One of America’s favorite chefs gives a healthy and exciting twist on the best street foods of Latin America.
The taco. The arepa. The empanada. The tamale. From the streets of Mexico and Venezuela to Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Cuba, these comfort foods represent something that’s shared across our Latin cultures: the concept of food in a vessel. Food embraced!
Breaking down each new-style taco into its elements, Lorena shows you how to create each delicious layer—from the shell to the fillings to the toppings, including slaws, salads, and sauces. You’ll give a Southern Hoppin’ John a new name and a Latin accent. You’ll top the sweetest of plantains with the tangiest of pickled onions. And you’ll learn how to make extraordinary side dishes like creamy Peruvian corn gratin, a flavorful succotash with a trio of beans, and avocado fries.
These flavor-packed recipes are made for pairing and sharing, depending on your craving or occasion. Master the elements, and your mix-and-match possibilities will be endless. You’ll find yourself easily cooking, eating, and swooning your way through a dizzying new world of crowd-pleasing Latin fare.
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Venezuelan-born restaurateur, TV personality, and cookbook author Lorena Garcia is currently one of the country’s leading chefs. She is well known for numerous TV series (Top Chef Masters, Top Chef Estrellas, Sazon con Lorena Garcia, Lorena en Su Salsa, and El Mejor De Los Peores to name a few), a successful chain of restaurants, and her cookbook, Lorena Garcia’s New Latin Classics. She was the creator of the Cantina Bell menu at Taco Bell, and has her own cookware line, Lorena Bella Kitchen Collection for HSN.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chicken Churrasco Tacos, see recipe here
Like its people, the street foods of Latin America welcome you with a warm hug. Our stories may be different, our intonations unique, our rhythms purely regional, but one way or another our most beloved dishes come cradled in corn.
These dishes offer bites within bites, sublime pops of flavor contained within earthy corn wrappings. As simple as a taco, an arepa or a tamal may seem, they enfold more than a set of ingredients. They carry the great intangibles that distinguish our stories, the flavor notes of a particular city, the cooking methods of a region, not to mention the shared memories of a family.
Like tiny declarations of identity, each bite spells out the nuances between Mexico and Venezuela, Ecuador and Puerto Rico, Peru and Cuba.
Dishes tell stories. Sometimes those stories echo the beats of a particular place or culture, and sometimes they echo a mix of beats.
And when we explore the culinary beats we share in Latin America and the Caribbean, we must pay homage to the taco.
Allow me to use this term loosely here. I’m not referring to the literal taco shell and taco filling that may come to mind, but rather a concept that’s shared across our Latin cultures: the concept of food in a vessel. Food embraced.
So what if we take that vessel as a way to showcase the broader Latin cuisine? What if we were to expand the concept of the humble taco and build a new taco template?
We build this template by first deconstructing the concept: There is the vessel that’s most often made of corn masa, the filling, the toppings and the techniques that bring those elements together.
That vessel can take the form of a taco, an arepa, a sope, an empanada, even a tamal. It can carry any number of fillings and toppings, and be paired with any number of sides. Master the elements and your mix-and-match possibilities are endless.
I see this book as a wonderful interactive meal in which you can bring your own pairing options to the table. I present you with scores of recipes, but you can combine them any way you’d like. And even though it’s a taco book, you can skip the tortilla (or whatever vessel is specified in the recipe) entirely. That’s the beauty of these recipes: They’re made for pairing and sharing, depending on your craving or occasion.
You may notice, however, that these New Taco Classics recipes have a recurring theme in how they are constructed. For the most part, they are built in layers: vessel, filling, crunch and sauce.
The key to success is in developing layers of flavor that complement one another. It’s all about balance and contrast.
It’s also about freshness. I’m often reminded of the stellar fish tacos I’ve had in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. These are simple tacos made with simple ingredients by street food cooks. But the quality of ingredients elevates them to greatness. The fish is fresh-caught, the tortillas fresh-made, the toppings a study of contrasts—as in battered fish brightened by lime and cilantro notes dancing on fresh, creamy avocado. This is a bite that tells the story of its seaside city.
In my native Venezuela, the stories echo from little food carts that dot the streets. These are not like the hip food trucks that roam Los Angeles or Miami, but mobile stoves that turn out hot, fresh corn cakes stuffed with meats, cheese, beans, whatever your choice of filling may be.
What remains constant in these arepas is the undeniable essence of corn. Corn, from the sweet elote to the more rigid maiz, is the sturdy common thread that runs through the nuances of our cultures. It’s an ingredient beloved throughout Latin America. But the type of corn that we choose, the way we cook it and the way we eat it—these change from culture to culture.
