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Flavorings Carry Culinary DNA


20 January 2005
Copyright © 2005
MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

A few drops of truffle oil can transform a plain-Jane chicken and mushroom stew into a refined northern Italian- or French-style dish. A dash of Spanish smoked paprika or a simple cooking sauce of onions and garlic flavored with cumin, cilantro and a single fresh hot pepper can turn it into something any Latin would love.

Such is the power of flavorings; they are passports to other lands. Here are some basics about Latin flavor to send you on your way:

With few exceptions, Latin Americans like to season meats, poultry and fish in tangy marinades. Invariably, they contain an acid medium -- vinegar or the juice of Seville bitter oranges, limes or lemons -- and a few aromatic spices such as cumin or oregano.

Sometimes all that's needed to effect a transformation is a change in cooking fat. That's a lesson I learned when I was about 7 and a neighbor gave me a taste of cubed potatoes fried in butter. Used to the lingering flavor of Spanish olive oil and lard, I found the nuttiness the butter imparted strangely exotic and engaging. I returned often to Rosina Navarrete's kitchen at dinnertime in hopes of eating her potatoes again, and I still remember the taste of them as something foreign and divine.

In my own kitchen today, I sauté garlic and onions in a blend of extra-virgin olive oil and the rendered fat of chorizos or bacon to give my white bean soup a smoky Spanish patina. A fruity extra-virgin olive oil with a subtle apple taste does wonders for my Oaxacan mole, and the addition of freshly rendered lard gives it an authentically earthy flavor.

A neutral oil such as canola or corn is essential when cooking some dishes from the Andes. A spoonful of assertive, bright orange dendé oil, extracted from the African palm (Elaeis guineensis), elevates a pleasant stew of fish cooked in coconut milk to a more serious dish with backbone any Brazilian recognizes as Bahian.

Peppers -- sweet or hot, fresh or dried -- also carry the DNA of the Latin kitchen. Finely chopped fresh jalapeño adds a welcome kick of heat and herbal freshness to a salad dressing or cooking sauce without altering the dish's identity, while a single chile chipotle (dried and smoked jalapeño) is powerful enough to give it a recognizable Mexican twist.

The fresh, sweet pepper known as ají dulce in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and ají cachucha in Cuba is equally assertive. These lantern-shaped miniatures have the same deep, herbaceous flavor as the chile habanero and its relative, the Scotch bonnet pepper, but none of the heat.

This single pepper distinguishes the food of the Hispanic Caribbean islands, coastal Venezuela and Colombia from that of the rest of Latin America. Ají chachucha is what makes Cuban black bean soup sing. Together with cilantro and its New World counterpart, culantro, ají dulce is the deep herbal underpinning of the sofritos of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the foundation of their cuisines.

You can find these peppers and herbs in any market that caters to a Hispanic Caribbean clientele. Add a few whole peppers to a chicken or bean soup for a musky herbal flavor or chop them finely, seeds and all, and stir them into a salsa cruda for an emphatic herbal accent.

Use the peppers along with cilantro and culantro to season creamy dips or mayonnaise or sauté them in olive oil with garlic and onions to flavor meat, poultry, fish or seafood. Mash them into a paste with olive oil, garlic and citrus juice for a fish marinade or use them raw, finely chopped, in a succulent French-style shrimp and mushroom gratin like the one here for instant island flavor.

Famed French chef Jacques Pépin is intimately acquainted with Hispanic Caribbean flavors thanks to his wife, Gloria, who is of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent. The couple demonstrated making this recipe from his latest book, Jacques Pépin Fast Food My Way, at a food event we all attended in San Juan last fall.

My adaptation reflects the changes they made after a morning of shopping at a San Juan market with our group, which included Puerto Rican food expert Giovanna Huyke. In their creolized version, ají dulce joins forces with cilantro and culantro to give pungency and complexity to a discreetly flavored European-style shrimp and mushroom gratin.

This doctored version was so well-received we only wished they had prepared more.

Culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla is the chef/co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, N.J. Her latest book is The New Taste of Chocolate.


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