“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.”
Rising to the occasion
Latin American cuisine might be wildly popular, but it’s not always easy to create. Labor is a major challenge for Brutsman—“it takes a long time to create 500 empanadas for one meal”—but by creating labor-intensive items during downtime, such as spring break, and doing small-batch cooking as much as possible at the station, Brutsman has solved the issue.
Thibodaux’s Curtis can relate. “Many items within this region are grilled. However, the home-style approach is often moist-heat methods, such as braising, stewing or steaming, so it’s important to have the proteins tender and made with just enough sauce so the flavors are strong and robust,” advises Curtis, noting ample marinating time as paramount. “If you add too much liquid to a braised or stewed item, the flavors are diluted and the finished product suffers.”
Keeping up with demand has been a challenge for MacRae—it’s not easy pressing 120 Cuban sandwiches and keeping them crispy. So MacRae developed a new method whereby the sandwiches are made in advance, pressed between sheet pans weighted with cans of beans in the walk-in and fried in clarified butter on a hot griddle to order. “It has worked so well, we have used that method to press all kinds of sandwiches on all kinds of sturdy breads,” she adds.
When sourcing is a challenge, get creative with substitutes, such as cilantro or parsley for culantro, Curtis says. When MacRae had trouble sourcing Seville oranges, she duplicated the tang with a recipe using lime, orange and lemon.
Perhaps most important, “your clientele has to be educated to accept these items,” warns Curtis, citing his struggle to introduce his customers to black beans instead of red kidney or white. “In order to increase acceptance, I slowly introduce them as components to other dishes, such as salsa, and over time people grow to accept the new items.”