Latin Cuisine: Tips and Recipes

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Love that Latin Cuisine

Cuban and Puerto Rican flavors spice up the melting pot.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

It's time to think outside the burrito! There is much more to Latin cuisine than our favorite Mexican food items -- not that there's anything wrong with loving Mexican cuisine!

Depending on where in the United States you live, you might think of a different country when you hear the term "Latin cuisine." That might mean Mexican food for a resident of the West Coast, Cuban cuisine for a Miamian, or Puerto Rican fare for someone from New York or Chicago.

"Latin America" comprises countries developed from colonies of European powers that used languages derived from Latin -- namely Spanish, Portuguese, and French, according to the Encarta encyclopedia. But the Latin cultures that have had perhaps the biggest presence in the U.S. to date are Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Since Mexican cuisine is fairly well known, let's take a moment to explore the other two.

Cuban Cuisine

The Indians living on the island now called Cuba lived on fish, cassava (a starchy tuber), corn, beans, sweet potatoes, yuca (a potato-like vegetable), tomatoes, and pineapples. The year 1492 brought Christopher Columbus to Cuba. He claimed the island for Spain, and Cuba was a Spanish territory for several centuries. By the 17th century Cuba began importing Africans to the island to work as slaves.

Foods from the regions of Spain (Canarian, Galician, and Asturian) that helped populate Cuba, along with those of the Indians and African and Chinese slaves, helped shape today's Cuban cuisine.

"Cuban cooking combines the tastes of Spain with the tropical flavors of the Caribbean," Glenn Lindgren, co-author of Three Guys from Miami Celebrate Cuban, says in an email interview. "Throw in some New World spices and ingredients and a strong African influence, and you have the essence of Cuban cookery."

One thing Cuban food is not is spicy hot, adds Jorge Castillo, another co-author of Three Guys From Miami Celebrate Cuban: "We Cubans just don't use the hot peppers that are such an integral part of many Latin American cuisines."

That's not to say Cuban food is not highly spiced.

"The heart and soul of Cuban cuisine is the "sofrito," a saute of onions, green peppers, and garlic in olive oil," Lindgren says.

Cuban cuisine is also based on the flavor of citrus, according to Raul Musibay, the third co-author of the Guys from Miami Cuban cookbook.

"We use tangy orange juice with crushed garlic, black pepper, and oregano to create mojo, a garlic/citrus marinade that adds a distinctive Cuban flavor to many meats -- especially roasted pork, which is probably the most popular meat for Cuban-Americans," says Musibay.

Everyone knows a Cuban party is not complete without roast pork, black beans, white rice, fried plantains and yuca with oil and garlic, Lindgren says.

"You don't find many vegetable dishes in Cuban cuisine, at least not the nonstarchy ones," adds Castillo. "Instead, the Cuban diet includes plenty of root vegetables, such as yuca, boniato, and malanga."

And what's on the Cuban dessert cart?

"On an island where sugarcane is king, it's no surprise that Cubans love sweet desserts," Lindgren says. "Cuban flan, arroz con leche, and warm flaky pastries stuffed with fruit filling feature an abundance of sugar."

Tropical fruit flavors are popular in ice creams, milkshakes, and as filling for cakes and pastries, Lindgren says: "Guava paste and guava jelly are big favorites and find their way into just about everything."

Cuisine of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican cuisine also reflects the influence of Spaniards, along with that of Africans and Native Americans.

The original inhabitants of the island now known as Puerto Rico were the Arawaks and Tainos. Their diet was thought to include corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, tropical fruit, and seafood, according to the Encarta encyclopedia.

Spanish explorers arrived in 1493, adding beef, pork, rice, wheat, and olive oil to the island cuisine. When African slaves arrived on the island, they contributed their cuisine as well.

The flavors from combinations of rice, beans, spices and different meats are what make Puerto Rican cuisine unique, says Adelinna Fargas, chef and owner of a Casa Adela, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Manhattan. Although Puerto Rican food is often well seasoned, it also is not overly spicy.

Foods indigenous to the island include coriander, papaya, plantains, and yampee (a tuber). A spice blend called adobo is used as a base for many dishes, and is rubbed into meats before being roasted. It's made by crushing together peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil, and lime juice or vinegar, says Ana Maria Mendez, an attorney of Puerto Rican descent who has studied Puerto Rican cuisine.

Another spice mixture is sofrito, which helps color and flavor rice, soup, and stew dishes with a yellow mixture of annatto seeds, onions, garlic, coriander, and peppers browned in olive oil.

"Many Puerto Rican dishes also use a saute of onion, tomato, and green bell pepper along with the sofrito," adds Mendez.

Beans and rice are popular. So are chicken with rice, meat pies, fried plantains, rice, and pigeon peas seasoned with smoked ham or bacon, meat or cheese turnovers called empanadillas, and all sorts of soups -- including chicken and rice soup, which often contains chunks of pumpkin, says Mendez.

Most parts of the pig are used in Puerto Rican cooking, and pork is the main event at most holiday tables and celebrations, be it barbecued pig, pork blood sausages, ham and pineapple, or smoked cutlets.

