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South America: Bold Inspirations

A favorite cut of steak in Brazil, picanha is grilled perfectly and served with chimichurri and a fried duck egg at 1500° in Miami Beach, Fla. Photo courtesy of carolina del rivero. There’s much to please North American palates from our neighbors to the south

By Karen Weisberg

Over the past decade, the culinary transformation of Latin cuisine in the United States has opened the gateway for a deeper exploration of cuisines and flavors from regional areas of South America. The diverse protein-centric culinary cultures of these countries offer U.S. menu developers ample opportunity for menu inspiration at a time when American consumers are ready for new and bolder profiles.

To take a look at some of the varieties, preparations and flavors of proteins that are typical in several South American countries — including Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Brazil — we interviewed chefs on New York’s Lower East Side (for Colombian), in Los Angeles (for Peruvian), in Miami Beach, Fla. (for Brazilian), in Brooklyn, N.Y. (for Venezuelan) and, ultimately, in San Antonio, for a little bit of everything.

Fun with Colombian Street Food
When Alex Mitow lived in Miami for five years, he saw firsthand the huge popularity of Colombian street food. A trip to Colombia confirmed his decision to open a place of his own featuring hot dogs imbued with the flavors of Colombia and the edginess of The Big Apple. Choosing flavors that were applicable to an American menu, Mitow created a trippy, Lower East Side venue: Los Perros Locos, loosely translated as Crazy Dogs. His menu, with prices in the $5 to $8.50 range (the high end for the El Puerco: smoked ham, deep-fried bacon, chicharrones, melted Swiss and chipzana — a chipotle and apple salsa), also offers “inside” jokes. Where else can you order “Pablo Escobar,” an all-beef hot dog, salsa de piña, apple-chipotle slaw, potato chips, Kewpie mayo, plus a dusting of perico? “Pablo Escobar was a ruthless drug dealer in Colombia whom the FBI killed in the early ’90s,” says Mitow. ‘“Perico’ is cocaine, but here, it’s cheese.”

Under the menu heading “Su-Do” Perros — a play on the word “pseudo” — Mitow offers several sandwiches served on hot-dog buns: Pollo Coca-Cola features chicken thighs marinated in Coca-Cola for 24 to 48 hours, plus pineapple juice, cilantro, garlic, and melted mozzarella, salsa rosado, salsa verde, chipzana and crushed chips. “This item is semi-typical of Colombia,” he says. “We grill it, then add mozzarella while it’s still on the grill.”

Among the New York locals, Amerro-Perro is the most popular menu item. His version of a chili dog, it sports beer- and cocoa-infused beef chili, shredded Vermont cheddar, chipotle kraut, crushed Fritos and chipzana. Mitow’s personal favorite is the Mas Perfecto — a hot dog topped with an apple-chipotle slaw and a quail egg.

In Colombia, salchipapas is among the most popular street food items. Here, it’s an order of waffle fries and sliced all-beef hot dog, poutine style; guests can customize with toppings. “Salchipapas are everywhere in South America, like grape leaves in the Mediterranean,” says Mitow. “We do it differently, using waffle-cut fries and cut-up coin-shaped pieces of hot dog, plus deep-fried Nueske’s bacon.” In Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, salchicha (sausage) plus papa (potato) becomes the french fries with fried hot dog, usually served with ketchup, mayo and chile peppers.

Venezuela’s beloved handheld made with a round flatbread, the arepa is the star at Caracas Arepa Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y., with fillings like chunky chicken and avocado salad (pictured here) or slow-cooked pork shoulder. Photo courtesy of caracas arepa bar.
Home-Cooking, Peruvian Style
Born in Lima, Peru, and one of 13 siblings, Ricardo Zarate recalls that learning to cook at home was mandatory — and he loved it. “I felt at home in the kitchen, and it was wonderful to see how the raw ingredients transformed when they were cooked,” he says. Five years ago, he arrived in Los Angeles with a dream of owning a restaurant — now he owns three. “Mo-chica, opened in 2009, refers to Peruvian culture before the Inca,” Zarate says. “They were very advanced for the time and influenced the Incas.” Picca, opened in 2011, means “to pick,” but it also means “spicy.” No matter the interpretation, Zarate sees it as an elegant small place to dine, like an upscale cantina.