In my Venezuela, corn flour was one of the first ingredients I reached for as a child experimenting in my mother’s kitchen. The aroma of masa harina wafting up from a hot comal, a searing griddle or a steaming pot of tamales still sends me back to one Caracas morning many years ago when I made my very first attempt at cooking. I was six years old and determined to make tamales for my mother and brother.
I slipped into the kitchen, scooped up some of my mother’s precooked corn flour and mixed it into a masa paste, just as I had watched her do so many times. I spooned my tamale batter into ragged pieces of aluminum foil and dropped the foil packets into boiling water. Then I made some scrambled eggs to serve with these little tamalitos. Desayuno!
I set a small table in the middle of the living room and invited my mother and brother to come for breakfast. (My poor mother—what a mess I left in her kitchen!)
Still today, if you ask me to describe my favorite breakfast, I’d have to answer like a born and raised Venezuelan: arepas and eggs.
Breakfast is not breakfast in my homeland without a thick corn arepa, one that is so fluffy it can be split with a fork and filled. Fresh and ever so lightly sweet, it’s our bread. Arepas in Venezuela are like morning biscuits in the American South.
In neighboring Colombia, the arepa is a bit thinner, but still flavorful and equally revered.
Travel the Andean highlands from Chile to Ecuador and find hearty wedges of pastel de choclo.
In Brazil, corn flour lends earthy goodness to the bolo de fubá corn cake that’s so loved with morning coffee.
Travel north to Central America and you’ll find a range of hand-patted tortillas, thick, thin and filled. In Nicaragua and Honduras, tortillas tend to be thinner and more pliable, perfect for wrapping grilled meats in. Salvadorans, who like their tortillas smaller and thicker, nosh on hearty pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with everything from ground chorizo to chicharrón.
In Mexico, masa handling is more than an art—it’s a culinary science. The hard maíz dough, made more pliable, healthful and flavorful by an ancient alkalizing process known as nixtamalization, takes on a staggering number of forms: tacos, sopes, huaraches, tostadas, and others.
In Cuba, cornmeal that’s studded with pork and aromatics is wrapped into a corn husk and simmered in water to make tamales.
So, how did we go from tacos to tamales? Trace the route from masa to filling to topping and you may be surprised at just how many “taco template” dishes you’ll find.
As chefs, our art is the food we explore, cook and serve. This is how we connect with the world and why we always want to “say” something with our dishes. For me there is nothing better than to create a meal with my hands—a meal that comes from my heart—and feed others.
While I take inspiration from classic renditions of favorite Latin American dishes, I make them my own by experimenting with savory and sweet notes, with contrasting elements, with flavors that brazenly cross culinary and geographical borders. I encourage you to do the same. This is what New Taco Classics is all about.
We’ll get creative with our ingredients. We’ll use herbs and veggies and beans to flavor the corn masa. We’ll reach for plantain leaves instead of aluminum foil to wrap our tamales. We’ll experiment with a variety of slaws and salsas and cremas.
That is my aim in writing this book—to honor our shared cuisine in dishes that are fresh, modern and thoroughly Latin.
These recipes, for the most part, do not require hours of labor at the stove. They are meant to be accessible, shareable and celebration-worthy, even on a weeknight.
Some of these taco variations enclose their contents entirely, others offer a small peek, and others greet you with an open face. But one way or another, this much is true: They all welcome you with a warm hug and an open heart.
NEW TACO CLASSICS
ALL HAIL QUEEN CORN.
Corn dough, flavorful and resilient, offers the perfect vessel for our fillings, from saucy or grilled meats to melted cheeses to marinated seafood or crispy fried fish to slow, beautiful braises.
As simple as a taco or arepa shell may seem, there’s nothing plain about its corn foundation. With its nutty, almost mineral scents corn lends an earthy subplot to the main story lines of Latin American cuisine.
But imagine adding flavor notes to the masa—the dough—that echo or contrast a taco’s filling. We’ll do this by infusing the dough for Venezuelan telitas—flat breads—with beets for a dramatically hued result, and with cilantro for a fresh, herbaceous finish.
We’ll add pops of flavor and color to tamales with roasted red peppers and brilliantly colored achiote oil. And we’ll deepen the flavors of classic reinitas with fresh carrots and black beans.
Those keeping a gluten-free diet are in for a treat: The majority of the recipes in this chapter are wheat-free and offer delicious alternatives to your average gluten-free flour mixes. Of course, because corn masa is gluten-free, it requires some love and finesse to keep it from crumbling.
