Appetizers with Latino flair

Casa de Chocolates made Latino-style chocolates by flavoring bittersweet chocolate ganache with tamarind or hot pepper sauce.

Chef An La layers a tostada, a mexican fried tortilla, with beans. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Chef An La layers a tostada, a mexican fried tortilla, with beans.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Salsa dancing in the courtyard of Union Station in Los Angeles and salsas on our plates added spice to the recent celebration called East LA Meets Napa & Beyond.
The occasion, a fund-raiser for the nonprofit healthcare provider AltaMed, gave chefs from East Los Angeles, an area known for its Mexican cuisine, an opportunity to showcase their specialties, which guests could taste with wines from California’s famed Napa Valley wine region.
Tortillas, Mexican flatbreads made of corn or wheat flour, were the basis of a variety of finger foods. Chefs turned tortillas into tacos, a popular street food in Mexico as well as LA.
Tacos have a lot in common with shwarma sandwiches, but a tortilla is used instead of a pita. The meat filling is topped with diced tomato, onion, and sometimes cilantro (fresh coriander) and shredded lettuce, and drizzled with salsa or hot sauce.
Instead of the tehina that is often served with shwarma, tacos might be garnished with sliced or mashed avocado or a spoonful of sour cream.
In the hands of certain East LA chefs, the humble taco became elegant. The cooks of Casa Oaxaca filled their tortillas with a mixture of hibiscus flowers and mild cheese, fried them until crisp and served them with a red, sweet-and-sour hibiscus sauce.
A colorful taco served by YXTA restaurant was filled with spit-roasted meat, mild cheese, chopped onion and cilantro and drizzled with two sauces – a fiery red salsa made of roasted tomatoes and four kinds of hot peppers, and a cool, pale green avocado-cilantro salsa.
As a crunchy base for serving salads, some cooks used tostadas, made from tortillas that have been fried or toasted. One chef topped small, cracker-size tostadas with ceviche, or tangy marinated fish, which he had mixed with pieces of mango.
More elaborate appetizers called panuchos were served by Gilberto Cetina Jr. of Chichen Itza restaurant. He explained that to make this specialty of Yucatan, you need to prepare your own corn tortillas. As they cook on the griddle, they puff, and you separate the two thin layers, spread black bean puree inside and finish cooking the tortillas. Cetina tops the panuchos with cooked turkey or roasted meat, tomato wedges, pickled onions and avocado slices and, for accompaniment, a salsa of habaneros, one of the hottest of chilies, blended with garlic. For a faster way to enjoy the same combination of flavors, you could spoon black bean puree on a store-bought tortilla or tostada and add the same toppings.
Much easier to prepare are quesadillas, which you could consider Mexico’s answer to grilled cheese sandwiches, made with tortillas instead of bread. Usually quesadillas are a quick snack of tortillas filled with grated cheese, folded in half and heated briefly on a griddle or in a skillet. When the cook of Casa Oaxaca made her quesadillas (which are called empanadas, the Oaxacan name for this specialty), she filled them with mild string cheese, squash blossoms and epazote, a Mexican herb.
Daring souls could have their quesadillas garnished with a sauce made with chapu- lines, a kind of grasshopper.
At parties in California, guacamole is frequently on the menu. Made of mashed avocado often flavored with hot peppers, onion and diced tomatoes, this Mexican specialty is usually served with fried tortilla chips. For his take on this appetizer, chef John Rivera Sedlar of Rivera Restaurant made broccomole, using broccoli instead of avocado.
The tasty, bright green puree was made from lightly cooked broccoli florets blended with chilies, garlic, onion, cilantro and lime juice. (See recipe.) There were delicious sweet treats, too. Casa de Chocolates made Latino-style chocolates by flavoring bittersweet chocolate ganache with tamarind or hot pepper sauce. Their chile mango bark was a small bar of dark chocolate studded with dried mango, and flavored with chile flakes.
At the table of Porto’s Bakery, known for its Cuban pastries, we sampled cookies that resembled Middle Eastern ma’amoul. Like ma’amoul, they were made from a shortbread dough, but they were filled with creamy dulce de leche (milk jam) instead of nuts or dates; they were called dulce de leche kisses.
Those who wanted to indulge in a different kind of Latin smooch could taste Ceja Vineyard’s dessert wine. It’s called Dulce Beso, or sweet kiss.
Faye Levy is the author of
Classic Cooking Techniques.
