How to Build an Ethnic Pantry: Latin American

 

To celebrate the many different types of cuisines around the world, we’ve created a mini-series, “How to Build an Ethnic Pantry,” that offers some advice on the kinds of ingredients every cook should have when they make a particular cultural dish. We also asked grocery store owners and chefs for suggestions and what they think makes their food unique. Check out what ingredients fill Latin American kitchens throughout the world...

Interested in making Latin American cuisine but don't know what ingredients you need?

Don't worry! The folks at Mi Tierra Supermarket in Jackson Heights were kind enough to share some knowledge this week. Located on 85th Street and Roosevelt Avenue as well as on Northern Blvd and 81st Street, Mi Tierra is the hub of Latin American grocery shopping. The market spans half of a block and caters to a predominately Mexican customer base. But all other Latin Americans also visit the store regularly and navigate through the long line of shelves in order to get the products they need to whip up a tasty traditional dish.

Ericka Ramirez and Jackie Hernandez, sales counter associates at Mi Tierra, offered some insight into what every aspiring Latin-American-loving chef should have in his or her pantry:

1. Rice 2. Salt 3. Beans 4. Cilantro 5. Onions 6. Peppers 7. Picante (chilies or hot sauce) 8. Sliced Beef 9. Salad (one that consists of mostly lettuce) 10. Adobo (for seasoning meats and vegetables)

All of these ingredients, they said, are crucial to Latin American cuisine. Some, if not all, are heavily found in traditional foods such as mole, a type of sauce used in Mexican cuisine that consists of one or more kinds of pepper, and guacamole. Customers also use some of these ingredients to make quesadillas, which are flattened tortilla sandwiches filled with cheese and other kinds of ingredients. Others may use ingredients like salt, cilantro and onions to make pozolé, a Mexican pork and hominy stew that has been known to cure hangovers.

Ramirez said what makes Latin American cuisine particularly unique is its focus on flavor. Much of that, she pointed out, obviously comes from the ingredients (some of which are listed above), which help highlight the savor of Latin American food.

“Everything has to do with flavor,” she said. “That’s why it’s hard for some people to copy our food.”

Photos : Julien H and Craig Dugas

Ingredient Focus : Lingonberries

If there’s one thing us Swedes are known for, it's our lingonberries. Lingonberries to us are like blueberries to Americans; we use it in desserts, drink it as juice and spread it as preserves on almost anything we can get our hands on. I remember first trying lingonberries at my grandmother’s house in Sweden and falling in love with their tart yet sweet flavor.

These small, red distant cousin of cranberries are perhaps one of the most important forest berries found in Scandinavia. The leaves are much darker than most with a waxy texture which grows red, tart and juicy lingonberries. We consider lingonberries invaluable because they could be preserved for months by simply being placed in a jar with water. The fact that the natural preservatives in the berries could stay sustainable for days, weeks and even months is proof of the benefits they can also add to our health.

Lingonberries are often called the "Queen of Berries" because of their high antioxidant content, rich source of fibers, minerals and vitamins A and C. The fiber from these berries, similar to blueberries, keep you fuller for a longer period of time and the antioxidants and minerals improve digestion and tone up your body and muscles.

While fresh growers of lingonberries are scarce, often found in Washington and Oregon, jars of fresh lingonberries are simple to find and imported lingonberries are always a good choice as well. At Red Rooster Harlem, we incorporate lingonberries into one of my signature dishes, Helga's Meatballs. It’s a tribute to not only my grandmother Helga, but also to my first introduction to the lingonberry by her as well.

Lingonberries are fantastic ways to spice up any normal dish, whether it be sweet like a cheesecake or savory like a glaze or sauce. The tartness and juiciness of the lingonberry bodes well for a homemade jam or jelly, spread on toast for breakfast or used in place of cranberries to give a refreshing twist to a classic summer cocktail, like the Cosmopolitan. Check out a quick and simple recipe below.

Lingonberry Cosmopolitan Recipe

2 servings

Ingredients: 2 oz vodka, or Aquavit (to learn how to make your own Aquavit, click here) 2 oz lingonberry juice 1 oz triple sec 1 oz lime juice

Directions: 

1. Place all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into a martini glass.

Photo: Visit Sørlandet

Ingredient Focus: Fresh Oregano

You can pretty much tell if any Dominican is cooking when the smell of oregano fills the air. A staple of Caribbean cuisine, where it grows in backyards and farms of Dominican Republic, oregano is an aromatic herb that infuses every meal with great flavor. Not only is it tasty, it also holds many health benefits:

  1. Fresh oregano has four times the antioxidant (by weight) than blueberries
  2. Rich, natural source of Vitamin K, which plays a large role in our cardiovascular and bone health
  3. High source of fiber, which clings to toxins and removes them from your body
  4. Leaves and flowers of the oregano plant are known to have antiseptic, carminative, antispasmodic, expectorant, and diaphoretic qualities
  5. Excellent source of Vitamin C, helping against infectious diseases, as well as  the common cold

One of the simplest ways to prepare fresh oregano is by making a salad dressing, which involves no heat. When cooking with fresh oregano, use it close to the end of the preparation of the dish when heating, in order to keep all nutritional value intact (heat tends to deteriorate nutrients in herbs and spices).  Using a 3:1 oil-to-vinegar ratio, muddle fresh oregano leaves and whisk into the dressing. Serve over avocado slices, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella slices or even as a raw sauce for steak.

