Exploring Latin American
Tapping staff expertise helps create authentic dishes from our Southern neighbors.
“Food is history, and in the modern kitchen, where virtually anything is available to us, I’m inspired by Latin American cuisine,” explains Richard J. Curtis, director of culinary and nutrition at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center, in Louisiana. As such, the Miami native frequently menus Jamaican dishes such as peas and rice with coconut milk, Barbados-inspired fish curry wrapped in banana leaves, Haitian pickled slaw and Cuban picadillo. He also employs Latin American ingredients, including jicama, plantains and ropa vieja, in unexpected ways, like in salads and sliders. “The flavors and textures used in this cuisine are a welcome break from the usual.”
Tracey MacRae, campus executive chef at the University of Washington, in Seattle, agrees. The Cuban items, including mojo pork sandwiches, picadillo bowls, stuffed peppers, masitas de puerco (fried pork belly chunks with a garlic-vinegar sauce) and churros, featured in the global kitchen concept have been “extraordinarily successful,” she says. MacRae, who learned to cook Cuban food from a former flame, adds that “being of Caribbean ancestry gave me a penchant for Afro-Latin cooking, too.”
But what if you don’t have firsthand experience cooking Latin American cuisine? Fortunately, someone of Latin American descent is likely on your staff and willing to share recipes.
Steven Bressler, retail services manager at The Valley Hospital, in Ridgewood, N.J., can attest—he has multiple chefs of Jamaican and Cuban descent, who have shared techniques and insights for preparing dishes, such as oxtail, jerk chicken and escabeche (marinated fish).
Research is crucial, whether it’s reading cookbooks or visiting ethnic restaurants in your area, advises Grace Ann Brutsman, production chef at Purdue University’s Windsor Dining Court, who offers a variety of Cuban dishes, including empanadas, yellow rice and black beans, vaca frita, polenta, roast pork and sandwiches.
Thibodaux’s Curtis suggests getting to know the ingredients and the correct way to handle them. “You don’t peel yucca with a vegetable peeler, and plantains are best when they are ripe and black at their sweetest,” he cites as examples.
Why offer Latin American dishes? For Brutsman, it’s a matter of meeting customer expectations. Brutsman has success, particularly at her DIY burrito station. “It’s great because it gives vegetarians an option and lets students customize their dish with fresh ingredients.” Bonus: “The flavors of Latin America are some of the most interesting because of all the different cultures that they originated from.”