Comfortably...Mexican

World flavors are beating a path to America’s doorstep. But Mexican, right next door, refuses to be ignored—and customers continually demand comfort-food versions of familiar south-of-the-border menu items.

The broad spectrum of flavors from south of the border is still migrating north to tantalize the American palate. Yet what we do have is the broad constellation of tried and true Americanized staples with occasionally an authentic rendering provided by a culinary staff member who knows firsthand how to prepare the real thing.

Americans love the Mexican dishes they’re familiar with—the tacos, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas and chimichangas—and they’re increasingly adventurous in turning up the heat by adding hot chili peppers to suit their own taste. In fact, savvy chefs north of the border aiming for mass appeal know that the more familiar names and ingredients are bound to attract more customers than the unfamiliar. But when serving Americans whose culinary staples are Tex-Mex recipes, the varied regional differences—and preferences—may come as a surprise.

Daniel Coté, CEC, executive chef at 550-bed Providence Memorial Hosp., is ideally suited to understand the nuances of authentic preparation in El Paso, Tex. Although Coté grew up in Maine, his mother was born not far from El Paso, and he has spent many years living and working in Mexico.

Since he was based in east Texas prior to coming to this Morrison Management Specialists account in west Texas, he came on board with substantial knowledge of both Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. However, he soon learned that differences in regional preferences are fairly substantial.

Texas tastes: “In Tyler (east Texas) cornbread, black-eyed peas and fried vegetables, such as okra, are staples,” Coté points out. “Here in El Paso (west Texas), pinto beans, tortillas and Spanish rice are menued pretty much daily. In east Texas, we sold black-eyed peas daily, but you can’t give them away here; people are convinced they’re burnt pinto beans!”

Coté, who loves learning new versions of dishes and is continually adapting the contractor’s corporate menu to his local clientele, finds that what he’s learning about here is comfort food, peasant food—what Moms made. “Mexican food is very simple food, a food of love—and much of it takes a long time to cook,” he says.

“Instead of beef stew (from the corporate menu), we do ‘carne asada’ using the same cuts of meat but seasoned with cumino (i.e., cumin), garlic, cilantro and a lot of dried chilies. Instead of serving noodles or rice, we serve it with tortillas. The food cost is actually just about the same, or even a bit lower, than the original recipe. It’s so popular here we have a hard time keeping up with it. In Albuquerque, N.M. (nearby), they do this beef stew with pork as ‘carne guisada.’ It’s very regional, dependent on sourcing local ingredients and ‘what Mom did.’”

Multiple moles: Mole is another “traditional” Mexican dish whose components vary by region. In Oaxala, for example, mole has no chocolate component but does include pumpkin seeds. At Providence Memorial, the El Paso version is usually dark brown and includes peanuts, peanut butter, chocolate, chicken broth and spices.

“When I lived in Montalban,” Coté recalls, “we prepared it with chicken on the bone; here it has to be pulled off the bone and shredded, then incorporated into the mole sauce. The chicken is poached or boiled and you use the water from the chicken to make the sauce. Here, it’s a thick, creamy mole with shredded chicken in it.”

As Coté attests, in preparing peasant foods, tradition dictates the use of what’s available. Even pico de gallo—a spicy, saucy relish, a combo of tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, cilantro, lime, salt and pepper—may include jicama in interior regions of Mexico. “So if I put jicama in it, people here won’t like it,” he says.

What many of his cafeteria customers do enjoy, in addition to carne asada and enchiladas—both top sellers—is chicken sal picon. “‘Sal picon’ means anything that’s diced,” Coté explains. “Ours is chicken salad with avocado, served with lettuce and chips. Even though it’s a higher priced item at $5.99, we usually sell out.”

Breakfast burritos and tacos are menued daily and fresh chorizo, a highly seasoned pork sausage, is a popular ingredient. Usually, it’s mixed with eggs, potatoes or refried beans and used as a filling. “In the coffee shop, we sell a ton of breakfast burritos—more than 200 a day—as well as huevos rancheros, all made from scratch,” Coté says.

A.M. chimichanga: One cold and snowy day in Arkansas several years ago, Maria Cunningham and her husband were in the kitchen of the restaurant they owned, experimenting with various recipes just to pass the time. Their creation—breakfast chimichangas—is now a solid success among cafeteria customers at 90-bed Geary Commun-ity Hospital in Junction City, Kan., since Cunningham, assistant director of nutritional services, introduced it there about four years ago.

“We have regular eggs, biscuits and gravy on daily for our approximately 125 morning customers, but our breakfast chimichangas are on about once or twice a month,” she says. “It’s scrambled eggs, bell peppers, onions and shredded potatoes all wrapped in a garlic and herb tortilla.  It’s deep fried and darned tasty ‘con queso,’ that is, with cheese sauce, plus sour cream and salsa. Priced at $1.85, we’ll sell 40 to 50 servings.”