Puddings, including rice pudding, bread pudding, and coconut pudding, are a favorite treat. Flan (a type of firm custard) is also popular, along with cakes (rum cake, guava cake, banana cupcakes, sweet-potato cake), cookies, and tarts. Tropical fruits, including coconut, guava, papayas, and mangoes, abound on the island.

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And let us not forget, Puerto Rico is the world's leading rum producer. So plenty of rum is used in recipes, too!

Cuban and Puerto Rican Recipes

Here are some recipes to get you cooking, Cuban and Puerto Rican-style.

Cuban-Style Black Beans

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1/2 cup "starchy foods and legumes with 1 tsp fat maximum"

The authentic Cuban dish would not use canned beans, of course, but this is the easier way to go.

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup diced green bell pepper
3/4 cup chopped sweet or mild onion (if available)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano flakes
2 cans (15 ounces each) black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup beef broth (chicken or vegetable broth can be substituted)
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste (optional)

  • Heat olive oil in medium nonstick saucepan over medium heat. Add bell pepper, onion, garlic, oregano and saute mixture for about 5 minutes.
  • Add 2/3 cup of the beans to the pan. Using a potato masher, mash the beans briefly. Stir in the remaining beans, oregano, broth, and vinegar. Cover saucepan and simmer until the mixture thickens and the flavors blend, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste if desired.

Yield: 6 side servings

Per serving: 148 calories, 7 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 5.5 g fat, 0.6 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g fiber, 400 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 32%.

Latin Pork With Lime Marinade

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one meat serving as 1 serving "lean meat and moderate fat meat with sauce or fried."

2 1/2-pound to 3-pound center-cut pork loin roast, trimmed of visible fat

Spice Rub:
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds (or 1 teaspoon ground coriander)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Lime Marinade:
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno chilies, seeded (optional)
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/3 cup lime juice (fresh or bottled)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, packed
1 tablespoon fruit flavored vinegar or wine vinegar

  • Add cumin, peppercorns, and coriander or coriander seeds to a small nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Stir and cook until the spices are toasted and very fragrant (a few minutes). Let cook for 5 minutes more, then add to blender, spice grinder, coffee grinder, or small food processor. Add to a small bowl and stir in sugar and salt. Rub the spice mixture all over the outside of the pork roast and place it in a gallon-size resealable plastic bag.
  • Add marinade ingredients to 4-cup measure and stir to blend well.
  • Pour marinade into the plastic bag, remove any excess air, and place bag with roast into a medium bowl. Chill in refrigerator overnight.
  • Start grill, or preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove pork roast from marinade and, if using the oven, place it on a rack in a small roasting pan. Roast 25 minutes. Reduce temperature to 300 degrees and continue to bake for about 40 minutes more (if using a meat thermometer, it should read around 155 degrees when inserted in the center of pork roast). If grilling, use indirect heat and remove when meat thermometer registers around 155-158 degrees.
  • Set pork roast on a serving platter and let rest for 10 minutes. Cut roast into slices in the thickness you prefer.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving (with a third of the marinade being absorbed): 246 calories, 34 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate, 10 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 93 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 201 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 41%.

Pollo en Escabeche (Puerto Rican Chicken Appetizer)

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal one meat serving (does not include crackers) as 1 serving "lean meat and moderate fat meat with 1 tsp fat maximum."

You can cook the whole chicken yourself, but it is so much easier to buy the rotisserie or roasted chicken from the supermarket (or rotisserie). It will take just a few minutes to shred the chicken. Serve this chicken dish with crackers or sliced baguette bread.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
2 medium-sized sweet or regular onions (cut off ends, remove outer skin, then cut in half
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
12 whole peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 bay leaves
1 roasted whole chicken (buy at a grocery store or rotisserie)
Pepper to taste
Salt to taste (optional)

  • Add a tablespoon of olive oil to a large nonstick skillet and begin to heat over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and saute until onions are soft (3-4 minutes).
  • Add in remaining ingredients (remaining olive oil, vinegar, peppercorns, salt, bay leaves), cover skillet, and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for about 50 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, shred the chicken meat from the roasted chicken removing any skin and bones (it should equal at about 3 cups firmly packed shredded chicken).
  • Stir in shredded chicken and continue to simmer until chicken is warm (about 2 minutes). Serve with wheat crackers!

Yield: 8 appetizer servings

Per serving: 220 calories, 17 g protein, 5 g carbohydrate, 14.5 g fat, 2.3 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 107 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 59%.

Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

Published October 12, 2006.


SOURCES: MSN Encarta online encyclopedia, September 2006. Wikipedia web site, September 2006. Miami. Ana Maria Mendez, attorney, Walnut Creek, Calif. Adelinna Fargas, chef and owner, Casa Adela restaurant, New York. Glenn Lindgren, Jorge Castillo, and Raul Musibay, authors, Three Guys From Miami Celebrate Cuban (email interviews).

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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Reviewed on 10/12/2006

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