1. We grew up in Mississippi and Tennessee, and we love Southern food. We wondered what your favorite dish from the South might be these days and/or the one you first really liked early on?
Early on I quickly fell in love with pimiento cheese. I mean, what's not to like? The mixture of creamy mayonnaise with sharp cheddar cheese, speckled with blushing pimientos...it was love at first bite! It's hard to pick a favorite Southern dish--there are so many favorites, including fried chicken, deviled eggs and biscuits--but if I had to pick just one, I'd probably pick grits. Although I had never heard of grits before I arrived in the South as a young bride, I quickly became enamored of its nutty flavor, which immediately reminded me of masa for tamales (after all, both are made of nixtamalized corn). Give them to me mixed with chiles or served simply with a pat of butter; make me a cheesy-grits casserole or give them to me shaped into cakes! I'm there! I'm happy!
2. What are some of your go-to ingredients or spices, the kinds of things you think others should be sure to try out in their cooking?
In order to cook the New Southern-Latino way, I suggest you revamp your pantry a little bit and incorporate all sorts of dried chile powders, which I use in everything from sauces to desserts, such as my Chile-Chocolate Brownies. Try these powders the next time you make a pot of vegetarian chili and you'll understand why I love them so much; a little ancho chile powder will add hints of chocolate, chipotle chile powder will add both smokiness and a spicy kick, and a sprinkle of aji amarillo powder will take it to new levels. Mexican cinnamon is another one of my favorite spicest. Called "canela" this is cinnamon from Ceylon (not the Cassia variety mostly used here in the U.S.) and it's very brittle, which makes it ideal to grind for use in cakes and other dishes. I even add canela to my stews and gravies. Annatto or "achiote" is also great to have around. You can find this spice and natural food coloring in many stores in the South. You've probably had it all your life and didn't even know it because it's what gives its orange hue to cheddar cheese. In Latin America, annatto is used to add color and flavor to lots of dishes from rice to pastries. Tamarind extract is sour; it's also the perfect addition to barbecue sauces and salad dressings.These are all easy ingredients to find in the South nowadays and some that are well worth experimenting with in your own kitchen.
3. Do you have a favorite Southern-Latino dish that just happens to also be vegetarian?
Actually, I have many vegetarian dishes in my book. That is due to the fact that at home we eat at least two vegetarian meals every week. Also, Latin Americans have a tremendous array of vegetarian dishes. I have delicious salads in this book, as well as soups and amazing side dishes such as my Swiss Chard Frittata. One of my favorites is my Pimiento and Cheese Chilaquiles, which taste like an elegant lasagna. In this recipe I bathe fried tortillas with a coral-hued sauce and layer them with cheese; it's baked until bubbly, and warm, and utterly delicious! This is also one of my twists on pimiento cheese. I love to serve those with my Collard Greens, Oranges, and Pepita Salad with Buttermilk Dressing, which features raw collard greens. If you haven't tried raw collards before, you're in for a nice surprise. I also offer delicious vegetarian salsas and the best plantains north of the border! My Braised Lentils are scrumptious. I love to serve them over a bed of brown rice and then top them with my Chiltepin Gremolata (a citrusy, chile salsa that adds zing and contrasting textures). Of course, I also feature many delicious vegetarian desserts including a sweet soup made with corn and served with cinnamon-sugar coated hushpuppies, that's to die for!
4. I like that the dessert recipes you present are so creative and sometimes even a little spicy. Do you have a theory about making desserts stand out or a reason why yours are a little different?
I like to say that you're only as good as your last dish. That's where dessert comes in because that's what our guests will remember most after they leave. Therefore, I like to give my desserts subtle but definite twists. I had lots of fun creating new versions that both please and surprise the palate. The additon of chile and spices in some desserts is one twist; it's not as far-fetched as you may think because that is done throughout Latin America. I also try to incorporate a balance of textures and temperatures. For example, I serve crispy hot Sweet Potato Churros with a creamy, decadent chocolate sauce. I add a bit of crunch to the New World Chocolate Cake with the addition of ground almonds. And I offer an easy Buttermilk Ice Cream that is perfect to serve with a warm slice of pie or with my Mango, Peach, and Tequila Cobbler. Finally, I use ingredients that you wouldn't normally think to incorporate in desserts, such as the vidalia onions I use to make Empanadas de Viento, which are sugary fried pies. Another example would be my Sweet Tomato Cobbler, where tomatoes are treated in the same manner as cherries: first preserved with sugar and then draped with flaky pastry. I think that's a must-try dessert in this book. I guess my desserts are different because I dare to push the envelope just a little bit. But I wouldn't call them "extreme" desserts. They simply tease the palate, subtly. I love to surprise my friends and family with dishes like these, and I know I've succeeded when they ask for the recipe!
5. We especially love your Squash and Chile Cake with Cayenne and Ancho Chile Icing! How were you inspired to make this particular dessert?
Squash is another one of those ingredients that Latinos use in both savory and sweet dishes. I created this recipe years ago, for a cooking class in which I taught new ways to use dried chiles. Back then, I wanted a cake that yielded deep, comforting flavors but that wouldn't intimidate beginner bakers or take a very long time to prepare. And I wanted to create a dessert that would be ideal to serve during the cooler months of the year. Since I love making soups with butternut squash and chiles, I decided to translate this combination into a cake. It was a complete experiment and I was so excited to see that it worked so well. I was also pleasantly surprised that it became one of the most requested recipes by my students. I decided to include it in this book because it's one of my favorite cakes and also because it partners very well with hot drinks, such as spiced-teas, coffee, or hot cocoa. In fact, it's so easy to make, that I may very well go bake one right now. All this talk about food has made me very, very hungry!
*Thanks so much, Sandra! Now, we can all enjoy two of her great recipes: see how to make her spiced-up brownies and pumpkin seeds below. -TCV
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped and toasted pecans (optional)
For the glaze:
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon coffee-flavored liqueur
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9x9x2-inch baking pan. Place the butter and chocolate in the top of a double boiler and heat over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they have melted and are well combined. Lift the bowl carefully from the pan so no water droplets come into contact with the chocolate mixture; let cool for 5 minutes and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the sugar; add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; stir in the vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, ancho chile powder, and salt; gradually add the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture, beating well until fully combined. Add the pecans. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the center is set and the brownies begin to pull back from the sides of the pan. Cool brownies for 1 hour in the pan.
To make the glaze: in a medium bowl, combine the confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder, butter, liqueur, vanilla, and chile powder; blend until smooth. Place the glaze in a pastry bag (or zip-top bag with a snipped corner), and drizzle back and forth over the brownies. Cut them into 20 bars.
2 cups raw pumpkin seeds
2 cups raw pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon ancho chile powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon sugar
Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a medium bowl, toss together the pumpkin seeds, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, cumin, pepper, coriander, chile powder, cayenne, garlic powder, and sugar. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes; remove the baking sheet and shake to redistribute the seeds.
Return to the oven and bake for another 3 minutes; stop to shake the pan again. Finish baking for 1–2 minutes, or until the pumpkin seeds are crispy and golden, being careful not to burn them. Transfer to a cool baking sheet and cool completely before storing. (Makes 2 cups.)
From The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes that Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America and the American South. Copyright © 2011 by Sandra A. Gutierrez. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu