Flavors conference celebrates Latino food, history and tastes

Video by: Ignacio Torres

They came from the four corners of United States and from as far as Brazil and Peru.  They brought with them their toques and chef coats, their prized cooking utensils and their most beloved ingredients (some of which were smuggled past U.S. customs officials, who typically frown on the such.) Above all, the presenters at last week’s Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference, organized annually by the prestigious Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus, brought with them an unmatched passion for Latin food, and a deep desire to share it with Americans.

And that’s just what they did at the two-day conference that featured chef after chef demonstrating how to use and cook ingredients native to South and Central America and the Hispanic Caribbean in hopes of creating demand among the more than 150 restaurant operators and food product developers in the audience. “I’ve been coming for years and every year I learn something new,” said Chef Roberto Santibañez, the Mexican-born chef-owner of New York’s Fonda restaurant. “It’s a great feeling to come and see a chef talk about an ingredient then see that pop up on menus all over the country.” It was a few years ago at this conference, for example, that Latino chefs started to talk about gorditas and chipotle peppers, at the time obscure foods outside of Mexico that today are widely available throughout the U.S.

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Chef Flavio Solórzano brought an impressive assortment of native Peruvian potatoes. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

The presenting chefs included some well known Latino food devotees (from Chicago-based Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo fame to Maricel Presilla, the James Beard Award winning chef-owner of three New Jersey restaurants including Cucharamama and author of the recently published bible of Hispanic cuisine, La Gran Cocina Latina.)

But the superstars were undeniably the cooks who flew in from abroad, like Flavio Solorzano, from Lima, Peru who talked chiles and potatoes (he admittedly did a little smuggling of his own!) and Edinho Engel who traveled from Sao Paolo, Brazil to discuss manioc (a.k.a. yuca) and its many uses, especially for those looking for gluten-free ingredients and Elena Hernandez from Panamá, who proved Peruvians and Chilenos aren’t the only ones who know their way around a good ceviche.

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Chef Iliana de la Vega shows off her spicy collection before an in-depth workshop on chiles from throughout Latin America. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

There was a fascinating chile presentation lead by Chef Iliana de la Vega, a professor at the CIA and one of America’s reigning experts on Mexican food and, in particular, chiles.  She explained that “chiles are like the wine grapes. Their taste is shaped by terroir, or the soil and ecosystem in which they grow.” She went on to muse about the fact that in ancient Mexican history the hottest ones were used to punish people.

In another workshop, Bayless talked about making corn masa; and in yet another Buenos Aires Chef Dante Franco demonstrated a classic Argentine matambre, a stuffed flank steak with Italian roots that makes for a great presentation dish. There were salad workshops, beverage discussions and, of course, no Latino food conference would be complete without a thorough exploration of corn. “It’s in our DNA,” de la Vega said.

Check out the recipe below for a corn and poblano chile soup made by Mexican chef Federico Lopez; the easy-to-make soup was such a hit it ran out during one of the afternoon meals. Also, don’t miss our slideshow for more photo highlights plus a video on another star dish, a Peruvian-style pachamanca, cooked in an ancient Andean method. Over the next few days, we’ll also be bringing you more food coverage and recipes from the conference, so stay tuned.

Corn and Poblano Chile Soup (Chile Atole)

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Corn and Poblano Chile Soup (Photo/Betty Cortina)

2 cups field corn, dried

1 cup, masa harina or fresh masa

3 qt. water

1 poblano chile, roasted and peeled

1 bunch fresh cilantro, small leaves

1/2 bunch epazote leaves

2 serrano chiles

1 cup shredded chicken breast or crab meat (optional)

1. Cook the field corn until soft.

2. Blend the poblano chile, cooked corn, and some of the epazote and cilantro leaves until smooth. strain the mixture.

3. In some water, dissolve the corn flour or masa until there are no lumps and it has the consistency of potato soup.

4. Mix the atole liquid with the corn and poblano mixture and bring to a boil; boil until it is cooked and thick. Add slices of serrano chile, cilantro and epazote leaves.

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