September 29, 2011
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 Mexicoand, via migration, in the southwestern region of the United Statesyou 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 foodsprimarily with vinegar and paprika. (It inspired the adobo dish quintessential to Filipino cuisine, where adobo refers to both the specific dishtypically pork and/or chickenand 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, its 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 acidcitrus juice or vinegarand salt will finish the sauce, and thats 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 molea 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.
One of todays most-popular Latin American sauces, mojo, comes from Cuba. Mojo is a marinade, often used for pork, that consists of sour citrus juices (lemon, orange and/or lime) and tons of garlic and oregano. Similar to the recado, mojo is primarily used for meat preparation. Whole pigs rubbed down with mojo are slow-roasted over charcoal fires for 10 or more hours.
Mojo sauces can be twisted in various ways to create something new. Add a superfruit and rename it. Make a mojo compound butter and serve it with bread tableside, or melt over fish. Consider mango mojo pork chops, fully marinated and ready for the grill.
Moving to the southern tip of South America, countries like Chile, Paraguay and Argentina offer full-flavored ideas for retail products and menus. Sweet, pepper-based sauces are primarily served on the side as a condiment to beef. For instance, in Santiago, you will find pebre sauce, made with tomatoes, jalapeño or serrano chiles, cilantro, vinegar, oil and lemon. Its very similar to Mexican pico de gallo, but pebre has more of a puréed consistency. Its served as a side condiment to steak, fish or whatever Chileans feel like putting it on. It is bottled commercially and sold throughout grocery stores in Chile.
Marinades and methods for cooking meats with sauces in these countries are often rather simple, blending wine, garlic and local herbs. Argentina offers chimichurri, typically made with herbs (like parsley, oregano and/or thyme), garlic and vinegar. It gained popularity in the United States around 2008, but the authenticity of manufactured versions has come to be questioned. Maybe its not a sauce to be completely made in a kettle. One idea would be to make a paste or liquid concentrate, and then have the end user mix it with fresh parsley and cilantro. Finding nuances that best fit the application and preserve authenticity are crucial to successful innovation.
In some parts of South America, such as Argentina, salmuera (which translates as salt brine") is the king of flavor. Salmuera is the center of flavor when it comes to meat preparation. The concept is very simple. Take a good quality sea salt (like fleur de sel), water, oil, dried chile peppers, lemons and fresh garlic and bring them to a simmer and hold warm. Then baste your meat as you grill.
Salmueras can be divided into two groups: big salmuera and little salmuera. Big salmuera is for larger cuts of meat that cook for several hours over a direct flame. The idea is to take raw, unmarinated meats and baste them with salmuera during the slow-cooking process. Because the big cut gets several blasts of salmuera, its recommended to use less salt in the brine.
Little salmuera is slightly higher in salt than its big brother. Thin, small, fast-cooking cuts, like skirt steak, top sirloins, strips and flanks, will cook in less than 45 minutes. For these meats, its important to use a salmuera with a slightly more-concentrated dose. Once the meat hits the grill, the end user continues to baste the meat frequentlyevery minute or sountil it reaches the desired temperature.
At Wixon we have developed the various salmuera blends over the past year that the end user finishes by just adding water and oil. Flavors ranging from sweet chile to roasted garlic give a punch to any grilled item.
A fun way to show-off this wonderful basting technique is to tie an entire bunch of flat-leaf parsley to the end of a stick and use it as a brush, which is common in parts of Chile. It looks like a witchs broom. It provides better coverage than most brushes and doesnt add any flavor notes. When finished, just throw it out.
All of these flavors and ingredients are great. The question is how to replicate them in a food-manufacturing setting. This is where the classic scientist meets the chef. Cooking methods, order of addition, and temperature change all play a critical role in the final product. Development chefs should be encouraged to spend more time in the plant setting. Its amazing the ideas that surface. Basic cooking methods, trick methods or contemporary techniques can be achieved and mastered. It doesnt matter if your plant has fixed or mobile equipment; where there is a will there is a way. This level of integration will help support the next wave of authentic product development.
