The Lure of Latin!

A tempting cuisine offering a rich blend of cross-cultural ingredients and techniques is gaining favor from coast to coast.

January 20, 1999|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

There's going to be a lot of gazing toward the horizon this year to see what the future might bring, so let's jump in right now with a culinary prediction that is a pretty sure -- and very tasty -- bet:

Nuevo Latino, or New Latin, cuisine.

This combination of Mexican, Caribbean and Central and South American foods with a modern touch, which originated in Florida in the early 1990s, already has made an impact in California, Texas and New York. It was cited among the top 10 food trends of 1999 by Bon Appetit magazine. And it's making its way around the country.

"Latin food is here, and here to stay in a big way," says cookbook author Steven Raichlen, whose most recent book is "Steven Raichlen's Healthy Latin Cooking" (Rodale Press, 1998, $29.95). Raichlen, now based in Miami, grew up in Baltimore. "It's driven partly by demographics -- there's been a huge growth in the Latino population" in the United States.

Baltimore also is seeing a big increase. A 1990 census counted 28,538 Hispanic or Latino people in the area.

A couple of years ago, a census estimate turned up 47,400, a 66 percent increase -- though some in the community say those figures are low.

In the realm of Latin cuisine, the process of "fusion" -- a blending of cross-cultural ingredients and techniques that created seafood tacos and won-ton ravioli -- is in operation, Raichlen says. Cuisines that previously were "very compartmentalized" -- including, for instance, Cuban, Mexican, Argentine, Brazilian, Venezuelan and Jamaican -- are now influencing each other.

"One of the big influences of 'nuevo' is bringing all those [cuisines] together," Raichlen says.

Many food trends in recent years have originated from waves of immigration -- Thai and Vietnamese, for example. New immigrants opened restaurants, and other people discovered the food and liked it. The immigrants sought familiar ingredients for home cooking, and specialty stores, and later supermarkets, began to carry them -- thus, you can find oyster sauce, chilies and lemon grass in supermarkets around the country.

"We've been keeping an eye on this trend," says Laurie Harrsen, manager of consumer affairs for McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley. "It's gaining momentum."

In addition, Americans are traveling more, and as they sample other cuisines, they become interested in finding them in restaurants at home, or in duplicating them in the kitchen.

Rafael Palomino, a Colombian-born chef who has two restaurants in New York, Bistro Latino and Sonora, says the New Latin cuisine is flourishing because "people are more open-minded, more adventuresome." And because the food is so appealing: "The flavors are natural, not heavy and very tasty."

Some of Palomino's dishes are Ecuadorean mixed seafood ceviche, fruit gazpacho, and goat cheese and basil tamales.

Baltimore is getting its own version of Nuevo Latino with Latin Palace, a restaurant opening this week at 509 S. Broadway in Fells Point. Owner Enrique Ribadeneira will be serving lunch and dinner, with dishes influenced by the American Southwest, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America and Spain. "Latin cuisine has a huge array of dishes," Ribadeneira says.

He'll be providing a little of the Latin experience too, with flamenco and live salsa bands and dance instruction. (The grand opening Friday also will feature a fashion show and art show.)

Among the "huge array" of dishes in the cuisine are some standards. For instance, salsa -- typically, a cold condiment of onions, tomatoes and chilies, although there are many variations -- is a standard in all Nuevo Latino venues, says Raichlen, the cookbook author.

Other flavors he cites:

* Sofrito -- a saute of onions, garlic and bell peppers -- is "a quintessential flavor base" that is used in soups and stews, and as a condiment.

* Chilies -- especially in Mexican and Caribbean cooking.

* Spices are cumin and oregano for savory dishes, and cinnamon, cloves and star anise for sweet dishes.

* Starches -- plantains, which are cooking bananas, and yucca are common.

* Grains such as quinoa and amaranth.

* Beans and rice -- "the cornerstone of Latino cooking."

* Tropical fruits -- bananas, mangoes, coconuts, passion fruit, guavas.

"Cilantro and garlic are also important flavor components," Raichlen says. "And sugar" -- which historically came from cane in the tropics -- "is very important."

In fact, Raichlen notes, a dessert product lets him know how important Latino cuisine is becoming in mainstream America: Haagen-Dazs' Dulce de Leche -- cream of caramel -- ice cream.

"This is what tells me this is more than a flash in the pan," he says, with a laugh. "This is business proclaiming loud and clear where things are going."

Red Sofrito

Makes 1 1/2 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely diced (about 1 cup)

3 garlic cloves, minced

3/4 cup cumin, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 bay leaf

1 ripe tomato, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper, to taste

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