Broccomole – Mexican Broccoli Puree Appetizer
At the East LA Meets Napa & Beyond event, chef John Rivera Sedlar, the author of Modern Southwest Cuisine, told us how he made his broccoli appetizer. He recommended adding the flavorings to taste, and noted that the predominant flavors should be garlic, chiles and lime. The chiles he uses are serrano peppers and a bit of habanero, but you can use any fresh hot peppers you like; if you’re not sure of their potency, start with half a chopped pepper and add more to taste.
With the puree, Sedlar served very thin, homemade potato chips; you could serve toasted pita wedges instead. At the last minute he sprinkled each portion with lime salt, which he makes by mixing lime zest with sea salt.
Sedlar makes similar appetizers from asparagus and from corn.
Makes about 4 appetizer servings
❖ 4 cups (about 225 gr. or ½pound) broccoli florets
❖ Salt and white pepper to taste
❖ 1 to 3 small hot green peppers, seeds and membranes removed, finely chopped
❖ 1 Tbsp. chopped white or mild onion, or white part of green onion
❖ 1 garlic clove, finely minced
❖ About 3 to 4 Tbsp. cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves
❖ 1 to 3 tsp. fresh lime juice, or to taste
❖ 1 to 2 tsp. olive oil (optional)
Cook the broccoli florets in a saucepan of enough boiling salted water to cover them, uncovered, about 4 or 5 minutes or until they are crisp-tender but still bright green. Remove florets with a slotted spoon.
Put cooked broccoli in a blender or food processor with salt, white pepper, hot peppers, onion, garlic and cilantro leaves. Blend to a puree; leave it slightly chunky if you like. Add lime juice. If you like, blend in a little olive oil.
Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve at room temperature.
Chicken Tacos
This recipe is from Flavors of Mexico. Author Marlena Spieler notes this is an excellent use for chicken that was cooked to make soup. She shreds and quickly browns the chicken with cumin, garlic and chile powder. and wraps it in corn tortillas. “They’re good soft,” wrote Spieler, “and equally good fried to a crisp.”
If you don’t have tortillas, you could serve the chicken mixture in a pita.
Spieler serves the tacos with seasoned mashed avocados and hot pepper sauce.
Makes 4 appetizer or 2 main-course servings
❖ 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (for browning chicken and tortillas)
❖ 225 gr. (½ pound) boiled chicken, cut or shredded into bite-sized bits (about 1 to 1½ cups)
❖ ½ to 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
❖ 2 garlic cloves, chopped
❖ ½ teaspoon mild chile powder (semi-hot pepper powder), or to taste
❖ Salt and pepper to taste
❖ 4 corn tortillas
❖ 2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
❖ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped onion
❖ Handful of shredded lettuce
❖ Finely chopped raw chilies (hot peppers) or hot pepper sauce (optional)
Heat 1 or 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet or sauté pan. Add the shredded chicken, cumin seeds and garlic, and warm until lightly browned.
Sprinkle in the chile powder, remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat tortillas, one at a time, on an oiled griddle or in an oiled skillet until pliable. Place them on a plate to stuff. Place several spoonfuls of the chicken mixture on each tortilla, and roll up.
Serve as is, with cilantro, onion, lettuce and hot peppers, or hot pepper sauce.
Basic Quesadillas – Cheese-Filled Tortillas
“Cut into wedges, quesadillas make a simple appetizer,” wrote Teresa Cordero-Cordell and Robert Cordell in Aprovecho: A Mexican-American Border Cookbook. “Folded over, taco fashion, they can be served as a main dish.”
Quesadillas are usually heated in a skillet one by one but to make them easier to serve, the Cordells bake them instead.
Makes 6 servings
❖ 225 gr. (8 ounces) shredded cheddar or other mild, semi-soft shredding cheese (2 cups)
❖ 6 corn or flour tortillas of 15-cm (6-inch) diameter
❖ 1 small tomato, seeded and chopped (about ½ cup)
❖ ½ cup chopped green onions
❖ 2 Tbsp. chopped roasted or canned hot green peppers
❖ Chopped fresh cilantro (fresh coriander) to taste
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
Spread 1/3 cup of the cheese evenly over half of each tortilla.
Sprinkle tomato, green onions, hot pepper and cilantro over the cheese. Fold the tortillas over the filling. Sprinkle with more cilantro, if desired.
Place the quesadillas on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes or just until cheese is melted.
Serve quesadillas whole, or cut each into 3 wedges.