Photos: Marnely Rodriguez

What To Eat Now : Miner's Lettuce

These days, we're all green with envy over the different ways to spice up your vegetable routine. Gone are the days of watery iceberg lettuce and plain romaine hearts--who needs those when you've got peppery arugula at the local market and spinach leaves to plant in your garden?

With everyone "going green," we want to introduce you to one of our favorite ingredients right now: miner's lettuce. We're so excited about miner's lettuce that it's even in one of Red Rooster's new spring dishes, the Grilled Pork Loin. Named after the California gold rush in the 1850s, the gold miners ate this abundant plant that prevented scurvy, an illness caused by a vitamin C deficiency. The small, delicate lettuce leaves are full of antioxidants, especially rich in vitamin A & C. A recent study also revealed that about 100 grams of miner's lettuce contain 1/3 of your daily requirement of vitamin C, 22 percent of vitamin A and 10 percent of iron.

Miner's lettuce, or Claytonia Perfoliata is often found growing along the California coast and Western mountain regions, however miner's lettuce seeds are sold practically everywhere. Additionally, you should be able to find miner's lettuce at most local farmers markets. Though it's perhaps not as easily accessible as spinach, arugula or kale, miner's lettuce is a delicate green that is petite in appearance but just the opposite in taste.

Miner's lettuce has a freshly green and grassy taste with a small peppery bite towards the end. The shape of the leaves are a cross between watercress and spinach, without tasting the bitterness you sometimes get from the latter. As the plant itself matures, it puts up a single flower stalk that bears a tiny white flower. As if the distinctive plant couldn't get any cooler, the leaves, flowers and stems are all edible. Even after flowering, the flavor stays tender and sweet without wilting.

While miner's lettuce can undoubtedly shine in a salad dressed in a light mustard or lemon vinaigrette, why not shake things up and try miner lettuce in a stir fry or in a fruit smoothie? As we talked about earlier, miner's lettuce would also be a tasty green to juice! For the savory route, miner's lettuce would be a fantastic replacement for spinach when making your own noodles or even used in place of arugula for a different take on pesto. For a salad, toss some toasted breadcrumbs, a few crumbles of goat cheese, sliced grapefruit or even pumpkin seeds for an interesting contrast on a traditional bowl of lettuce.

Or you can just come in and try it at Red Rooster Harlem. We heard it pairs well with our Rooster Punch.

Have you tried miner's lettuce before?

Photo: Dawn Endico

For more ingredient close-ups, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)

Ingredient Spotlight: Fresh Oregano

By: Marnely Rodriguez

She starts every meal by sauteing fresh Oregano in olive oil. Every lunch, every dinner; whether it's chicken breast or eggplant parmesan, you'll know my Mother is cooking when the smell of Oregano fills the air. A staple of Caribbean cuisine, where it grows in backyards and farms of Dominican Republic, Oregano is an aromatic herb that infuses your meals with great flavor. It's also a great source of health benefits, such as:

  1. Fresh oregano has four times the antioxidant (by weight) than blueberries
  2. Rich, natural source of Vitamin K, which plays a large role in our cardiovascular and bone health
  3. High source of fiber, which clings to toxins and removes them from your body
  4. Leaves and flowers of the oregano plant are known to have antiseptic, carminative, antispasmodic, expectorant, and diaphoretic qualities
  5. Excellent source of Vitamin C, helping against infectious diseases, as well as the common cold

One of the simplest ways to prepare fresh oregano is by making a salad dressing, which involves no heat. When cooking with fresh oregano, use it close to the end of the preparation of the dish when heating, in order to keep all nutritional value intact (heat tends to deteriorate nutrients in herbs and spices). Using a 3:1 oil-to-vinegar ratio, muddle fresh oregano leaves and whisk into the dressing. Serve over avocado slices, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella slices or even as a raw sauce for steak.

Photos: Marnely Rodriguez

Marnely Rodriguez, author of the food blog, Cooking with Books. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, has worked as an Overnight Bread Baker in Colorado, a Chocolate Maker in Virginia as well as a Pastry Cook on the whimsical island of Martha's Vineyard, just to name a few. Currently residing in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic where she is an endless search for Caribbean flavors, tropical fruits and gastronomic inspiration. Follow her on Twitter: @nella22