then add some blanched okra that had been soaked in lemon juice at the end.

Why is the mucilage “that thing that everyone in the United States seems to hate,” while the rest of the world loves it, Harris asked.

It’s cultural, of course. Yet that aspect of okra is what acts as the thickener that binds everything in the pot together and gives it extra body, Presilla said.

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Beer-mopped Rib-eye Steaks with Bacon, Onions and Garlic


Build your fire under only one side of the grill.

Use a dark beer to add an extra layer of flavor to this steak dish. And make sure you build your fire under only one side of the grill.

Beer-mopped Rib-eye Steaks with Bacon, Onions and Garlic

Beer mop:
12 ounces dark beer
2 tablespoons ancho chile powder
2 tablespoons paprika
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 chipotle chiles, canned in adobo
2 tablespoons adobo from canned chiles
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons red vinegar
1/2 cup peanut oil or extra-virgin olive oil

Bacon, onions and garlic:
1 large or 2 small white onions
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 slices bacon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 jalapeño, cut into very thin round slices
1/2 cup Italian parsley, stemmed, loosely packed

2 (16-ounce) rib-eye steaks
Extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish

For the beer mop: Pour the beer into a sauce pot. Bring to a boil and reduce to 1/2 cup. Remove from heat. Add the chile powder, paprika and brown sugar. Stir and transfer the mixture to a blender. Add the chipotle chiles with sauce, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and oil. Purée until smooth.

For the bacon, onions and garlic: Peel the onions and cut into approximately 1/2-inch pieces. Peel the garlic and roughly chop. Cut the bacon into small pieces. In a broad skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the bacon and lightly sauté. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until lightly golden brown. Remove from heat.

Prepare a hot charcoal fire to one side of a grill. brush the steaks with the beer mop and grill over the charcoal fire. (For medium rare, about 6 to 8 minutes per side.) Baste occasionally to generate a caramelized and mahogany-colored look. Move the steaks to the side of the grill without charcoal and allow to rest.

To serve: Reheat the bacon, onion and garlic mixture until very hot. Add the jalapeño slices and parsley leaves. Slice the steaks on the bias into 1/4-inch slices. Arrange the slices on a platter and spoon the bacon, onion and garlic mixture over the steak. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Serve with roasted fingerling potatoes.

Makes 4 servings.

From Robert Del Grande, RDG/Bar Annie, Houston/Culinary Institute of America

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WalkerSpeak: Del Grande’s Skewered Scallops with Fresh Corn Mayo


DelGrandeScallops3

Robert Del Grande

I’ve only attended two or three classes presented by Robert Del Grande, one of Texas’s top chef/restaurateurs. He is perhaps most famous as the longtime proprietor of Houston’s (now closed) Cafe Annie.

He is personable and amusing. More important, though, he can teach as well as cook.

As I awaited Del Grande’s presentation at the Culinary Institute of America’s recent conference here, I remembered a lesson from him I learned years go, and never forgot. It was a discussion about the deceptively simple art of roasting vegetables, such as a tomato or an onion to use in a salsa or a mole, or as a garnish for tacos.   You can lightly roast something or you can nearly burn it. In between these two extremes are the series of in-between stages — and all of them will yield a specific flavor.  Master these and you’ve learned an important lesson about making Mexican food taste right.

At the Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference, Del Grande taught us another dish that will go into my repertoire:  Sea Scallops Roasted in Green Corn Husks with Fresh Corn Mayonnaise.

While it sounds fancy, and maybe a little complex, it was actually simple. Wrap a big, juicy scallop in a strip of fresh corn husk, jab a skewer through it and sear it in butter until the bottom is nicely browned. Flip it and do the same to the other side. Dress it with the fresh corn mayo, top it with some sprinkles of red chile and serve with a wedge of lime.

DelGrandeScallops1If one wishes to serve these scallops as finger food (and this presentation was about Latin street foods) the skewers make them easy to pick up. If you’re serving it on plates, it’s best to take out the skewers but leave the husk on. They come off easily.

The best part about the dish, as far as I was concerned, was the Fresh Corn Mayonnaise. It was perfect for the scallop, but looked as though it would adapt widely to many other uses — as a dip or a spread as well as a topping.

The basic technique is to pull of the husks and silk on fresh ears of corn, then grate the raw corn on a grater over a bowl.  The result will be a wet, starchy purée of corn. Heat up butter in a skillet, add the corn and cook it, stirring. As Del Grande pointed out, it looks just like scrambled eggs as you cook it.

The corn is mixed with mayonnaise, olive oil, lime juice and salt then used to top the scallops.

Other beautiful dishes were prepared that day, and we’ll run more of the recipes in the near future. But, for me, this dish was a great excuse to drive out to Costco for a pound of fresh scallops.

Click below for Del Grande’s recipe:

DelGrandeScallops2

Sea Scallops Roasted in Green Corn Husks with Fresh Corn Mayonnaise

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Sea Scallops Roasted in Green Corn Husks with Fresh Corn Mayonnaise


DelGrandeScallops2Robert Del Grande’s treatment of sea scallops is tempting whether served as an appetizer or as a meal.

Sea Scallops Roasted in Green Corn Husks with Fresh Corn Mayonnaise

Fresh Corn Mayonnaise:
1 whole ear corn, trimmed of husks and silk, reserve some of the longer pieces of husk
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Mexican crema
2 tablespoons grated (or crumbled) cotija cheese

Scallops:
8 large sea scallops
8 wooden skewers
2 tablespoons butter
Hot red chile flakes, for garnish, if desired

On a box grater set over a bowl, grate the ear of corn to produce a course purée. Try not to grate any of the cob.

Melt butter in small skillet over medium heat. Add puréed corn and stir until thick and creamy. The mixture should resemble fresh scrambled eggs. Cool the mixture in a medium bowl.

When mixture is cooled,  stir in the mayonnaise, olive oil, lime juice and salt and whip until smooth. Add the crema and cotija cheese and stir to blend.

Trim fresh corn husks lengthwise to the approximate thickness of the scallops. As tight as possible, wrap each sea scallop with the corn husk and secure with the skewer. The scallop will be wrapped only around the outside edge, like a scallop wrapped in bacon. The face of the scallop is exposed on both sides. Remove the skewer when plating, but leave the the corn husk around the scallop. It should release easily.

In a skillet large enough to spaciously hold the scallops, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the scallops and gently sauté until they are browned on both sides. You want them to be cooked through, but not overcooked. Remove from heat.

Transfer scallops to serving plates. Spoon some of the fresh corn mayonnaise on each scallop. Very lightly sprinkle with the red chile flakes, if desired.

Makes 4 appetizer servings (2 scallops each).

From Robert Del Grande

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Old Friends, New Flavors


Chocolate

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.

CIAPanel

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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