Sue Torres is a noted chef whose Mexican restaurant Sueños is currently celebrating its eleventh year of success in New York City. The anniversary is a victory for Torres, because even as Mexican cuisine has steadily increased in popularity in New York City’s fiercely-competitive dining scene, Sueños packs in diners night after night as a sought-after destination for earthy, traditional, south-of-the border dining.
“My goal has always been to bring the recipes of home cooks – mothers and grandmothers – to New York City diners,” says Torres, who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. “I think of those recipes as stories that need to be told. To me, that means staying true to tradition and making those recipes from scratch the way they were intended.”
Torres – whose father is a Puerto Rican retired police sergeant and whose Italian mother is a chocolatier who owned a small chocolate shop near their family home in Long Island – says that her mantra of staying true to time-honored tradition is a lesson instilled in her by her beloved abuelita.
“Abuela always said, ‘don’t forget to add love,’” reminisces Torres, who fondly remembers spending weekends and summers with her Puerto Rican abuelita in Corona, Queens. “It’s something very fundamental that I hold close to me now. It’s about focusing your energy on the preparation of a meal and that energy equals love – that special something that makes food taste amazing.”
Torres’ grandmother brought up her father and when he decided to marry an Italian girl, taught her new daughter-in-law her treasured Puerto Rican family recipes for specialties like juicy pernil, fluffy arroz con gandules and perfectly crisp tostones.
“She gave my mom every secret, every recipe. I know the norm is that mothers and mother-in-laws typically won’t pass along an authentic recipe because of some type of competition,” says Torres, the second of three siblings. “But my grandma treated my mother like a daughter and shared that there were no shortcuts to wonderful food.”
No shortcuts, says Torres, meant that she often accompanied her abuelita to the slaughterhouse to pick up the poultry and watched her spend hours hand-grating platanos and yuatia for pasteles (a process during which her grandma usually got a bloody knuckle or two). It meant that no effort was spared during the lavish breakfasts abuelita made, which always included steak, eggs, toast, freshly-fried tostones, sweet maduros and homemade French fries.
“She lived to cook for us,” says Torres, who has competed on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef.” Without her grandmother, explains Torres, she would be nowhere near the cook she is today. That’s why when Torres makes her sweet plantain and oaxacan cheese gorditas – a favorite on the Sueños menu – she remembers her abuelita with every bite
“She taught me that the platanos can’t just be black in color – they have to be soft to the touch,” explains Torres, who lost her grandmother in 1988. “I always tell my cooks to use all of their senses in picking the highest-quality ingredients – it’s so important.”
That sounds like a lesson that abuelita would approve of.
Sweet Plantain & Oaxacan Cheese Gorditas
4 black plantains, soft to the touch, almost if not completely black skin
2 t kosher salt
¼ c. Oaxacan Cheese, shredded into pieces
1 qt oil to fry gorditas (canola, vegetable, sunflower)
1 zip lock or plastic bag 6 inch or bigger, cut into two pieces
Rinse the black plantains well with cold water. Bring a large enough pot of water to boil that will fit the plantains. Add the plantains and cook over medium-high heat until the skins split, about 15 minutes. Use a knife to cut the plantain in half and make sure they are cooked throughout. You should see one even color. Remove the plantains from the hot water. Take the skins off the plantains and allow to cool. Transfer the plantains into a bowl while still warm but not piping hot. Sprinkle salt and mash well. At this stage you should have a moldable and workable dough. Should you find the dough to be too wet, you may add plain breadcrumbs, about 2 T. to bind the dough.
Line a flat container with parchment paper. Form a 3-inch round ball with the plantain dough. Place the ball on top of one piece of plastic (cut from zip lock bag), place the other piece on top of plantain ball and press down to flatten to 5 inches. Remove the top piece of plastic. Place 1 T of Oaxacan Cheese in the center and close up the plantain dough to hide the cheese in the center of the gordita. Form each piece of dough to a 3 inch round 1-1 ½ inch thick gordita. Repeat the process with the remainder of the plantain dough. You can cover and refrigerate the gorditas for up to 24 hours before cooking.
In a large saucepan, heat the frying oil to 375. Being careful not to overcrowd the oil, add the gorditas and fry until brown all over, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper-towel-lined plate. Serve the gorditas right away with tomato coulis, dollop of crema or sour cream and scallion slices. You can keep the gorditas warm in a 250 oven for up to 15 minutes.
*Cheese substitutions — goat cheese, drunken goat cheese, Chihuahua, etc.
2 beef steak tomatoes, ripe, chopped
2 cloves of garlic
½ white or Spanish onion, chopped
2 -3 T. chipotles in adobo sauce
1 T. kosher salt
In a blender, combine all of the above ingredients. Season to taste. Heat a heavy bottomed saucepan with enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once hot, add the coulis. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes. Serve immediately.