To distinguish yourself and stay competitive, companies must be willing to experimentand do so on a mass-manufactured level. The combination of authenticity and modernization bring two products to mind: Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce. What will be the next ethnic sauce to achieve that level of widespread use?
Todays customer base is demanding products be fresh and authentic. One case in point: Chipotle pepper is yesterdays news. More hot, unique, ethnic, regional chiles are already here to stay. Chefs have already moved forward in the fine-dining world. It is up to product-development teams to step on the gas. Marketing and R&D must work side-by-side every step of the way.
Mathew Freistadt is corporate chef for Wixon Inc., St. Francis, WI. He is a 1995 graduate from the Culinary Institute of America and has worked in nearly every facet of the food business over the past 25 years. He previously served as the director of research and development for Protein Solutions in Chicago. He also has held product development positions with Sensient Flavors and LongHorn Steakhouse, in addition to serving as a chef in numerous five-star award-winning kitchens, including the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. Freistadt is a member of the Research Chefs Association and the Kansas City Barbeque Society. For more information, visit wixon.com.
Joseph Antonio, corporate chef, Haliburton International Foods, Ontario, CA, specifically cites Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Cuba as key Latin American countries that are adding flavor to the American culinary diaspora."
Some commonalities exist from one Latin American country to the next. Because of the influence of Spain, Portugal, Italy, China and other European nations in each of these countries, there are many similarities in ingredients used," says Joseph. The differences are in the cooking techniques and ratios of ingredients used."
Many Latin American sauces start off with a sofrito, notes Joseph. A term originating in Spain, it is a combination of ingredients, such as onions, garlic and tomatoes, that are sautéed in oil and used as the flavor base to the sauce," he says. Depending on the country, other components are added, such as peppers (spicy or mild), cilantro, cumin, bay leaves and oregano. It is similar to the French mirepoix or the holy trinity (onion, green pepper and celery) in Cajun cuisine. From there, endless possibilities of sauces are created."
Many sauces see widespread diversity across a given country depending on locally available ingredients and preferences. In Mexican cuisine, chiles like guajillo, ancho and pasilla are added to create moles where there are up to 25 or more ingredients used to create the complex and flavorful sauce," says Joseph. It is draped over boiled turkey or chicken and is the star of the show."
Marinades infuse flavors into meatsand some double as dipping or simmering sauces, as well. In the Caribbean, with many influences from West Africa, as well as Spanish and Indian cuisine, the use of Scotch bonnet and habanero peppers, thyme, garlic and scallions help identify this unique style of cooking, such as curry goat and jerk chicken," says Joseph. Meats are often marinated, and then cooked, in a vinegar-based jerk sauce featuring these ingredients. Some of the sauce is reserved and saved for dipping the grilled or roasted meat.
Simmering or braising sauces are cooked with the rest of the ingredients in a dish. In Cuba, one of the famous dishes is ropa vieja (translated as old clothes"), which is a shredded beef dish in a tomato sauce," says Joseph. The tomato-based braising sauce uses a sofrito made with a mixture of garlic, green bell peppers and onions, he notes. Cumin, garlic and oregano are common additions. He also notes that a similar sauce is used to make a dish called picadillo, which uses ground beef. Picadillo can be served as is with a side of rice, or used as a filling for empanadas, papas rellenas (Peruvian stuffed potatoes) or alcapurrias (Cuban fritters).
The core ingredients traditionally featured in Latin American sauces are progressively growing into mainstream American staples. Our standard list of most-requested samples like onion, garlic, red and green pepper juices and purées has grown to include morita chipotle, ancho, cayenne, sriracha, lemongrass and ginger, just to name a few," says Lynne C. Foster, corporate R&D chef, Vegetable Juices, Inc., Bedford Park, IL. This is a reflection of the way America is eating. No longer is the above list odd or obscure; they have become mainstream."
A key to the growing popularity of foods, like Latin sauces, that prominently feature such ingredients is the flavorful dynamic contrast they embody. Hot, sweet and flavorful are in," says Foster. With the economy in a slump, consumers have less to spend, but still want bold, flavorful combinations at affordable prices. There is a willingness to experiment and try new combinations that Latin American sauces can fulfill."
