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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

'Melting Pot' Chef Brings Latin Sizzle To Kohler


October 29, 2003
Copyright ©2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

It was perfect leaf-raking weather. But it was even better to just sit back and breathe in the aroma of sauteing onions, spicy peppers and garlic -- an olfactory tsunami -- in the big tent where Aaron Sanchez was demonstrating Latin American cooking techniques.

Sanchez, one of the nation's ascending culinary stars, was in Kohler this past weekend for the third annual Food & Wine Experience. He was part of the lineup of experts brought in from the world of food and wine for the three-day event.

Born in 1973, this whiz kid is co-host of "Melting Pot" on the Food Network. And he's chef-owner of Paladar, a Latin American restaurant in New York City.

Sanchez is also author of "La Comida del Barrio -- Latin American Cooking in the U.S.A." (Clarkson Potter, 2003, $30).

In the gleaming demonstration kitchen magically assembled for the event, he cooked sofrito, mojo and salsa, three basic components of many Latin dishes. The big white tent that housed the stage was set up in the parking lot opposite the Shops at Woodlake.

With youthful disregard for his own fingers, Sanchez chopped and talked at the same time, dishing out equal parts culinary philosophy and practical cooking advice.

He urged "common sense" when it comes to following recipes, especially those with unfamiliar ingredients.

"If you can't find something, find something that's similar," he said.

He rattled off some of his personal preferences when it comes to ingredients. He likes Spanish olive oil because of its intense flavor. And he cooks with dry sherry instead of white wine because sherry adds more "substance" to a sauce.

The son of Mexican cooking authority Zarela Martinez, Sanchez is fascinated by the food of the barrios -- Latin American neighborhoods -- in cities such as New York and Miami.

His cookbook reflects his research into how traditional Latin recipes are adapted once they reach this country. Ingredients available here are substituted for what's not here. And modern methods -- perhaps a blender instead of a mortar and pestle -- begin to nudge out traditional ways.

So while the food has roots in Latin America, it exists here and now. It's under the same large umbrella, Sanchez explained, with other cuisines -- such as Italian and Chinese -- that have become part of our country's culture.

"I want people to know that I'm talking about American food," he said.

During an interview after the demonstration, Sanchez explained that Latin American cuisine is often misunderstood. It is "seen to lack sophistication, kind of like it's just rice, beans, plantains and roasted meat, with not a lot of nuances to it. But really, there's a lot there. I could go on and on and on talking about it."

To help teach about the subtleties of Latin American food, he begins with basics, but he also encourages home chefs to move beyond the confines of recipes and to experiment with unfamiliar ingredients and flavors.

Sofrito is a cooked preparation that always includes some combination of peppers, onions and garlic. It doesn't belong to any one country, but it is the flavoring base of many sauces, stews and soups. Sofrito can either be left chunky or pureed.

"If you were going to make a soup or a stew and you needed to enrich the chicken stock -- like you wanted to give it more character and more flavor -- that's when you would add a pureed sofrito," he said. "It is used to thicken an otherwise watery or runny sauce."

The recipe for Plantain Soup that follows is one that incorporates a simple sofrito that is not pureed, but forms the backbone for the sauce. Sofrito is also often used as a component in shellfish dishes.

Mojo -- pronounced moho --has its roots in Latin American- Caribbean cooking. This regional designation includes three countries: Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic that Sanchez believes "have made serious contributions to food."

This sauce/marinade always includes "components of citrus and herb -- they have to be there in order to be dubbed mojo," he said.

In traditional mojo, sour oranges, also called Seville oranges, are used. A combination of orange juice and lime juice can stand in when sour oranges are unavailable.

The preparation is typically paired with pork because the vibrant citrus flavor cuts through the meat's fatty richness. Mojo is used as a marinade, with a separate amount reserved as a sauce for the meal.

Sanchez pointed out that a brief marinating, perhaps 15 minutes, keeps the meat from "cooking" in the citrus juice.

