They’re nothing fancy, but the ingredients that follow are ones Hispanic chefs and great cooks love to have on hand to amp up culinary results. They can turn a flat dish into something spectacular, add depth and complexity or create a unique flavor that stands our as particularly Latin. NBCLatino.com asked three notable cooks — Mexican-born Iliana de la Vega, of Austin’s El Naranjo, Colombian-born Sam Gorenstein of Miami’s My Ceviche and Cuban-American Ana Pelaez, whose hungrysofia.com blog chronicles her adventures in cooking food from across Latin America — to share with us a few of their secret ingredient weapons, and here’s what they said:
Cumin Seeds Not pre-ground cumin, insists Pelaez, but rather the whole seeds, which she toasts and grinds herself in the moment she needs them. “Whenever I was cooking and a traditional recipe called for cumin, I’d just leave it out because I didn’t like the taste,” she said. “I kept wondering why it was in everything when I didn’t like it. But then I was reading a recipe by Chef Marcus Samuelsson and saw that he started with the whole seeds. So I tried that, and it made a huge difference.” The key, Pelaez says, is to only prepare as many seeds as you need, lightly toast them to bring out their flavor—then grind them. Most often combined with oregano, she says the cumin seeds add hints of citrus and pungency and “tighten up all the flavors that are already there.”
Hoja Santa A popular herb in Mexico, hoja santa is one of Chef de la Vega’s key ingredients when she’s preparing chicken and seafood dishes as well as soups, stews or moles. “It adds a hint of anise flavor but in a very particular way,” she says. Most often used fresh, hoja santa can also be used as a wrapper for cheese and steaming tamales (the way you might use corn husks, for instance), or it can be chopped or thinly sliced and added to stews or scrambled eggs. If you’re not in a heavily Mexican neighborhood, it might be easier to find dried hoja santa, in which case you can simply sprinkle it into whatever you’re cooking. Just note that the dried version’s flavor is subdued, so you might want to add a little extra.
Panela “This is a great little ingredient,” says Gorenstein, “I always have a block of it in my freezer.” While panela, which is dried, raw sugar cane juice, is most traditionally used as a sweetening agent in desserts, Gorenstein tosses it in when braising or slow roasting beef, “because it helps in the caramelization and it adds a great, deep caramel flavor.” It’s also one the of secret ingredients in his barbecue sauce. “The true American barbecue sauce uses molasses, but panela brings a much deeper, more natural flavor—because it’s actual sugar cane.” Other uses? “I add it to a pot of black beans along with a squeeze of lime juice,” he said. “Or use instead of regular sugar it to make a mojito extra sweet.”
Malanga Also known as yautia in Puerto Rico, this tropical root with a woodsy taste is often deep fried into fritters or boiled, mashed and served to ailing tummies. But Pelaez adds chunks of fresh malanga to her garbanzo stews or soups along with potatoes to give the concoction extra starchy texture, she says. “It dissolves a little and thickens the broth,” she says, “and then the malanga becomes so tender and pillow-y its like a little dumpling in the soup. It’s great!”