Sunday, November 18, 2007

Making a Cantina Out of My Kitchen with Isabel's Help

I have to admit to a huge hole in my cookbook collection and it is a hole that I haven't been all that anxious to fill. My cookbook collection is sorely lacking in the catagory of Latin foods. This hasn't been been because I don't like foods from Latin America because all you have to do is point me in the direction of the nearest restaurant serving food from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, or any of the countries that make up Latin American Cuisine and I'll race you for the door. But ask me to cook it for you??!! I would run the other way.

I have to admit I was a bit intimidated by all different spices and peppers and cooking techniques that Latin cuisine uses. Not to mention, until recently, I didn't live an area with good access to the fresh ingredients that are the hallmark of Latin American cuisine. That all changed when I was asked to review Isabel Cruz's new cookbook Isabel's Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors from the New California Kitchen .

When the book arrived I was immediately struck by the bright colors on the cover. I was then drawn in with the simplicity of the lay out of the book. There are nine chapters in the book covering starters; salads; soups; main courses; rice, beans, and other sides; salsas, sauces, and marinades; desserts, drinks, and breakfasts. Each chapter starts out with an explanation of the spices, flavors, and cuisines that Ms. Cruz took her inspiration from for the dishes she included in the chapter. The recipes are well written with hints about how to choose the best fresh ingredients you will be using for the dish, how to combine them to get the flavors just right, other dishes in the cookbook to pair the dish with, and serving suggestions. Sometimes she includes the cultural history behind the dish or a shares a family story about how the dish was served at a family function.

Another pleasant surprise was how Ms. Cruz also draws influence for her dishes from other cuisines like Japanese in the "Mahi Mahi with Jalapeno Ponzu Sauce" or Thai in the "Budda Bowl" recipe. I made both of these dishes and while I found the jalapeno a bit over powering for the Mahi Mahi, I have used the ponzu sauce with bluefish and it brought out all the things good about the meaty bluefish. I have the "Budda Bowl" in regular rotation for a quick but delicious dinner that leaves enough leftovers for a good lunch the next day. I also always have a small container of the "Balsmatic Dressing" found on page 153 in my fridge. I've used this on salads, to marinate figs in for an appetizer, and to deglaze a pan I used to caramelize onions and then poured the reduction over a rare steak. That reduction made my $5.99 sale steak from the local butcher taste every bit as good as the $68.00 steak I had at Ruth Chris a few weeks ago and I'm already dreaming about using it on oven-roasted pork tenderloin this winter. The only recipe I tried that I wasn't that fond of was the recipe for Sweet Plantains and it wasn't the recipe but rather I discovered that despite really trying to like them, I just don't like plantains. But, the recipe that is on the very next page, 132, will knock your socks off literally and figuratively. It is for "Firecracker Corn" and I love this so much I've made it as a main dish for dinner a few times. It is simplicity in ingredients, only containing olive oil, red jalapeno, corn and kosher salt. The last warm weekend of the late summer I grilled the corn before making this and the combination of the spice of the jalapeno and the smoky corn made a great base for corn salsa.

After living with this cookbook for the past few months and cooking out of it at least once a week I have a few Latin American techniques that I am much more comfortable with performing. I skin and seed hot peppers with more confidence and now make sure the Latin American aisle is on almost every trip to the store. I also have cooked two of the recipes so much that I have committed them to memory. The first is for "Cumin Panko Chicken". I love the way the cumin takes what can be a boring evening meal of breaded chicken cutlet and elevates it to a dish worthy of being served at a dinner party and the panko bread crumbs give the chicken breast a wonderful texture.

The other recipe that I know by heart is the "Pina Colada Pancakes". These pancakes are some of the best pancakes I've had and the recipe for the pancake batter is the best recipe I've ever worked with; even when I cut it in half. I love these so much that I've had them for dinner twice this week! Each bite is filled with the tastes of a beach vacation in the Caribbean. I am definitely putting these on the menu when I next have my girlfriends over for brunch and I'm serving them with the "Ginger Yogurt Breakfast Parfait" and the "Star Tea" found on page 203 and page 195 respectively.

All in all Isabel's Cantina: Bold Latin Flavors from the New California Kitchen by Isabel Cruz, has helped me overcome my fear of cooking Latin American food and helped me start what I hope will soon be an ever growing collection of cookbooks that feature the tastes of Latin America and beyond.

Pina Colada Pancakes

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups AP flour
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup canned coconut milk
1 cup milk
3 Tbsp melted butter, cooled slightly
2 large eggs
3/4 cup fresh or canned pineapple chunks, thinly sliced
1/2 cup shredded sweetened dried coconut

In large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Combine coconut milk, milk, butter and eggs in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and whisk until just incorporated.

Heat an oiled griddle or large skillet over medium high heat.

Working in batches, use a laddle to spoon 1/4 cup of batter for each pancake onto the hot griddle. As the pancakes cook, drop some pineapple and a sprinkling of shredded coconut onto each pancake. When air bubbles form on top and the undersides are golden, 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the heat under griddle, flip the pancakes and cook for 2 minutes on the other side.

Serve Hot

Note: I have added a splash of dark rum to the last two batches I made with amazing results!