A word about prep work: If you don’t have time to make your own corn vessel, you can substitute store-bought tortillas. But I hope the following recipes will encourage you to try the homemade approach. With a little practice, you’ll find that working with corn masa is not as daunting as you may think.
TELITAS (FLAT BREADS):
Corn-flour-based flat breads, which can be crispy or soft, with flavor variations
Black Bean Telitas
Purple (Peruvian) Corn Telitas
Small, crispy arepas, with flavor variations
Black Bean Reinitas
TORTILLAS AND TOSTADAS:
Soft Corn Tortillas
Tostadas (variation of the tortilla, different cooking method, but same ingredients and procedure)
Blue Corn Tortillas
Fried masa cakes
SWEET CORN TAMALES
ROASTED RED PEPPER TAMALES
WHITE HOMINY CORN TORTILLAS, AREPAS, AND REINITAS:
Hominy corn-based recipe
These fluffy disks are ever-present in Venezuelan and Colombian cuisine. Easily made with precooked corn flour, arepas are as adaptable as they are delicious—enjoy them at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack time.
PREP TIME: 20 minutes
COOK TIME: 15 minutes
YIELD: 8 (4½ ounces each)
2 cups precooked corn flour (masa arepa flour)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2½ cups water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (for greasing skillet)
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the precooked corn flour and salt. Add the water and knead the mixture until all the ingredients are well combined and the dough no longer sticks to your hands. (If, while kneading, the dough seems too stiff and breaks apart, add a few tablespoons of hot water; if it is too sticky, add a little more corn flour).
2. Divide the dough into 8 equal balls (about 4½ ounces each) and flatten each between your palms into a 4-inch patty, ½-inch thick.
3. Heat the vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add 3 or 4 arepas to the pan (depending on size of pan). The arepas should sizzle as they hit the skillet.
4. Cook the arepas until they’re golden and have a nice crust, 6 to 8 minutes. Flip them and brown the other side for an additional 6 to 8 minutes. Then cover the arepas and continue to steam them for another 5 minutes.
TELITAS (FLAT BREADS)
The word “telita,” which means “little cloth” or a tiny scrap of cloth, inspired these thin, corn-scented flat breads. Made with precooked corn flour, they can be enjoyed soft or fried crispy. Either way, they welcome flavor experimentation. Infuse them with cheese or black beans for a richer flavor, with beets or carrots for a pop of color, with cilantro for a herbaceous note, or with anise seed and panela or piloncillo for a sweet finish.
PREP TIME: 15 minutes
COOK TIME: 5–6 minutes
YIELD: 12 rounds (1½ ounces each)
1 cup precooked corn flour (masa arepa flour)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup water
¾ cup queso fresco cheese, grated
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Whisk together the corn flour and salt.
2. In a medium-size bowl, add the water, queso fresco cheese, and oil. Slowly add the flour mixture, stirring until well combined. The dough will be loose at first, but the flour will absorb the liquid.
3. Start to knead the dough in the bowl, and once it becomes very soft and does not stick to your hands, after about 5 minutes, the dough is ready to be shaped. (If while kneading, the dough seems too stiff and breaks apart, add a few tablespoons of water; if it is too sticky, add a little more flour.)
4. Divide the dough into 12 equal balls, of 1½ ounces each, and flatten each in a tortilla press or by using the flat side of a plate to make 5-inch tortillas.
1. Preheat the fryer to 350F degrees. Fry the telitas, 3 to 4 at a time, until golden brown, about 2½ minutes per side.
2. Place the fried telitas in a plate lined with paper towels until ready to use.
ASADA METHOD STOVE TOP/SKILLET:
1. Heat a large skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Place telitas in the hot pan. Cook the telita until it is browned and crispy, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip it over and brown the other side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
2. Remove from pan and set aside in a tortilla warmer or wrapped in a kitchen towel.
PREP TIME: 20 minutes
COOK TIME: 6 minutes
YIELD: 12 rounds (1-ounce each)
1 cup water
3 tablespoons panela (unrefined cane sugar), grated
1 tablespoon anise seed
1 cup precooked corn flour (masa arepa flour)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cups queso blanco, grated
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1. In a pot, add water, panela, and anise seed and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes until warm to the touch.
2. In a mixing bowl add the panela-and-anise water. Add the remaining ingredients and combine. Mix well with hands until all the ingredients are incorporated and the dough does not stick to your hands.
3. Divide the dough into 12 equal balls, 1-ounce each, and fl...
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