Loving Latino

Operators are looking past traditional Mexican cuisine to deliver authentic Latin flavors.

These rajas from the National Onion Association feature
chiles that have been roasted.

With the rise of the Latino population, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau will reach 50 million this year, foodservice directors are reporting more interest in foods not only from Mexico but also Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Aiming for authentic: Aramark LifeWorks Director Peter Gilhooly says he sees ethnic diversity among the 18 B&I accounts he oversees and he designs concepts around the needs of those clients. “We do a street foods concept with Latino-infused cuisine that fits in nicely,” Gilhooly says. “It’s all about technique. We do tamales, tortas, empanadas and a trio of soft tacos. The soft tacos are filled with shrimp, and the mole we use is an authentic mole recipe popular in the Mexico’s Oaxaca region. The strips of cooked chiles are called rajas, which means “strips,” but in Mexican cooking it refers to strips of chiles. The chiles are roasted, peeled and cut into strips. These are smaller portions of traditional favorites and customers can pick and choose.”

Gilhooly says the department offers several salsas—salsa verde with tomatillos, cilantro and peppers; salsa negra, which has chipotle chiles and garlic; and salsa roja with charred tomatoes, roasted serrano chiles, onions, cilantro and garlic.

“We have a lot of success with street foods,” Gilhooly adds. “For the entrées we’ve gone deep into Latin American and Mexican cuisine to offer authenticity. We make pork tinga with potatoes, avocado and Cotija cheese, pozole verde, and a fish stew called moqueca de peixe, which is a favorite in Brazil.”

At New York Hospital Queens, Executive Chef Jerry D’Amico calls Flushing, N.Y., “the most diverse zip code in the U.S. There’s a lot of demand for Latino. When we do authentic Mexican food in the café, we do 1,800 meals.”

D’Amico says some popular dishes include a Cuban flank steak with tomato sauce, fried yuccas with beer, plantains and beef chimichangas made from scratch. Aztec corn, which is roasted under a salamander and served with tomatoes, cilantro, peppers and hot sauce and is served cold, also is a favorite at the hospital.

Ida Shen, assistant director and executive chef at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a Peruvian-inspired quinoa stew that she says is more like a soup with lots of chunky vegetables and, sometimes, feta cheese. During a trip to Mexico for a NACUFS sub-regional meeting, Shen was inspired to make chilaquiles, which are made with deep-fried leftover tortillas or tortilla chips, red sauce and eggs and served as a snack or breakfast item. “We never have leftovers of them,” she says.

At the Davis (Calif.) Joint Unified School district, Rafaelita Curva, director of student nutrition services, is moving the model of food prep to scratch cooking and makes pico de gallo and salsa from scratch.

“Our students notice the difference in our menus now,” Curva says. “We had a recipe we decided to make for National Vegan Month in the fall, and it came from ideas from our staff. We call it bean fiesta because it’s a Latino-influenced recipe and it’s a vegan side dish that can be served with any entrée. We needed to use beans from the USDA’s commodity program. Our staff came up with a recipe that is simple and full of flavor—cilantro, curry, turmeric and cumin are all in it along with garbanzo and pinto beans, peppers, zucchini and summer squash.

“It can be made from any combination of commodity beans and vegetables in season and lots of cilantro,” he adds. “It is flavored with cumin spice, which is a standard in Mexican cooking.”

Inspired by Chipotle: The proliferation of Latino-inspired fast-casual concepts, the most notable being Chipotle, has had an effect on many college campuses. Samuel Samaan, foodservice director at Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, Calif., is expanding a concept that he says is very similar to Chipotle. The concept is replacing an older taqueria concept. The location is being doubled in size, and the bigger footprint is expected to double the transactions.

“We will use fresh ingredients and serve items such as burritos, tacos, Mexican rice bowls, quesadillas and taco salads,” Samaan says. “There’s high demand here for Latino foods. We have a chef from Nicaragua whose salsa is very popular.”

At Texas’s Corpus Christi schools, Foodservice Director Jody Houston’s staffers make salsa and egg taquitos with green chili sauce for breakfast.

“We’ll do a jalapeno wrap one day a week with turkey, cheese, romaine lettuce and a light ranch dressing, or cheese enchiladas with corn tortillas, low-fat cheese and low-fat beef chili gravy,” Houston says. “We offer brown Spanish rice, which gets baked off in our central kitchen. Sometimes we buy chicken burritos and serve them with the beef chili gravy and add tostadas to the mix.”

A Fiesta of Flavors

UC-Boulder’s Latin Comida offers housemade tortillas

According to Amy Beckstrom, director of dining services at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a fiesta of flavors meets the eyes of students entering the campus’s Center for Community Dining as they encounter Latin Comida, one of 10 stations at the dining center.

