Since ‘mami’ also usually means ‘head chef’ at home, the challenge to create fresh menus for the family that are both dynamic and authentic, is an everyday culinary feat. To get a breakdown of the basics, we checked in with chef Ronny Abenaim, who has worked with nationally acclaim eateries and chefs—Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, Jonathan Waxman and Andre Balazs’ Hotels—who today owns and runs Leña Latin Grill in Midtown Manhattan. As he put it, “Latin America is a very diverse area that holds various cuisines that vary from place to place, but something they all have in common is how simple ingredients together make very flavorful dishes, especially in the tropical areas where the ingredients are so exotic. Another common aspect is the time, love and soul they put into the food and cooking. It makes everything taste like home.”
By looking at some of the basic elements of the Latin kitchen, we can build vibrant and nutritious menus that evoke the flavor profiles of our ancestral cuisine. Our questions for Chef Ronny were simple: What are the easiest ways to keep our kitchens and menus effortlessly healthy and Latin? What are some key Latin spices and herbs to always keep around; and what are they best used for? What is the secret of a solid guizo? And for the love of God…how do you make a perfect rice?
THE SACRED SEVEN
Chef Ronny simplified and demystified the whole thing by giving us his go-to hit-list; those stock ingredients that should always be around.
Tomatillos (green ones) are rich in folic acid and potassium as well as vitamins C and A—which makes them a great source of your daily antioxidant needs.
Garbanzo beans are used in cooking throughout Latin America. They are high in fiber and very low in natural sugar content. These beans are also packed with protein, which will give you a steady source of energy throughout the day.
Avocados are high in fat—but good fat. They are full of healthy oils, which help you feel more satisfied after a meal, help lower your bad cholesterol and raise your good cholesterol. They also helps you burn stored fat in your body.
Garlic has immune-boosting properties and can also increase blood flow.
Cinnamon is effective to lower sugar levels in your blood, and studies have shown it helps aid in the prevention of diabetes. This spice is also high in antioxidants. A quick tip: sprinkle cinnamon on fruits and whole grains instead of sugar.
Chiles of all varieties, like chipotles, are high in minerals and antioxidants. Capsaicin, the active compound in chili peppers, is also known for its many health benefits. Studies have suggested that capsaicin can help reduce inflammation and provide natural pain relief.
One of the best things about cilantro is that it removes a lot of the toxins from the body. So, if you want to detoxify, try using cilantro on a daily basis. All you need is a little handful.
Chef Ronny says other ingredients to keep around are: Lime, good olive oil, rice vinegar and corn. Be sure to check out Chef Ronny’s Perfect Chimichurri Sauce Recipe.
RICE DONE RIGHT
According to Chef Ronny, “Most people boil rice with a cover until is cooked, or I should say overcooked. The key to making perfect fluffy rice is to seal the rice in the pan with the onions before you add the desired liquid (coconut, stock, water, etc.). This creates a wall on the outside of the grain so when you cook it, it will naturally fluff. Another key is to boil the rice on medium-high heat, uncovered until the cooking liquid is gone, and then cover it and lower the flame.”
FOUNDATION OF LOVE
So many staples of the Latin kitchen start with a guizo, the foundation sauté that usually contains onions, garlic, tomato and peppers. As Ronny sees it, the two most important ingredients for a guizo are time and love: “Guizos are about creating layers of flavors; concentrating ingredients in liquid; and then reducing the liquid into a perfect consistency and flavor.”