Chicken olé: Overall, tacos are the best-selling Mexican items menued at Geary, either with the meat served in a salad or stuffed inside flour tortillas or corn taco shells with all the toppings. “Actually, with any tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, beef or chicken chimichangas, sales just go through the roof when they’re menued once every other week,” Cunningham says. “We also do Chicken Olé, a boneless chicken baked in a Monterey Jack cheese sauce with tomatoes, onions, peppers and cumin. It’s prepared in steam table pans and served with Spanish or white rice, perhaps jalapeño peppers or with a Santa Fe black bean dish.”

In the bustling retail operation at 507-bed Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Medical Center, tacos are also “the No.1 seller, hands down,” says Paul Hubbard, associate director of foodservice operations. On  a recent day, 240 to 300 tacos—among seven other main entrees—were sold. But Hubbard is quick to point out that here “Mexican fare is very Americanized, not authentic. We try to make the best flavor profile but still keep it to what most of our customers would recognize,” he asserts.

“We’re willing to try almost anything; we’ll do fajitas to order at the chef station in our Marketplace Café. Recently we did shrimp fajita pasta as well as tacos of ground beef—sometimes ground turkey—with a dollop of sour cream and avocados.”

Quesadillas a la minute: Quesadillas are also often featured at the chef station since they have to be done a la minute. A member of the culinary staff places a 10-inch flour tortilla in a sauté pan to give it some color. Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese is the first filling component, serving as the “glue” for all the rest to come, Hubbard explains.

Customers can choose shrimp or chicken plus scallions and onions, then these ingredients are topped with shredded lettuce, olives or pico de gallo. “These people want ‘grande,’” Hubbard continues. “They want to see sour cream, guacamole, etc. It’s like a candy store for a kid. The portion control is the second most important thing; it has to be consistent for every customer. The No. 1 thing is presentation. You have to entice people over there and display cookery—and its aroma—is a big draw.”

Mexican selections available for patient room service include shrimp, chicken or beef fajitas; arroz con pollo (the traditional chicken and rice combo), and red beans and rice. “If patients are here only one to three days, they’ll usually choose comfort food—mac-and-cheese, pot roast, etc.,” Hubbard reports. “For a longer stay, people become more adventuresome and try beef, shrimp or chicken fajitas. People are familiar with them, plus it adds spice to their stay. It’s nice to have as a choice.”

Although David DeCollo, executive chef at PNC Bank’s PNC1, a Parkhurst Dining Services account in Pittsburgh, has never been to Mexico, he’s a fan of south-of-the-border food and has hunted down ideas in various places. Occasionally, he’ll pull out all the stops to create a Mexican Day and load up the steam table in the Parkside Diner area with three or four Mexican-themed items. “It might be one of our soups, such as black bean soup or an andouille sausage chili, or perhaps chorizo chili instead of our regular daily chili,” DeCollo says. “We might do a chicken, a salmon, enchiladas and quesadillas. I stand back and keep fresh pans rolling out as fast as they move out the door, especially the chicken—everyone loves chicken.”

Here a chile lime chicken breast is a particular favorite. To prepare, DeCollo purees chipotle peppers, lime juice, cumin and coriander. “I marinate it overnight so it sucks up the flavors,” he says. “Usually, when we do a Mexican menu, we do refried beans, black bean and corn salsa, as well as a Mexican rice. We prepare the tomato-based sauce with chili peppers, onions, cilantro, cumin and coriander, then combine it with the rice after it’s cooked. I use hot rice and hot sauce so I can control how moist or dry it is.”

Taste of tequila: Everyone may love chicken, but DeCollo’s customers line up for his tequila-cured salmon when it’s menued once in five weeks. About 90 of his approximately 1,000 to 1,200 lunchtime customers generally purchase this dish. So he prepares 30 to 35 pounds of fresh salmon. “We portion it into 6-oz. filets and marinate it in tequila, peppers, onions and spices for two days in the refrigerator,” he explains. “Then we pull it out, sear it off, and serve it with two sides. It’s all about the tequila,” he adds.

Prior to the start of the fall 2006 semester, foodservice director David Ingala, along with district manager Bridgett Stapleton and their culinary team at Wesleyan Univ. in Middletown, Conn., brainstormed to come up with a concept that could jump-start flagging dinner counts in the main foodcourt.

Their thinking: Since interest in organic, local and sustainable ingredients is a growing one on college campuses across the country and Mexican food is a student favorite, why not create a program that links them both? In fact, if it’s cooked to order for a touch of aromatic showmanship, so much the better. Thus, Sabores Picantes was born at this Aramark account and, looking at the numbers, it will probably be rolled out to some of the contractor’s other college locations in the months ahead.