When it comes to translating traditional flavors for a mainstream American audience, some fusing of ingredients and cuisines can come into play, while for other sauces, a more-traditional approach might work, depending on the target audience. Foster notes that her company has developed the following Latin American sauces for various casual-dining chain restaurants:
Spicy mangomild red and green peppers with a touch of cayenne pepper, onions and garlic lend savory balance to the sweet mango;
Mole verderoasted green tomatillo with the complexity of mole and a hint of citrus and green peppercorns;
Mole rojorich flavors of ancho and guajillo peppers gives this mole depth and character, complemented by a touch of sweetness from sweet potato juice concentrate;
Sweet tamarindcombining ginger and garlic purées with sweet tamarind and jalapeño is the ultimate of fusion cuisine, Spanish meets Asian, a combination of global flavors;
Aztec chipotlebold, smoky, sweet the combination of chipotle purée with fire-roasted red bell pepper lends an earthy complement and richness to this sauce, which is rounded by the sweet diced onions and sweet potato juice concentrate;
Mojoa classic Spanish mojo sauce with cayenne pepper, garlic, onion and orange juice;
Chipotle limetart, smoky, sweet a tangy, fresh-tasting dipping sauce;
Raspberry chipotlefresh raspberry purée and chipotle pepper purée becomes a sweet berry blast with a touch of heat.
The secret to our development process for the mainstream market is taking familiar ingredients, like onion, garlic, tomato and herb blends, and adding just the right amount of unfamiliar ingredients, creating a well balanced sauce that is not overly complicated with too many ingredients," says Foster. Less is best, but balance is key. Each ingredient plays a role like instruments in an orchestra. Base notes are the background and foundation, rhythm is the texture and mood you want to create, while the leads are top notes; all together, there is harmony."
Spains cuisine carries strong influences originating in the days of the Roman Empire, distinctly cultivated over time in the countrys regions. The cuisine also has a foundation built from its great stretches of coastline; the entire eastern portion of Spain borders the Mediterranean Sea and coasts on the west and north border the Atlantic Ocean. But while seafood dominates the coastal areas, areas inland traditionally has more of a meat-dominated culinary culture, with dishes commonly highlighting beef and lamband especially pork. And throughout the country, a variety of sauces provide notable accents.
AioliSpains classic garlic mayonnaise (egg, olive oil, garlic) is served with a variety of seafood, as well as potatoes;
Mojoalthough Cuba sports it own version, mojo likely originated in the Canary Islands (geographically closer to Africa, but an autonomous nationality of Spain) where it commonly features olive oil, red chiles, garlic, cumin, paprika and salt, with occasional acidic accents from citrus juices or vinegar, and is often served with rolls or potatoes;
Palm syrupthe Canary Islands also give us palm syrup, the dark-brown, concentrated sap of various palm trees drizzled over pastries and ice cream;
Parsley sauceSpains version of this common sauce usually has a puréed consistencylike pestoand is comprised of parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar or citrus juice (often lemon), and salt, often served with seafood;
Picadathis staple of Catalan cooking, a pasty blend of garlic, nuts and seeds (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pine nuts), bread, and salt (although myriad other seasonings can be added, depending on the dish), is mixed with pan juices near the end of cooking beef, poultry, etc. to accent the finished dish;
Romesconuts (often almonds and/or hazelnuts) also feature prominently in romesco, which blend with peppers (traditionally nyora, small, sweet, red peppers), garlic, salt and olive oil, as well as occasional additions of tomatoes, onions and vinegar, and is served on seafood, as well as poultry and vegetables;
Samfainadepending on the dice size of the vegetables (bell peppers, tomato, eggplant and onion, sautéed in olive oil with salt and sometimes other spices and seasonings), samfaina can resemble either a sofrito to accent meat, poultry or seafood, or more of a ratatouille that can stand on its own as a vegetarian starter, side dish or entrée;
Xatóthis puréed Catalan sauce is made with a collection of common Spanish ingredientsnuts (almonds and/or hazelnuts), red pepper (traditionally nyora), breadcrumbs, vinegar, olive oil, garlic and saltand traditionally is served atop a salad of the same name composed of endive, fish (anchovies, salt cod and/or tuna) and olives.
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