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Flying south is one way to warm up in the winter: eating street food such as tacos or grilled corn in Mexico or sitting down to black beans and marinated pork shoulder in Cuba. If traveling isn’t in the cards, you can create Latin flavour and heat in your kitchen.
Ana Jenkins, co-owner and chef at Mexico Lindo restaurant in Halifax, encourages people to be more adventurous about her country’s food. “Most people are afraid to try new dishes,” she says. “They have misconceptions. They think it is hot. It’s rich in flavour, but not automatically hot.”
Dried chilies, such as the ancho, guajillo, and pasilla, are common in Mexican cooking, but Jenkins uses many more familiar spices: a lot of cumin, garlic, oregano, allspice, cloves, and bay leaves. She starts several of her meals with what she calls the trilogy of onions, carrots, and celery. “Cilantro is one of the things I use the most,” she says. “But some think it tastes like soap. People hate it or love it.”
Cooking Latin food on the East Coast can be hard because it’s difficult to find fresh and affordable limes and avocados. “We try to cope and move on and wait for the time that things are available,” says Jenkins. She tries to buy local as often as possible, but many necessary ingredients aren’t from here, especially dried peppers and pepper-based sauces.
Jenkins learned to cook in adulthood. “My mom never let us in her kitchen because it was her territory,” she says. “We were only allowed to cook fish because she hated it.” After falling in love with a Newfoundlander with three kids, and moving to Canada, she started cooking for them and discovered a new passion. Inspired by market vendors selling global foods in Halifax, she opened a bakery and then the restaurant in 1999.
Enchiladas (tortillas stuffed with chicken, beef, or pork) are most popular at Mexico Lindo. And nachos are continuously in demand, always with sour cream. “It took five years for people to start asking for guacamole, but as they travel more they ask for these things.” Jenkins longs for the day that there is demand for mole, a sauce that includes peppers and chocolate cooked with chicken.
Jenkins suggests home chefs try her personal favourites. Her Black Bean Soup is made with a chicken-broth base that can be spicy or not. Tacos al Pastor (see recipe on page 53) is a popular street food in Mexico made with marinated pork. And Chiles en Nogada, peppers stuffed with cheese, meat, and dried and fresh fruit, which she prepares to celebrate Grito de Dolores, Mexican Independence Day, each September.
Santos Ruyan, is one of the owners of Taco Pica, in Saint John, N.B. The popular restaurant, known for its Guatemalan, Mexican, and Spanish cuisine, opened as a worker-owned cooperative in 1994.
Ruyan grew up in Guatemala eating rice and beans (a Latin staple), plus soups based on corn, cabbage, and zucchini. He proudly shares his native foods at Taco Pica including tacos, quesadillas, and Guatemalan sandwiches, including one with chorizo sausage, avocado, cheese, and onions. The menu is mostly Guatemalan with Mexican and Spanish favourites. The restaurant serves local seafood to combine Atlantic Canadian and Latin tastes.
Like Jenkins, Ruyan knows his clientele. Their favourites are chicken-based dishes, whether quesadillas, tacos, or flautas (deep-fried tortillas). Bean tacos and quesadillas are also popular.
He serves spicy salsa for those who like it. “People who travel and have tasted Latin American foods are willing to try new things.” When the restaurant opened he excitedly made corn tortillas, but discovered that his clientele preferred the flour-based option.
One of Taco Pica’s specialties is pepian, a spiced chicken or beef stew served over rice. “It’s exotic and tasty,” Ruyan says. An item not on the menu, but recommended for home chefs to try is a colourful and delicious cold salad called fiambre.
Latin American cuisine can be easy or complex and varies from country to country. With your favourite ingredients and a sense of adventure to try new ones, you can travel south for your next meal without leaving the kitchen.