Introducing Latin American Vegetables
By Juliet GreeneThe U.S. restaurant industry has had tremendous gastronomic influence from our southern neighbors, especially in recent years. Mexican food is as popular as ever, with high-quality, quick-service restaurants like Chipotle, Qdoba and Rubio’s starting to make their way across the country.
Mexican flavors have found their way into the hearts and stomachs of Americans, who are starting to view this spicier cuisine —rife with choices like fajita burritos and cilantro rice—as they do hamburgers with fries. The trend seems to be spreading rather than dying down.
The flavors of the Caribbean, Central America and South America have started to follow their Mexican predecessors. In casual and white-tablecloth dining, Argentine and Brazilian grills have been popping up everywhere, such as Fogo de Chão and Sal y Carvão, which feature all-you-can-eat meat and salad bars. This churrasco-style cooking originated with the plains-riding gauchos (cowboys) of Brazil; meats were cooked over open fire pits, and access to spices was somewhat limited. These super-indulgent and expensive destinations have become hot spots for big celebrations and big stomachs, and will continue to further the spread of Latin American fare in the Untied States.
Before these flavors were tweaked to fit our palates and to make it to the American table, they began as traditional flavors and recipes based on local agriculture. The most-popular New World vegetables that carry across most of this southern region are varieties of chiles, beans, potatoes, yams, tomatoes and squash. Chiles and beans are widely known and used in this country. However, south of the border, each region has its own traditional and readily available ingredients that help make up the staples of local diets.
The Latin American Diet Pyramid places a heavy stress on vegetables, tubers and beans. While many commonalities exist among vegetables in these countries, how they are flavored helps define their unique cuisines. These traditional vegetables, often served along with local meats, are fascinating to discover.
Traditional favoritesThese vegetables are popular and typical across Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and South America. The names can change depending on the country or sub-region, but the vegetables remain the same.
Avocado.Although generally considered a vegetable, the avocado (Persea americana) is actually a fruit. Originating in south-central Mexico sometime between 7,000 and 5,000 B.C., the Aztecs called it ahuacatl and considered it an aphrodisiac. Out of the almost 500 varieties, the two most widely marketed types are the pebble-textured, nearly black-skinned, oval Hass and the green, pear-shaped Fuerte, which has a thin, smooth skin. Depending on the variety, an avocado can weigh as little as 3 oz. and as much as 4 lbs. Tiny Fuerte cocktail avocados—also called avocaditos—only weigh about 1 oz.
Avocados’ lush, buttery texture and mild, faintly nutlike flavor mean they aren’t necessarily used as vegetables: Brazilians add them to ice cream, and in the Philippines they are puréed with sugar and milk to create a dessert beverage.
Calabaza (West Indian pumpkin).This pumpkinlike squash (Cucurbita moschata) is popular throughout the Caribbean, and Central and South America. The round squash can range in size from as large as a watermelon to as small as a cantaloupe. Typically, they weigh 5 to 12 lbs., but can grow to as large as 50 lbs. Its skin color ranges from mottled green to pale tan to light red-orange; its flesh is a bright orange, with a firm, succulent texture.
Calabaza’s sweet flavor is reminiscent of butternut squash, making it suitable for applications typical for winter squashes. Its edible seeds can be toasted and eaten whole. One-half cup of calabaza serves up only 35 calories.
Cassava root (yuca or manioc).Native to South America, cassava (Manihot esculenta) root ranges from 6 to 12 in. long and from 2 to 3 in. wide. Its tough brown skin covers a crisp, white flesh. The fresh roots contain about 30% starch with very little protein. The many varieties of cassava fall into two main categories: sweet and bitter. Raw bitter cassava contains high levels of poisonous cyanogenic glucosides, which are destroyed through cooking and the processing used to make cassava flour.
When young and tender, its leaves can be cooked and used like spinach. Cassava is available year-round in Caribbean and Latin American markets. Grated, dried cassava is called cassava meal. In Brazil, lightly roasted cassava flour, farofa, often accompanies feijoada, the country’s legendary stew of meat and beans. Boiled, it makes a popular sweet pudding. When boiled and then deep-fried, it makes a South American snack or side dish.
Chayote (vegetable pear or christophene).This perennial gourd (Cucurbitaceae Sechium edule) was once the principal food of the Aztecs and Mayas. Its white to pale-green skin—which may be wrinkled, smooth or prickly—covers white, bland-tasting flesh surrounding a single, soft seed.