Most recently he opened Paiche, named in honor of a fish from the Amazon. “This almost-prehistoric fish can grow up to 600 pounds in the Amazon,” Zarate explains. “About 15 years ago it was almost extinct because it became so popular, but now it’s farmed and no longer endangered.” Zarate is also pleased to find paiche tastes even better now, perhaps since the farm-raised fish are imported to the U.S. market when they’re no more than 25 pounds.
To prepare paiche, Zarate grills it, bakes it in the oven, or serves it as ceviche. “It’s very firm, so it’s easy to work with.” He makes a tiradito, a Peruvian dish sliced thinly and dressed with leche de tigre with aji amarillo. He adds sesame and olive oils, ginger and garlic, and sears the fish with a torch.

Another interesting protein hailing from South America is pacu, a member of the piranha family that’s now being sold in the States. With a texture similar to chicken, Zarate menus it as Pacu Ribs. He marinates then grills it and serves it as anticuchos on skewers.
One of Zarate’s favorite chicken dishes is seco de pollo, a Peruvian chicken-cilantro stew. “It’s a very rustic dish, so you can use the thighs or the whole chicken cut up,” he says. He rubs the chicken with salt, pepper and chopped garlic, then covers it with a light lager beer, letting it marinate for 30 to 40 minutes.

For the aderezo (dressing), he combines red onion, garlic and aji amarillo. The dressing component is key to Peruvian cuisines. “Slowly fry in olive oil, add a spoonful of cumin powder plus some liquid from the marinade, and a couple of bunches of cilantro, so you’re blending the cilantro with the ‘beer juice’ to blend properly,” he says. Zarate then “cooks” the cilantro until it changes color to a darker green. He then adds the chicken, cooking it slowly and adding chicken stock, then simmering the stew for 25 to 30 minutes.

Subtly Brazilian
Brazilian-born Paula DaSilva, executive chef at 1500°, the 140-seat restaurant within the Eden Roc Renaissance, Miami Beach, Fla., spent most of her early years in her family’s Brazilian restaurant in Massachusetts. With a move to South Florida where her parents opened two restaurants, DaSilva’s love of cooking led her to pursue formal culinary training. Although instrumental in creating the concept for 1500° — a blend of farm-to-table with classic steakhouse cookery — DaSilva has intentionally kept the Brazilian influences subtle, “so people wouldn’t think it’s a Brazilian steakhouse,” she admits. But if you’re looking for that Brazilian accent on the menu, you’ll find it in the 10-ounce Prime Top Sirloin Picanha. “It’s a typical Brazilian cut — it’s the one that looks like a horseshoe with a nice fat cap on it. It comes from the top round — a very underutilized cut but super-packed with flavor,” DaSilva says. For a bit more of the “subtle” Brazilian influence, she serves it with crispy garlic yucca.

Whole Fried Florida Snapper has its place as a special entrée on the menu. Here, it is lightly floured and deep-fried — innards removed but bones left intact. The dish and preparation is reminiscent of a childhood meal DaSilva recalls enjoying in Brazil.

Chef Ricardo Zarate shares his passion for Peruvian cooking at his Los Angeles-area restaurants. He showcases his culture through dishes like Paiche Tiradito, a seared Amazonian fish dressed with leche de tigre and aji amarillo made from Peruvian chiles — a favorite of Zarate’s. Photo courtesy of ricardo zarate.
Pockets of Venezuelan Flavor
With American cuisine, there’s no argument that some sandwiches rise to iconic status. Just so, arepas (a mix of water, corn flour, salt, plus a bit of oil for a basic version) are the signature sandwiches of Venezuela, and many of them are iconic. Caracas Arepa Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y., and on a smaller scale at a second location in Manhattan, has been attracting a steady clientele for the past five years. Manager Vanessa Maldonado recognizes that “consistency of product is crucial — if you have a successful product and manage to maintain it, you’re good to go,” she says.