This versatile sauce can also dress up starchy vegetables such as potatoes or yucca. Or it can stand in as a salad dressing.

Sanchez knows that everyone is already conversant with salsa. It's the stuff we dip our tortilla chips in. But it also functions as a sidekick to meat, poultry or fish and is sometimes used as a component in other recipes.

Ingredients can be fresh or roasted. Roasting makes the mix more mellow and takes the edge off the raw garlic and onions.

"The way you should use salsa is to capitalize on the fresh ingredients. So if it's August, use the tomatoes. If it's the height of plum season, make a plum salsa for your duck," he said.

Sanchez is an avid student of food. One book that he recently read and highly recommends is "Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food" by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (Simon Schuster, 2002, $25, hardcover; Free Press, 2003, $14, paperback)

Written by a professor from Oxford University, "it's takes a very studious, but fascinating, approach," he said.

The Food & Wine Experience was co-sponsored by Food & Wine Magazine. Local sponsors included The American Club, Inn on Woodlake, The Shops at Woodlake Kohler, Kohler Design Center, Kohler Professional Kitchen Products and The Village of Kohler Tourism Promotion Committee.


The recipes that follow are adapted from "La Comida del Barrio" by Sanchez.


Sopa de Platanos

(Plantain Soup)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium white onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 red bell pepper, cored and coarsely chopped

1 green bell pepper, cored and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon cayenne

3 green plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (see note)

2 quarts chicken broth, homemade or low-sodium canned

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Crema fresca (available in specialty markets) or sour cream for garnish (optional)

Place large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and pour in oil. When oil begins to smoke, add onion, garlic and bell peppers. Cook and stir 10 minutes, until vegetables have softened; don't let them brown. Add coriander, cumin and cayenne, and stir constantly for 5 minutes so spices don't brown. Add plantains and cover with broth. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until plantains have become tender, about 30 minutes.

In a blender, working in batches, puree mixture, seasoning each batch with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with a dollop of crema fresca, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: In his cookbook, Sanchez says that green plantains and yellow-black sweet plantains are not interchangeable. All types of plantains must be cooked before eating.

To peel green plantains, "score them lengthwise and submerge under boiling water for 20 minutes, or until the skin turns black. Drain and allow to cool slightly. Carefully run you thumb up the slits and the skin should peel away easily."

Pico de Gallo

(Fresh Salsa)

3 ripe medium tomatoes, diced

1 medium white onion, diced

2 green onions (white and green parts), sliced

1 jalapeno, minced

Juice of 2 limes

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In mixing bowl, gently combine all ingredients. Cover and let sit 1 hour at room temperature to allow flavors to marry. Makes 2 cups.

Note: Pico de gallo (literally "rooster's beak") is a popular name for a raw salsa made of fresh chiles, onions and tomatoes.

Calabacitas con Pico de Gallo

(Sauteed Zucchini with Fresh Salsa)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 chile de arbol, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pound zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch thick circles

1 recipe pico de gallo (see recipe above)

1/2 cup queso blanco or grated Monterey jack cheese

To deep skillet over medium heat, add oil. Add chile and garlic and stir 1 minute to flavor oil. Add zucchini and saute 3 minutes to soften. Add pico de gallo and continue to cook until tomatoes begin to break down and mixture is heated through, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, fold in cheese, and serve. Makes 4 servings.


(Citrus-Garlic Sauce)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, slivered

Juice of 1 lime

Splash of white vinegar

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In small pot, heat oil over medium-low flame. Add garlic and cook slowly 2 minutes, or until golden but not brown. Remove pan from heat and stir in lime juice, vinegar, and cilantro; season with salt and pepper. Pour mojo over cooked starchy vegetable -- such as yucca or potatoes -- while both sauce and vegetables are still hot. Or refrigerate mojo and use as an all-purpose condiment. Makes 3/4 cup.

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