The mango-shaped chayote can be prepared similarly to summer squash; split, stuffed and baked like acorn squash; or used raw in salads. Its mild flavor typically dictates considerable seasoning. It can be substituted for potatoes in a cold salad with a vinaigrette dressing, combined with other vegetables for a stew, stuffed with ground meat, served au gratin, creamed, or breaded and fried.
Huitlacoche(cuitlacoche, corn smut, maize mushroom or Mexican truffle). Although not a vegetable, huitlacoche (Ustilago maydis) deserves mention. This bulbous fungus attacks corn and, although it is treated as a delicacy farther south, is considered a pest in the United States.
Huitlacocheis sold canned and frozen in some gourmet markets. It can occasionally be found in specialty produce and farmers’ markets during corn season. Its sweet, earthy, somewhat smoky flavor suits it to sautés, soups, casseroles and other applications where cooked mushrooms would be appropriate.
New packaging technology permits bundling of fresh vegetables, such as avocadoes, without notable quality loss, thereby adding an authentic touch to traditional heat-and-eat soups, like tortilla.
Photo: © California Avocado Commission
Jicama (Mexican potato or Mexican turnip).This large, bulbous root vegetable (Pachyrhizus erosus) has thin, brown skin and white, crunchy flesh. The roots may weigh up to 50 lbs., but most on the market weigh 3 to 5 lbs.
It has a sweet, nutty flavor—influenced in part by the presence of inulin —and a texture similar to water chestnuts; the combination works well both raw and cooked. Peel the thin skin just before using. In Mexico, the vegetable is traditionally marinated with Mexican lime and served topped with chili powder.
Ñame.Ñame is the Spanish version of the African word for yam (members of the genus Dioscorea). It is a different variety than American sweet potato and is found in Puerto Rican cuisine. Its skin is almost barklike, and its flesh ranges in color from off-white and yellow to purple and pink. Use this starchy vegetable in applications like stews in place of potatoes; bake, or slice and fry them.
Nopales.These popular Mexican vegetables consist of the fleshy, oval leaves (also called pads or paddles) of the nopal (prickly pear) cactus (genus Opuntia) and have been gaining popularity in the United States. They range from pale to dark-green in color and have a delicate, slightly tart flavor— not unlike a green bean. Though fresh nopales are available year-round in Mexican markets and some supermarkets, they’re most tender and juicy in the spring. Remove the thorns before use. Nopalitos (diced or sliced nopales) are available canned, either pickled or packed in water.
The vegetable can be eaten grilled or boiled; however overcooking can produce a slightly “slimy” texture. The flesh is generally cut into small pieces, simmered in water until tender and used in dishes—from scrambled eggs to salads. Acitrónes are candied nopales packed in sugar syrup.
Plantains (plantanos).These hard, starchy bananas (both belong to the family Musaceae, genus Musa paradisiacal) can be eaten raw when ripe. They can also be used for cooking at any stage of ripeness, which provides a wide variation in flavor. Green, firm plantains are starchy and have little flavor; they can substitute for potatoes. Yellow plantains are starchy, but more tender, with a slightly sweeter flavor; they’re tasty steamed, fried or mashed. Extremely ripe plantains are black and have a soft, deeply yellow, sweet pulp suitable for sweet dishes. Salty plantain chips are commonly known as platanitos, chipilos, tostones or patacones.
Potatoes.Ancient Incas cultivated this starchy tuber (Solanum tuberosum) called papa thousands of years ago, and Spanish conquistadors introduced it to the rest of the world. It is prevalent in all Central and South American cuisines. The indigenous peoples turned it into flour, called chuño, which today in Bolivia, Chile and Peru is mixed with water or used as flour for bread. Peru offers more than 4,200 varieties of potato.
Interest in some lesser-known South American varieties, including the purple Peruvian, Ozette and Criolla, has grown. These fingerling potatoes work well mashed, steamed, fried or roasted.
Squash blossoms.Although technically not vegetables, edible flowers from summer and winter squash deserve mention. They come in various shades of yellow and orange, and their flavors are akin to the squash itself. They can be found in Latin and Filipino markets from late spring through early fall. These flowers are typically soft and limp, but the best ones look fresh and have closed buds.
Squash blossoms work well as an elegant garnish, either whole or slivered, for soups, entrées and many other dishes. They also add distinctive color, flavor and curiosity to salads. The most-common cooking method is coating them with a light batter and sautéing. They can also be stuffed with cheese and then baked or battered and fried.
