Southern-Latino flavor fusion

Provided

Drunken Chicken with muscadines and white wine.

Pass the collard green empanadas.

Well, it's about time, since Southerners and Latinos have been living side by side for years.

Author and cooking instructor Sandra Gutierrez melds the ingredients and flavors of the American South with those of Latin America in a just-published cookbook, "The New Southern-Latino Table" (University of North Carolina Press, $30).

Although all of the 150 recipes are her own, Gutierrez, who lives with her family in Cary, N.C., doesn't claim to have invented the fusion. She noticed the subtle blending of cuisines beginning to happen more than 15 years ago.

"I started observing that Latin flavors were beginning to mingle with Southern foods throughout the entire South, not just Miami, not just little pockets. I also noticed that it was many Latin cuisines involved, not only Mexican as is the case with Southwestern cuisine."

Gutierrez first wrote an article about it in 1996 when she was food editor of The Cary News. It didn't become a book idea until 3 1/2 years ago, when the culinary movement became truly apparent to her.

"When I could prove it was really happening throughout the South and outside of my kitchen," says Gutierrez, 46, who was born in the United States but raised in Guatemala in the company of good family cooks. She has lived in the United States for the past 18 years.

Traveling to Southern cities, Gutierrez found examples at many restaurants, including Charleston. She recalls a green tomato gazpacho at Old Village Post House, a brown sugar-fig escabeche at FIG and a cold corn soup with smoked jalapenos at another local restaurant.

But she also found the fusion wasn't confined to restaurants. Gutierrez began teaching courses on the melding of the cuisines about five years ago in Chapel Hill, N.C. The classes, named "Latina Girl Meets Southern Belle," always sold out.

"I started seeing that it's not only the Latinos that are doing the fusion, it's the Southerners who are eating this way at home. Many of the students would say, 'Yes, before I do my smoked pork, I now marinate it in a Cuban mojo. Instead of using masa harina for my tamales, I tried them with grits.' "

Similarities, variations

Many Americans think of Mexican, more accurately Southwestern, dishes as representative of all Latin American cuisines. Gutierrez dispels that stereotype.

"Every Latin cuisine is different from the next. We don't all eat the same. So modern Latin cuisine has been shaped by many, many cultures, depending on where you are," she says.

Not every Latin American eats tacos, for one thing, and not all the food is hot and spicy -- chiles may be a side accent or even nonexistent.

Gutierrez points to tremendous Italian influence in Argentina, "so there are lots of pasta dishes." And Peru has absorbed elements of Asian cookery, with fried rice served as an everyday side dish.

She realized the cuisines of the American South and Latin America were a natural marriage because they have a shared heritage and many common elements, both in ingredients and cooking techniques.

Native Americans, Africans and Europeans all shaped the cultures, and they all drew from the same food basket -- primarily corns, beans, squash and pork. All employed the same cooking methods, such as braising, frying and barbecuing, although they interpreted them differently, she says.

For instance, Southern icons such as rice and beans, red rice or Hoppin' John have all sorts of variations in Latin America.

"I think it will be a surprise for Southerners to know that the potato salad we love so much here in the South, that there are different interpretations in Latin America. That okra is a very preferred ingredient in some of the countries in Latin America, particularly those in the Caribbean and Brazil."

While many similarities exist, some aspects of the cuisines are completely different, Gutierrez says.

"But I chose to build a cuisine based upon our similarities because I'm hoping this book will bring people together at the table so they can all start a conversation."

Serves 6

In this dish, plump chicken simmers gently in a light and fruity sauce that is slightly spicy.

Muscadine grapes are native to the American South and are in season from September to October. Serve the chicken over rice and offer crusty bread to sop up the juices. -- Sandra Gutierrez

Ingredients

1 chicken (4 1/2-5 pounds), cut into 10 serving pieces

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

5 cups thinly sliced Vidalia onion

3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 cup white wine (such as a Chilean Chardonnay)

3 cups muscadine grapes, halved and seeded (along with any skins that slip off)

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley (leaves and tender stems)

Directions

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels; season with salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat; working in batches, brown the chicken pieces on all sides and transfer them to a platter; discard all but 1 tablespoon of the oil left in the pan. Add the onions to the pan and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the garlic, mustard, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes; cook, stirring, for 30 seconds, or until the garlic is fragrant. Add the wine and deglaze by scraping the bottom of the pan; bring to a boil. Return the chicken (and all of the juices that have collected at the bottom of the platter) to the pan. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the grapes (and skins) and stir well; cover and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through (the juices will run clear when the chicken is pierced with a fork). Taste the sauce and adjust the salt and pepper. Discard bay leaf. Transfer the stew to a serving platter and sprinkle with parsley; serve immediately.Note: If you have leftovers, be sure to cool the chicken a bit before chilling. Reheat slowly over medium-low heat. This dish freezes very well; thaw it in the refrigerator overnight before reheating.

Serves 4

This dessert soup is smooth and custardy. Crispy and sugary hushpuppies provide delicious contrast -- a delightful shock to the palate that defies stereotypical ideas of what a soup must be. This one is sweet and is based on the ancient Mayan drink called atole. -- Sandra Gutierrez

For the soup:

2 (14.75-ounce) cans creamed corn

2 cups milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 stick Mexican cinnamon (canela)

For the hushpuppies:

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons stone-ground yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

1 egg

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

For the soup: Line a baking sheet with a metal cooling rack; set aside. In a blender, combine the corn, milk, 1/2 cup sugar, cornstarch and salt; blend until smooth; strain the mixture through a fine sieve; discard the solids. In a medium saucepan, heat the corn mixture over medium heat. Add the cinnamon stick and simmer slowly, stirring constantly, for 10-12 minutes, or until thickened (be careful not to let it come to a boil). Remove the cinnamon stick and discard; cover the soup and keep it warm.

For the hushpuppies: In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, 2 tablespoons sugar, the salt, baking soda and baking powder. In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg; add to the dry ingredients and stir just until combined. Set aside for 5 minutes. In a medium, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat 2-3 inches of oil to 360 degrees (or use a deep fryer according to the manufacturer's directions). Using a 2-inch ice-cream scoop, carefully drop the batter into the oil. Fry the hushpuppies for 2-3 minutes, or until golden, turning them over halfway through. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to the prepared cooling rack to drain.

On a plate, combine the remaining sugar and the cinnamon; roll the warm hushpuppies in this mixture; return to the cooling rack. Serve the soup in bowls or mugs with a basket of hushpuppies on the side.