Monday, February 23, 2009

Spice Up Your Meals with Latin Flavors

(ARA) – Most at-home chefs have five to 10 go-to recipes for the week, leaving them in a repetitive cooking rut. Whether you're a seasoned chef or just making your way around the kitchen, exploring different cuisines and experimenting with flavors can be simple and bring fresh life and authenticity to everyday meals. One tasty cuisine with readily available ingredients that is growing in popularity in the United States is Latin cuisine.

"Latin and Mexican flavors offer rich, bold tastes, textures and possibilities," says 2008 James Beard Award winner Chef Michelle Bernstein-Martinez, author of the new cookbook, Cuisine a Latina. "Authentic, ethnic ingredients are widely available in supermarkets, allowing any at-home chef to try something new in their meals."

Here are a few of Bernstein-Martinez's secrets to bringing her love of Latin and Mexican flavors to your kitchen:

Fresh, natural ingredients
The ingredients you choose for your dishes are just as important as the preparation of the food. Latin meals are known for their freshness and authenticity. To kick things up a notch, incorporate different fruits and vegetables such as plantains, limes, avocados and Spanish or yellow onions into everyday meals. Adding spices like ginger, chilies and cilantro, often used in the Latin culinary world, can add bold flavor to a dish.

One of the top and most easily accessible ingredients in Mexican cuisine is cheese, so look for natural and authentic cheeses with distinctive and full flavor, such as the El Regalo Manchego and Anejo Enchilado found in Sargento Artisan Blends Shredded Authentic Mexican Cheese.

Comfort food
Many Latin dishes offer the hearty and rich characteristics of comfort food, with a few twists and exciting flavors. Creamy polenta (corn grits) with sausage, poblano peppers stuffed with shrimp and rice and chili-spiced onion rings with Mexican cheese fondue are all rich and warm meals sure to become favorites.

Authentic antojitos
Antojitos, also known as appetizers or "little cravings," are small dishes of traditional Mexican cuisine. Often found in Latin restaurants, these small meals are great for entertaining or offering variety during dinnertime. One antojito recipe idea is mini open-faced plantain sandwiches with grilled steak, avocado, chilies and Sargento Artisan Blends Authentic Mexican Cheese.

This recipe for Sweet Corn and Cheese Empanadas by Bernstein-Martinez is another antojito that is sweet, savory and perfect for bringing Latin flavor into your kitchen.

Sweet Corn and Cheese Empanadas
Serves 4

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound plus 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small cubes
1/3 cup cold water
Canola oil for frying
*May substitute refrigerated or frozen pie crust dough

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 Spanish or yellow onion, chopped fine
4-1/2 cups (6 ears) corn, off the cob
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin
1 cup (4 oz.) Sargento Artisan Blends Shredded Authentic Mexican Cheese
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

1. Preheat oven to 375 to 400 F.

2. To prepare the dough: Combine flour, salt and butter in food processor; run until it becomes a coarse meal. Add all the water and pulse until it forms a dough. Allow to rest.

3. To prepare the filling: In a saute pan on medium heat, place the butter and oil. Add the onion, cook for 3 to 4 minutes; add the corn. Cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes. Lower the heat and add sugar, salt, pepper and cream. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the scallions, parsley and cheese. Stir until all ingredients are incorporated well. Remove from heat and allow to cool in the refrigerator.

4. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface, making a circle about 1/8-inch thick. With a cookie cutter 5 inches in diameter, cut circles. Place about 1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons of the filling into the center of each circle. Moisten the exposed dough with water. Fold the empanada in half, pressing the edges firmly together and press the tines of a fork around the edge to seal.

5. Bake about 10 minutes or until golden or heat 2 inches of oil to 325 to 350 F in a large pot; fry in hot oil until golden.

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