Dinner enticement: “We’ve had tremendous increases in participation over prior years when this location was a ghost town in the evening,” Ingala reports. “Now, there are an additional 400 customers per week at dinner over prior years. Our goal was 100 covers a night and now we’re serving about 130. Sabores Picantes, or ‘spicy flavors,’ is part of the foodcourt on the main floor of Davenport Campus Center, a building with three floors of dining. The daytime salad bar switches to this concept each night.”

Much of the legwork in sourcing organic, local and sustainable products had already been done, since the campus has a vegan café serving approximately 350 daily customers. “We’ve started with organic grain-fed beef and chicken that are also hormone-and antibiotic-free,” Stapleton points out. “Our rice and beans are organic and we’re using local Vermont cheese and sour cream. We’re lucky we had an organic vendor, so we pretty much knew what would be available.”

All menu items—recipes endorsed by Aramark—are the same daily, but the salsa is prepared from cook Mike Misenti’s secret recipe.

“We previously had a burrito bar, but it was basically a tired concept so two years ago we took it away,” Ingala recalls. “But students were up in arms and that led to the creation of Sabores Picantes. Before, we had ground beef and ground chicken, served from a chafing dish. With the new menu, these items are sautéed, heated and much of the assembly is made to order in front of them. We’re currently using a London broil (sliced) plus whole chicken breasts, marinated overnight then grilled. Product is held in cast iron pans, heated and kept on a hot plate, then put into a sauté pan to be prepared as demo cooking. It’s quite a neat change.”


Monterrey Comes to Virginia Tech

Employee training seminars can be run-of-the-mill or, as is the case at Virginia Tech, they can become a cross-cultural tour de force with the objective of finding new ways to promote the advancement of its employees.

Recently, Chef Jose Luis Aranda Puente, from the Institute Technologico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, Mexico, traveled to the Blacksburg, Va., campus. There he participated in a five-day course led by Chad Brodkin, senior executive chef of student programs (all dining programs on campus including catering).

The partnership between the two universities dates to 2003 and the agreement was reached in 2004 for Aranda Puente to attend the formal culinary skills training program where he could learn about managing such a seminar at his facility in Mexico.

Giving back: Not only did he, along with 10 members of Brodkin’s culinary staff, attend the week-long sessions covering such topic as knife skills, preparation of mis en place, working with herbs, etc., but Aranda Puente led a demonstration on preparing traditional Mexican recipes including chilaquiles and chicken with mole sauce.

“While my students helped in the preparation of his demo meal, he discussed Mexican chilis and showed us how to make a mole,” Brodkin explains. “We all ate the meal together and it was a very nice time of sharing. Although he didn’t really speak any English—there was an interpreter along—food was the common denominator.”

Brodkin—who is looking forward to his exchange trip to Monterrey—has already adapted Aranda Puente’s recipe for making enchilada sauce at D2, the newly renovated Dietrich Dining Center.


Enchiladas an Eye-Opener for Sodexho

When Rob D’Orsi, director of product development for Sodexho’s Retail Brand Group, is working on a new concept, he basically wants something that’s familiar to the general public.

So when he was mulling over ideas for the fall 2006 “limited-time offer” geared to keeping the Salsa Rico concept fresh, he wasn’t so sure that enchiladas would fly. But the success of the offer has been substantial in the 16 colleges and a handful of B&I locations that run the Salsa Rico Mexican concept.

With mole sauce: “It has opened my eyes to enchiladas,” D’Orsi says. “We introduced chicken enchiladas with mole sauce, incorporating semi-sweet chocolate in place of bittersweet; with heat provided by chipotles, they kind of offset each other. Semi-sweet is much easier for (our) purchasing (department). We toasted and ground sesame seeds for bitterness, and used fried tortilla chips as a thickening agent for the sauce. After it reached the right consistency, we folded in the chocolate; as it melted, it rounded off the flavor profile for a mole.”

D’Orsi was gratified by the sales of this promo item and notes that at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., 96% of its Salsa Rico sales were of this chicken enchilada mole platter; it includes three enchiladas plus rice and beans and commands top-tier pricing of $5.29. “Maybe I’ll move over to beef enchiladas and reintroduce it to the brand with a different flavor profile,” D’Orsi comments.

More to come: Today, the Salsa Rico menu board lists burritos with three or four flavor profiles; quesadillas (cheese being “grande,” plus chicken and steak); nachos (cheese, chicken and steak); and fajitas. “We build it in front of them so they can customize as they wish,” he points out. “To begin the new year, our limited time offer will be grilled steak tacos—two per portion—with avocado corn salsa; then, in February, we’ll introduce smoky chipotle barbecue chicken quesadillas.”

Meanwhile, as menu development continues, the Retail Brand Group is gearing up for the opening this month of its first Salsa Rico street-side franchise location in North Philadelphia. Philly cheese-steak enchiladas anyone?