A Latin American Shopping List
I travel to eat.
Which is really an instinctual thing, isn’t it— a version of hunting and gathering, whatever I’m hungry for sending me farther and farther afield. Or a version of exploration, the charting of new culinary lands, of romance and research. Over time, my sense of adventure has shifted, and places I was never interested in eating before now draw me, but the center holds: to understand a place fully, you have to understand its table, as true for my house in Greenville as it is for the farthest reaches of Mexico or Chile, at any time, over any season. We are, as ever, what we eat.
No matter how global our food culture, there are still specific ingredients that make up a culinary picture of a place. I love that. I love the fact that churros in Segovia are more perfect somehow than any approximation you might find outside of Spain, that there is a particular Italian grind of flour for making blistered, crisp pizza dough, the right San Marzano tomatoes for sauce. I love that you can’t really get fresh crowder peas outside the American South, though there is something similar in the pigeon pea of the Caribbean, that stone-ground grits share an awful lot with polenta, but if you make grits with water run from a tap from a 1970s era beach house on the coast of South Carolina, something about the mineral content of that water lends the creamiest texture you have ever imagined, the kind of thing one might carry in one’s mind for something close to thirty years.
Food should be specific, and it’s this very quality that makes us travel to try something new, as well as yearn for the flavors of home. When you consider the strength of the Latino population in the Upstate, the number of tiendas follows in direct suit. Their names are wonderful and evocative: La Unica (The Only), La Esperanza (The Hope), La Estrellita (The Little Star). Some are grand and supermarket-like, some quick-stops, some with butcher counters and bakeries and taco shops in the back. (Important fact #1: in the bakeries of Mexico, one takes a lunch counter tray to the cases and selects what breads and sweets one wants with metal tongs, directly onto the tray, to be totaled and bagged at the counter. Same with Mexican bakeries here. Important fact #2: authentic Mexican tamales take ancient grandmothers whole afternoons to make. The tamales you can pick up, at Toni’s Tienda in Greenville, La Unica in Greer, wherever the “Tamales Hoy” sign is taped to the plate glass window, for a dollar or two apiece— god love you, pick them up.)
When you walk into one of these tiendas, no matter how organized its aisles, how stocked its shelves, it’s immediately clear this is not a native-born grocery store. The cuts of meat are different, the colors of the candies (neon), of the cheeses (white). The produce one would consider exotic—avocados, pasilla chilies, nopales cactus pads—nestles alongside corn, cilantro, potatoes, peppers. And the shelves full of pickled and preserved flavors not known here: yellow nance cherries, green and red moles, purple dried potatoes, pilloncillo, hominy, hoja santa. What does one do with the strange sounding things one finds on the shelves without a tiny cultural lesson to point the way?
Which is what makes the act of grocery shopping so significant.
What fills a cart tells a story—any cashier would say so—one as simple as what’s for dinner, but too who will be eating, how well we know them, how certain we are of how to please them best.
Shopping in a tienda is akin to travel, perhaps the most intimate form of travel, that from table to table. There are specific regions associated with specific ingredients, authentic and traditional uses for everything sold, but too when you put guava paste in a South Carolina kitchen, what happens? We can eat in other lands from here, and share someone else’s sense of home.
Here are a few things to do with what you find.
Argentina is a meaty culture—their great tradition is the asado, where every animal that has ever stood upon four hooves is happily grilled, one after the other, preferably outdoors over an entire Sunday afternoon. Short ribs, sirloin, sweetbreads, cuts of chicken and cabrito, a potato or pepper for good measure with one exceptional ingredient—chimichurri. A thin green garlicky sauce, a vinegary pesto, it’s one of those staple condiments that’s undergone every innovation imaginable, but began with the gauchos on the plains of Patagonia. Essential to the asado, perfect complement to any grilled meat, there is also an Argentinean tradition of choripán, a kind of appetizer to the feast, where grilled chorizo or morcilla (blood sausage) is sandwiched in crusty bread bathed in chimichurri, really a meal in itself.
