By Mathew Freistadt, Contributing Editor
Latin American food influences have quickly landed a top spot in the “ethnic trends" category. In recent years, flavors, techniques and ingredients from Chile through the Caribbean and into North America have gained popularity among consumers, product developers and chefs, notably in the sauces that are hitting the retail and foodservice markets.
South of the border
In Mexico—and, via migration, in the southwestern region of the United States—you will find a wide variety of Latin-inspired sauces and marinades, from adobo to salsa and mole.
One common seasoning or marinade is adobo. Originating from Spain, adobo was initially a way to simultaneously flavor and preserve certain foods—primarily with vinegar and paprika. (It inspired the adobo dish quintessential to Filipino cuisine, where adobo refers to both the specific dish—typically pork and/or chicken—and the cooking process used to make it.) The quality aspects of Mexican adobos are color, intense flavor, acidity and spice profile. On the industrial side, product and menu developers need to be creative without straying too far from established standards. Hitting authentic flavor nuances is so important when developing ethnic foods like adobo.
Adobo recado is one of many unique adobo profiles. Oregano, cinnamon, cumin, coriander and orange juice can be mixed into a paste similar to a “base." The profile and flavor balance of this adobo can be transplanted into multiple applications. Other complementary flavors are found in queso sauces and salsas. Chefs are pairing adobo recado with specialty chiles in various foods to give familiar staples a twist. Diners are more likely to experiment with a new flavor when it is offered in a familiar vehicle.
Chile-based sauces are normally used as topical or finishing touches in Mexican cuisine. Salsas, in particular, are a great platform. Red salsa (salsa roja) and green salsa (salsa verde) are the most common. Salsas are very personal. Most often, they are family recipes handed down over generations. Some people purée different percentages of the tomatoes or chiles to gain a specific consistency. This is due to pectin, a naturally occurring compound found in most peppers and tomatillos. For manufactured salsas, extracting and manipulating pectin levels during the production can affect the finished mouthfeel and consistency of a salsa.
Salsa flavor profiles vary from quite hot to refreshing. Ingredients like tomatoes and bell peppers, and sometimes cucumber, are components that lend a cooling effect. Heat and savory flavors come from spices like cumin and garlic, as well as toasted, dried chile peppers. With salsa, it’s all about flavor balance and freshness of the ingredients. Depending on the specific type of chile peppers selected for a salsa, you may also find desirable accents from herbs, cinnamon, melons, ginger or other ingredients.
Most people are familiar with the canned product “chipotle in adobo sauce." Many restaurants are using this ingredient in the back of the house in staple ingredients like dressings or sauces. However, the true, artisan flavors of chiles in adobo can be quite different when coming from kitchens where chefs are toasting their own chiles and slow-simmering them in sauce for hours. Chefs will sometimes simmer the chiles in fresh chicken broth or the stock of whatever entrée protein they will combine with it; pork and chicken are the most popular, followed by vegetable stocks. Some acid—citrus juice or vinegar—and salt will finish the sauce, and that’s it. This makes a great foundation of flavor.
Another layer of flavor can also be built upon this sauce by adding other finishing ingredients. For example, you can try taking a guajillo sauce and finishing it with a fruit-juice concentrate like blueberry or pomegranate. These superfruits are still very popular and can help broaden the appeal of the sauce.
Mexico is also home to mole—a sauce that sees countless variations. Different regions, villages and families have their own twists on what goes into the sauce. These offer a vast array of options for the manufacturing community. Think about ready-to-eat meals found in your local club store. More and more ethnic flavors are called upon in this sector alone, and the profile of mole offers a great launching platform for original ideation.
Mole is traditionally a stew, or a sauce to accent an entrée, slow-cooked for hours. Chicken or pork, and sometimes both, are typically used for mole dishes.. Featured ingredients include toasted, dried chile peppers (all types; separated and deveined), nuts like almonds, sesame and pumpkin (pepita) seeds, and plantains. Spice blends for mole can include cumin, allspice berries, cinnamon and peppercorns, as desired. These ingredients are simmered in chicken or vegetable stock for hours, then finished to taste and consistency with finely grated Mexican chocolate. New twists on mole have seen it featured in soups, side dishes, cheese mixes, frozen entrées and even beverages.
Moving onto Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean, you will find sauces that often contain a fiery kick. Islands throughout the Caribbean use the crops or fruits grown on each island. Most of them grow bananas and sugar, so a lot of the sauces will be banana-based or fruit blends. Habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers are very common. Tomato, vinegar and spices (like ginger, nutmeg, allspice and paprika) are carefully blended with these peppers. Two popular sauces along these lines are habanero ketchup and banana ketchup. These sauces are used for both marinades and finishing of all indigenous foods. These sauces have an awesome balance of sweetness, acidity and overall pepper flavor.