Slow-cooked pork shoulder is one of the most traditional and popular arepa fillings. “Pork shoulder is marinated in a bunch of spices, especially Worcestershire sauce which is used in pretty much all Venezuelan cuisine — it’s the Colonial influence,” she laughs. “Plus, there’s sugar syrup — for pork, it’s guava paste. The pork is slow-roasted until it falls off the bone.”

Carne mechada (shredded beef) is prepared by boiling flank steak or eye of round, then shredding it very fine. “It’s sort of a juicy stew and a really traditional dish in Venezuela,” Maldonado says. Pabellon Criollo, listed on the menu under “Plates,” is the Venezuelan national dish of shredded beef, white rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains sprinkled with salty cheese. The “Criollo” in its name refers to the mix of Africans, Indians and Spaniards.

Fish is menued as a special from time to time at Caracas Arepa Bar, and is typically prepared as Candelaria, a traditional seafood stew. “It also refers to the area where numerous Spanish immigrants from the Spanish Civil War settled in the early 1900s,” she explains. The stew is prepared with shrimp, squid, garlic, parsley and butter.

Latin American Agent
It’s no surprise that chef Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick became a Latin cuisines specialist for the Culinary Institute of America at San Antonio, since she was “enthralled by the Spanish language as well as Mayan culture and history all through high school.” Born in Honduras but raised in San Antonio, she and her parents often traveled back to Honduras and to Brazil to visit family when she was growing up. With her research focusing on the “culinary ethnography” of Latin cuisines, Johnson-Kossick is a wealth of culinary knowledge on the iconic protein dishes of Latin America.

She describes the Chilean curanto, which is traditionally cooked over hot rocks in an underground pit, as “like a New England clam bake with chorizo sausage, potato patties, mollusks and shellfish.” The dish often includes pork and chicken, as well. Ground beef is used extensively in Chilean empanadas, while beef tenderloin, pounded thin, makes its appearance in churrasco palta, a sandwich with tomatoes, avocado, banana wax peppers and olive oil. Lamb chops are also an important item from Patagonia, although most of the country’s lamb is exported.

In Colombia, ajiaco, a chicken and potato stew, is “the national dish,” Johnson-Kossick points out, but bandeja paisa is similarly referred to as “the national dish.” The latter includes rice, frijoles paisa (pinto beans), grilled flank steak, plantains, arepa paisa, chorizo and chicharron. Calentado, another popular beef dish in Colombia, is a combination of leftover rice with ground or shredded meat, pork rinds and/or chorizo. Sobrebarriga (literally, “over the belly”), braised flank steak, is another staple. It’s often slowly simmered for about two hours in a combination of beer, chopped onion, cumin, cayenne pepper and chopped green pepper. When it’s removed from the pot and drained, it may be briefly grilled over a charcoal fire for a crispy texture.

In the seafood category, Colombians menu pescado frito, or fried fish, with arroz con coco (coconut rice); there’s also sancocho de pescado, a fish stew prepared with tropical tubers and coconut milk. Often, the fish pieces are rubbed with a mixture of garlic paste, vinegar, olive oil and finely minced cilantro prior to being added to the stew pot.

In Brazil, seafood is featured in moqueca as well as in caldeirada, the Portuguese-inspired fish stew. “Seasoning and aromatics depend on the area of the country, and it can be a very African seafood stew,” Johnson-Kossick says. Carne seca, or jerked meat — boiled and then rendered — is popular in Brazil, but picanha is special. “Picanha — ‘rump cover’ in Portuguese — is spit-roasted with the fat cap still intact. This cut of beef shank requires a longer cooking time over indirect heat. Spit-roasted meats are basted with brine or rubbed with salt to keep moist.

“You do surface grilling in Argentina and Chile — just throw the steak on the grill — but not in Brazil, where there’s a whole pageantry surrounding the spit-roasting.”
On balance, Johnson-Kossick believes most South American dishes need little, if any, adaptation in order to please North American palates.

“Americans like bold flavors and so many of the traditional cuisines translate well. The use of heat is not as prevalent as in Mexico, but many people mistakenly believe all Latin food is spicy — that’s not the case.”

For menu developers looking to capitalize on consumers’ yearning for new and different, there’s clearly an abundance of flavor-forward protein inspirations from South America.

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