Vacuum-sealed in the refrigerator case, and behind the butcher counter, you’ll find all different varieties of South American sausages in your corner tienda. They vary in thickness, fattiness, spice and chew, and chorizo from El Salvador is vastly superior to chorizo from Colombia, or vice versa, depending on who you ask. But my favorite is the morcilla: strangely black and delicate, with hints of nutmeg. It makes a beautiful sandwich.
1 cup water
1 tablespoon salt
6 cloves garlic
2 cups parsley and oregano, packed, plus additional 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Bring 1 cup water to a boil; dissolve salt. Simmer for 1 minute, remove from heat and cool.
Roughly chop garlic, whir in food processor. Add packed herbs, add vinegar. With motor running, drizzle in oil, as for a pesto. Stir in pepper, salt water, and chopped parsley.
Chimichurri will keep one month in refrigerator. Serve with grilled meats.
Ají Amarillo: Peru
Ají amarillo is a sunshine yellow chile central to Peruvian cooking. Its heat lies somewhere in the palatable range, milder than a jalapeño but more kick than a long green chile, and its flavor is big and fruity, so it adds a lot of body to the dishes it supports. Which is everything: from table salsas to meat rubs, all through the vast landscape of potato preparations for which Peru is known. One of the most common uses for ají amarillo is a chicken dish called ají de gallina: slow-braised chicken sunk in a creamy sauce of chilies, ground peanuts and Parmesan cheese. The effect is a surprisingly subtle, stick-to-your-ribs stew: the earthy nuts and heat of the chilies balanced by the rich bite of the cheese. You can find ají de gallina stuffed in empanadas or croquettes, on a bed of roasted potatoes or rice, topped with hard boiled eggs and fat black olives, but it is everywhere in Peru.
Ají amarillo can be found in this country in jars, whole or already ground into paste, or frozen. You can seed the chilies as you would a jalapeño to control the heat.
AJÍ DE GALLINA
4 pounds boneless chicken parts, thighs and breasts
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs from day-old bread
2 medium onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 yellow peppers, chopped
8 ají amarillo chilies from a jar, skinned and seeded
2 cans evaporated milk
1 pound lightly salted dry roasted peanuts, ground fine in food processor
2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated fine
Roasted fingerling potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, black olives for garnish
Heat 1/4 cup oil in Dutch oven over medium high heat. Sprinkle chicken pieces with salt and pepper and brown well, in batches. Return chicken to pot, barely cover with water and bring to a boil. Braise until falling apart, approximately one hour.
When chicken is done, drain off stock and reserve. Shred chicken and set aside.
Moisten breadcrumbs with 1 cup of stock.
Heat remaining 1/2 cup oil in Dutch oven over medium high heat and cook onion, garlic and yellow peppers, until onion is translucent. Puree skinned and seeded ají peppers in food processor until smooth; add onion mixture and soaked bread-crumbs. Puree again.
Return mixture to Dutch oven. Add evaporated milk, ground peanuts, cheese and shredded chicken. Heat through. Thin with stock if necessary, and season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.
Serve over roasted potatoes with egg and olives, or spread on a tostada. Serves 8, generously.
Mexico might be the birthplace of chocolate, but it lives a very different life there than the one we know. Mexican cocoa beans are dark roasted, ground with sugar, cinnamon and vanilla over heat, formed into grainy tablets meant to dissolve in milk for hot chocolate. There is none of the careful processing that goes on in other chocolate capitals, aimed at making a melt-in-your-mouth sweet. Chocolate in Mexico has a job to do.
Often left unsweetened and grated into moles and sauces, Mexican chocolate offers toast and grit. But melted and whipped with a fiendish little tool called a molinillo, it makes a frothy, complex breakfast drink.
Which is how chocolate has always been consumed in Mexico, from the Aztec emperors forward, even then spiked with chilies and herbs, occasionally honey. My friend (and edible Upcountry publisher) Sam Wallace likes to float a dried ancho chile on her chocolate as it heats...
In the stores here, you’ll find Mexican chocolate made with brown sugar, with cinnamon and cloves, under the brand names Luker, Diana, Abuelita and Ibarra. If you don’t have a molinillo, you can heat the milk, melt the chocolate, and get a similar effect by whipping the mixture in a blender before you fill your mug.