“[Customers] see chefs making fresh tortillas through the glass window on the first serving line,” says Beckstrom. “Everything is fresh—whole-wheat tortillas, burritos and salsas.”

Beckstrom says the school challenges its chefs to try to educate their customers beyond tacos and burritos. The year-old station has watched its business grow exponentially, say Paul Houle, executive chef de cuisine, and Billy Kardys, executive sous chef. The department makes its own whole-wheat and flour tortillas—between 1,000 and 1,800 a day—and offers three proteins with options such as shredded skirt steak, pulled pork and chipotle chicken, as well as a vegetarian option.

“We have students who come in daily just for the burritos, which we offer with a choice of three salsa toppings: habanero, verde and roja,” says Houle. “We’ll also offer a traditional roasted corn salsa.”

“Everything is locally sourced,” Kardys adds. “We cook and smoke our own proteins.”

During the planning stages for the concept the chefs decided to focus on a range of Latino dishes. Houle recalls selecting lomo saltado, the national dish of Peru. Ingredients include strips of beef, chili peppers, rice, soy, ginger, garlic and french fries. Often the dish is served over white rice. “We also do Central American corn pancakes with different salsas,” says Houle.

Many of the dishes are new to the students and help educate them to various Latino-influenced cuisines. “We do a lot with Caribbean,” says Houle, such as mojo pork, which is popular in Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Mojo sauce consists of olive oil, garlic, paprika, cumin, red chili and salt. “We’ll also take classic seasonings from these dishes and use them with tofu,” Houle adds.

Latin Comida offers two salads daily such as jicama or tres frijoles from Mexico.

“The variety is part of the fun,” Houle says. “[The students] really want to know where each dish is from and if we just made it up or if it’s a traditional dish. Our staffers who come from these countries take pride in the dishes and tell us how to make them more authentic. With this station we feel the authenticity of each dish is important.”

“A lot of students, even if they don’t know the foods, are enticed by the flavors and look of the dishes and how vibrant they are,” adds Kardys.

The station also uses lots of plantains and yucca root, which is sliced, cubed and fried as a snack item. “We continue to learn,” Houle points out. “We ask our staff for help, and they’ll regularly bring in cactus, which we’ll use with pico de gallo instead of onions. It’s good—very light and fresh.”

Potato Pancake with a Twist

Yolanda Balbon, resident dining manager at Fordham University in New York, recently cooked with her mother at a special event at the university honoring an Ecuadorian priest and a nun from Malawi. Working with her mother, Balbon prepared a classic Ecuadorian dish, tortilla de papa.

“We do a special ethnic night each month and this event was our Ecuadorian one. Tortilla de papa is like a potato pancake, only thicker, that is served with fritado, which is pork marinated overnight in beer, baked and then fried. The tortilla is made with milk and potatoes—like mashed potatoes that are shaped into cakes—and there’s mozzarella cheese inside. You put the cheese in the mashed potato cakes and you fry them and serve over shredded lettuce. You add a slight touch of vinegar on top of each patty.

Working with my mother was very strange and different. My employees that night saw a different side of me. We have a large Ecuadorian population here in the Bronx and at the school, so the food reminded them of home. All of the employees worked with my mom to make the 600-plus patties.”

Tortilla de Papa with Ecuadorian Beef

6 to 8 servings

1 1/2 lbs. potatoes, peeled
Pinch of salt
Pinch of achiote powder
8 oz. butter
1/2 oz. each mozzarella cheese
1 tbsp. frying oil
1 heart lettuce
Dash parsley
Apple vinegar
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
Black pepper to taste
Diced tomatoes (for garnish)
Ecuadorian Beef (recipe follows)

Ecuadorian Beef:
Cumin to taste
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Sugar to taste
4 oz. apple vinegar
6 to 8 lbs. pork shoulder, trimmed, cut in 2-in. cubes
2 bottles of beer
Frying oil

  1. Boil potatoes. Add pinch of salt and pinch of achiote powder.
  2. Mash potatoes. While mashing, add butter. Mold potatoes into balls, about 1 1/2 in. thick. Make dent in middle and put 1/2 oz. mozzarella cheese in each and cover.
  3. Fry each on stove top in hot oil until outside becomes fried; about 5 mins.
  4. For beef: Mix a touch of cumin, salt, black pepper, sugar and apple vinegar. Use mixture to marinate pork chunks for six hours. An hour before cooking, pour beer over marinated meat. Mix well. Warm up frying oil in cast iron skillet. Add cubed meat. Lower flame and keep stirring until meat is cooked, about 20 mins. Do not overcook.
  5. For service: Slice 1 heart of lettuce into strips with a little parsley. Spritz apple vinegar on lettuce strips and sprinkle with salt, a touch of sugar and a pinch of black pepper to taste. Put tortilla de papa on top and garnish with diced tomatoes. Top with beef to serve.

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