6 Tips and Recipes to Help You Master the Art of Latin Cooking
If you've eaten your mom's and grandma's delicious Latin cooking your whole life, you might not be used to flying solo in your own kitchen. So we asked Bren Herrera, chef and the lifestyle expert behind BrenHerrera.com — warning: once you log on, you're likely to spend a few hours drooling over food porn and Pinning your life away — to drop some knowledge for novice cooks. Here, her top six tips — plus a few beginner recipes to get you started.
1. Buy a pressure cooker.
Yes, we're talking about the casuela your grandmother used all the time. It's like a pot with a special lid that has the capability to heat and cook foods much faster — about 70 percent quicker — which is a tremendous time-saver. Who doesn't want delicious foods in less time? Herrera recommends looking for a modern six-quart cooker that has all the bells and whistles, like a safety valve. (The newest ones won't even let you open the cooker until all of the pressure is released, helping to avoid any accidents.) Trust us on this one — it's the best cooking invention ever.
2. Make your own spice blends.
Of course, we all know that Sazón Goya is a classic, easy-to-use cabinet must have. But don't be afraid to experiment and create your own blend. "If there are flavors you love together or often use for recipes, mix them up ahead of time so you'll have them on hand to toss into your favorite dishes," Herrera says. You can become a cooking bartender: an expert in the practice of cocktailing spices!
3. Invest in high-quality chef's knives.
And always keep them sharpened! Dull knives make chopping quickly tougher — plus they don't cut your foods as cleanly and put yourself at a higher risk for injury. Herrera recommends these from NewWest Knife Works. "I love their wood handles, and they're 100 percent American made," she says.
4. Don't toss burnt food.
If you slightly charred your favorite beans, don't worry. "Just dump a large raw onion or a red potato with skin into the pot. It absorbs the toxins and saves your dish. My mom taught me this flavor saver over 20 years ago, and it works like a charm every time."
5. Freeze your meats.
Cutting steak or any cut of beef can be a challenge. To make life simpler, freeze it first until it's firm, but not brick hard, Herrera says. This will make your slicing and filleting so much easier. And you'll get good practice cutting along the grain!
6. Read, read, read!
Before you even step in front of the stove, read the recipe you're going to be tackling several times. "It will help you get a handle on all of the steps and understand the language and techniques ahead of time, so you're not just trying to do it on the fly," Herrera says. And reading through the recipe several times gives you time to research unknown ingredients. You don't want to invite a special friend over for dinner and as you're cooking find out that you're missing a key ingredient!
Got that? Now, keep reading for some amazing beginner recipes to help get you started!
Vegetable Stock Puree
Stock is one of those basic cooking needs everyone should know how to make. It's the wet base for soups, stews, chilis, beans, roasts . . . you name it and stock can find its way into the dish. But if you're into cooking and learning from scratch, making your own vegetable, beef, or chicken stock is a great place to start. "Unlike most foods to which I default to the pressure cooker, stocks are the one thing I love making in slow motion . . . in one of my beautiful cast-iron pots," Herrera says.
Sofrito is the basis, the essence, the foundation to tasty Latin eats. It varies depending on the dish, but the basic concept is that it consists of sautéing diced vegetables and spices/herbs in canola or vegetable oil on medium to high heat, then using that to season certain dishes. Your sofrito is done before the garlic starts to brown and the onions are translucent. "For me, the basic sofrito will always consist of onion, garlic, green pepper, cumin, oregano, and a packet of Sazón Goya sin achiote (that little orange packet of seasonings we all rave about), but it can vary depending on your culture, preference, and the recipe you're making," Herrera says.
Chunky Garlic Basil Pesto
Pesto is a perfect first recipe to master because it can be layered on a variety of foods, from pasta to sandwiches and chicken. It's easy to make but a flavorful ingredient that can kick up anything you eat.
Cuban-Style Chinese Fried Rice
"This fried rice or arroz frito dish is one we grew up eating quite often in my Cuban family, mostly influenced by the heavy concentration of Chinese in Havana," Herrera says.
Bistec Encebollado (Steak and Onions)
"For my Cuban family, steak and onions was the epitome of simple gone fantastic." It's a dinner you can easily enjoy every night and never get tired of. It always comes out the same, and consistency in food preparation and execution is key to long-term success.