Tostadas are flat, round tortillas fried into chips— perfect, humble weeknight necessities for everything from quick snacks to crunchy soup accompaniments. It was Joey at Toni’s Tienda on Poinsett Boulevard who first introduced me to El Milagro brand tostadas, a little thicker than their competitors, which makes a difference when you start piling things on. And tostadas are made for piling on: quick guacamole, shredded rotisserie chicken, queso fresco and hot sauce, black beans or chili, plain melted cheese. Fried eggs poached in fresh salsa. Whatever else you’ve got in your fridge, waiting to be eaten.
But in California, in my favorite little coastal town, deep in an unassuming strip mall, there is a place called Happy Taco. They serve Mexican street food: tacos, quesadillas, and tostadas, the best of which comes topped with ceviche. Rather than the traditional chunks of fish marinated in lime juice, dressed with peppers and cilantro, this is a finely chopped affair, almost a spread. By the end of the lunch rush, they’re usually sold out.
CEVICHE HAPPY TACO
1 pound white fleshed fish, in 1/2 inch pieces (cod, snapper, flounder)
1/2 cup red pepper, diced
1/2 cup yellow pepper, diced
1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
Combine fish, 1 teaspoon salt, and enough lime juice to cover in a non-reactive bowl. Refrigerate at least 2 hours, and up to 8. Fish will turn opaque and firm in texture. Drain off marinade and chop fish finely.
Mix in peppers, onions and cilantro, salt and fresh lime juice, to taste.
Mash avocados with juice of 1 lime and salt, to taste. Spread tostada with avocado, top with ceviche. Makes 8-10 tostadas.
Guava Paste: Colombia, Caribbean
The first time I saw a tin of guava paste, I was in a little Cuban grocery in Key West FL, and I bought it because it was so pretty. I kept in on my bookshelf in my office for months— it seemed to be worth more in the tin than out, in terms of my imagination. I mean, guava (tropical, hothouse, lush and sultry— I had no idea what a guava even tasted like) and paste (nothing I would ever want to eat, in any form I could think of).
Years and years later, my sister moved into a neighborhood in Charlotte with some international flair (which means her corner bakery was Latino) and the first morning I stopped in to get some breakfast, I lit upon these little guava and cheese turnovers, dusted with sugar. I’d never tasted anything so perfectly tropical in my life.
Guava is a fragrant, almost floral-tasting fruit, and as with membrillo (quince paste) in Spain, it’s often served as an appetizer alongside queso fresco. The guava paste used in pastries and cakes all across Latin America is very sweet, which often leads to the filling being cut with cheese, and a favorite Cuban snack is saltine crackers spread with cream cheese, topped with a sliver of guava paste. There is always something about the sweet and the savory...
GUAVA CRUMB CAKE
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup whole milk
1 large egg
4-6 ounces guava paste, cubed
3 ounce package cream cheese, cubed
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 400°F. Generously butter a 9-inch square or round cake pan.
Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Sprinkle guava paste and cream cheese over surface of cake.
For topping, whisk together butter, sugars, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with your fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about 35-45 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes.
Tamarind: Mexico, Caribbean
Tamarind is a fruit that grows throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, slender brown pods you’ll find with the dried chilies in tiendas. The pulp is sticky dense and sour, shot through with flat, black seeds. You can flake off the paper shells and chew the pulp itself: it tastes like tea with lots and lots of lemon, almost freakishly sour. In aguas frescas or margaritas, it’s tart and refreshing, one of those subtle ingredients that often enhances the ones around it.
In this country, tamarind is most commonly used as an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. But south of the border, it makes an intriguingly complex candy. Flavored with chile and salt, shaped into balls and rolled in sugar, homemade tamarind candy is a fair and festival staple.
1 pound tamarind pulp, without water or sugar added
2 cups dark brown sugar, or more to taste
1 teaspoon ground chipotle, or hot sauce
Granulated sugar, for rolling.
In medium bowl, break up tamarind pulp with your hands. Add sugar and incorporate, 1/2 cup at a time, until the pulp has absorbed all. Add hot sauce, combine well.
Shape into 1/2 inch balls, and roll in granulated sugar. Allow flavors to combine and mellow at room temperature for at least a week. Makes 36 balls.