Tomatillo.These small, Mexican vegetables (Physalis philadelphica, Physalis ixocarpa) resemble little green tomatoes in size, shape and appearance. The tomatillo is related to the tomato, but its papery husk gives a nod to its genetic relation to the Cape gooseberry. They are typically used while green and firm, when their flavor exhibits lemon, apple and herb notes. Fresh tomatillos—best with dry, tight-fitting husks—are available sporadically throughout the year. Some ethnic markets also carry canned tomatillos.
The tomatillo is used cooked or raw, in purées or minced. It is used as a base for salsa verde, which can accompany prepared dishes or be used as an ingredient in various stews. An infusion of tomatillo husks is sometimes added to tamale dough or fritters to improve their consistency, or to white rice as a flavor.
Yautias(Tannia, malanga or American taro). This root of a largeleaved tropical plant (Xanthosoma), a close relative of, and often used interchangeably with, taro (Colocasia), typically has yellow or creamy-white flesh, which can be used like a potato. A Puerto Rican classic, Sopón de Pollo con Arroz (chicken soup with rice) is traditionally made with large pieces of pumpkin and diced potatoes or yautias.
In the Caribbean, the leaves of the plant are called callaloo, where they are prepared like mustard or turnip greens. They also form the principal ingredient in a stew of the same name.
Spec’ing and developingThese more-exotic vegetables still remain a mystery to many people. Few are available on a widespread commercial basis, so they rarely pop up in popular chain restaurants or in processed foods ... yet. As these flavors begin to cross over our borders, the need to have them more readily available will increase the demand, causing the supply to increase.
As avocados have become a mainstream ingredient in American cuisine, it is now possible to buy high-pressure vacuum-sealed avocados. These avocados contain no preservatives to maintain their freshness or color, due to this special processing and packaging process.
Some companies carry precooked green, yellow or black plantains. Some plantain-based offerings include tostones (twice-fried green plantains), mangu (a plantain ball covered with sautéed onions) and cool plantain “baskets” for filling (like a hollowed-out section of plantain).
Precooked Latin American potatoes, such as Criollas, are marketed. Several types of yuca, including individually quick-frozen (IQF) ingredients, fries, bites and precooked yuca, are also available. In addition, taro, yuca and other starchy tubers make great chips, often with the potential for upscale appeal. Dried chips can be sourced easily overseas.
Latin American companies have started to see the U.S. demand for these products and have made IQF cassava, taro root and sweet potatoes available. These ingredients are also available dried—either air dried, spray dried, puffed or freeze dried in kibbled, granule, diced, sliced or whole forms. Puffed pieces are designed to float when hydrated, which works great in instant soups. They are shelf-stable, easy to work with, and have a long shelf life and consistent flavor. Some international companies also offer cassava flakes.
Oleoresin and Aquaresin® (dispersible in both oil and water) flavors, like that of cascabel chile—grown primarily in Latin America—are growing in popularity. Other chile flavors could be produced if demand increases. These options are a good idea when a product developer needs a shelf-stable product or, in the case of Aquaresin chile flavors, one that can add flavor to either oil- or water-based applications.
Reduced-moisture herbs, such as cilantro, and vegetables typically do not darken when thawed and look fresher much longer. Premixed blends of jalapeños, green onions, cilantro and garlic work well for foodservice and retail salsas. Chile-cilantro, chimichurri and ginger-cilantro pastes can also speed and streamline product development. Other pastes include: chili-chipotle pepper, green chile pepper, roasted poblano pepper, roasted serrano pepper, ancho pepper, jalapeño pepper, tomatillo concentrate, and Latino blends of chiles, tomatoes, garlic and herbs.
The excitement over south-of-the-border flavors will help bring them into the United States. Increasingly popular Mexican food can be found just about everywhere these days. If all indications prove correct, U.S. residents will soon have the opportunity to taste and cook with a much wider variety of Latin American ingredients and foods that are still considered exotic.
Chef Juliet Greene, corporate research chef for Charlie Baggs, Inc., Chicago, has a Culinary Arts degree from Kendall College and holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Business and Spanish from Tulane University. She has served as the Culinary Program director and lead instructor for Sur La Table in Chicago, owned and operated a private catering company, and worked as a pastry chef for The Racquet Club of Chicago. She is fluent in Spanish and French. Allison Rittman, C.R.C., executive corporate chef, Charlie Baggs, Inc., also contributed to this article. Both Greene and Rittman are members of the Research Chefs Association.