Monthly Archives: April 2009

Tiny plates, big punch

Tapas, shrunken Spanish dishes traditionally served as appetizers or as a light meal, have sprouted up all over the press. Two new tapas-styled restaurants in NYC, La Fonda del Sol and Txiquito were reviewed in the New York Times this week, with the former getting a two-starred “very good” rating from Bruni. 

They then reappeared in Saveur magazine, as Los Perretes’ dainty tins packed with octopus and baby sardines from Galicia, meant to be served simply with wine or crackers.  Latin America has also jumped on the tapas bandwagon. Macondo in the Lower East Side of Manhattan serves what it calls comida de la calle (Latin street food)  which include piping hot bacalaitos or stuffed codfish fritters decorated with a sweet and spicy guindilla sauce. There are also the creamy yucca fries topped with garlicky chimichurri. How the chef is able to get these so velvety inside and perfectly crisp outside is beyond me–they are a perfect foil, hot in every bite, to one of its clever cocktails concocted with guava and whisky, tamarind and tequila or peach and pisco.

In Dallas, Texas at Aló, another small Latin American restaurant specializing on contemporary street foods of Mexico and Peru,  draws an emphasis on ceviche and tiraditos. Its food menu includes BITES (SIPS and DULCE), and offers thinly sliced yellowtail and tuna which you can dip in Peruvian sauces as well as cold potato causas layered with smoked salmon, grilled shrimp or arepa crusted calamari. 

Are Latin American tapas the next evolution of latin food? Is downsizing stretching into the culinary world in the way of small dishes? I wouldn’t be surprised if in the coming months, we see more Latin American tapas, a fresh addition to traditional latin cuisine.

Madre Hambre, otherwise known as Hungry Mother

picture-6I celebrated my Easter weekend not with a feast of dyed eggs and glazed ham, but succulent mussels from Northern Maine. Even though they were a far cry from the Spanish-styled garlic-sizzled version that I devoured on Sundays at La Casa de España, a local enclave run and frequented by the Spanish community in Santo Domingo, they were the basis of an unforgettable dish I found deep in the dark streets of Cambridge.

It was an unusually chilly April night in a college town known for its carefree youth; yet inside the sophisticated-country-themed Hungry Mother, my dish was serious business. On the plate, the shells were shiny black cocktail dresses that covered silky, fleshy treasures peeking coyly at me. They bobbed in a delicate broth prepared with strips of tasso ham, green onion confetti, toasted breadcrumbs and a collection of Louisiana spices that left a dash of heat on your tongue.

I lifted each mussel from its shell, brought it to my lips and popped its sweet brininess in my mouth. Tearing off a small piece of homemade country bread,  I began a ritual during that memorable meal of soaking up the fragrant broth between each muscled mouthful. Pure bliss.

Take a look at the great stuff these guys are creating in this Cambridge kitchen, and check out their eclectic menu here:

Hungry Mother

Habichuelas Dulce

As a native from the Dominican Republic, I’ve always been familiar with the spirit of survival that lies deep in the heart of every fellow Dominican, especially those who have chosen to leave the motherland and buscársela in the U.S., in search of a better life. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered that Dominicans are so much more than fun-loving merengue-dancing people; their hard-working entrepreneurial spirit is confirmed on the sidewalks of uptown Manhattan, in Washington Heights.

It is Saturday afternoon and the Dominican Mecca of Washington Heights is buzzing with commercial activity and dizzying sounds of frantic merengue music.

Caridad Gonzalez, 51, a street food vendor has tapped into her entrepreneurial spirit to make a life for herself and her 16-year old daughter. She doesn’t sell the ubiquitous briny hotdog and limp pretzel you find throughout Manhattan, but a selection of Dominican desserts that can seduce the most conventional of palates.   

Stationed between an ice-cone cart and a table piled high with plastic jewelry on 181st street and St. Nicholas Avenue, Mrs. Gonzalez stands behind two water coolers filled with sweet, creamy treasures from her kitchen: habichuelas con dulce or sweet creamed beans is a Dominican dessert traditionally prepared during Easter season, which she sells throughout the entire year. Chaca, a thick corn drink known in other parts of Latin America as atole and mazamorra, is the other best seller.

As she ladles the rich warm concoctions into paper cups that she sells for $1, she recounts how she first started preparing these recipes for another vendor up the street from her called Nena La Rubia. She went on her own in 2003.

“I learned to make habichuelas with my mom back home and finished learning all I needed to know with Nena,” she says in Spanish.

For the past five years, she’s risen at 5 a.m. and prepares her dishes until 10 a.m. in her home kitchen five blocks away.  In describing the cooking process, she tries to use only the best ingredients she can find. “I use Carnation milk,” she says proudly, pointing to an empty can of evaporated milk in a plastic bag behind her. She says it’s the Carnation milk that makes everything taste so good and that people like her desserts because it gives them energy. Other ingredients in her habichuelas include whole milk, red beans, cinnamon, nutmeg, sweet potato, and round milk cookies of the Dominican Guarina brand.

Every day she sets up her cart and has Cecilia Ureña, her 50-something friend, help her out until 2 p.m. She then returns to her cart and works until 8 p.m. “I work hard, real hard,” she says. “My parents taught me to work from when I was little.”

Caridad Gonzalez arrived in New York 18 years ago from the Dominican Republic. Little did she know she would end up cooking for her life. With seven kids back in the Dominican Republic, she tries to visit them whenever she can. “One is a college graduate,” she says, beaming. ”None of them has ever given me any trouble.”

She also has a teenage daughter named Karina who will soon graduate from high school.

According to Mrs. Gonzalez, the neighborhood has changed significantly throughout the past five years. “There are a lot more people, a lot more vendors,” she says.   Most of her earnings come from her habichuelas, which are her most popular item. Aside from the $1 cups, she also sells small containers of habichuelas and majarete, a soft corn pudding she makes from scratch, for $2 and large containers for $5.

Although her spirit has been bent but not broken, and her stern face softens only when she speaks of her daughter, her desserts, especially her habichuelas are one of the best in the neighborhood.

She says that aside from all of the Dominicans who live in the area, there’s a large Jewish community in the neighborhood. “They pass by here but they never buy anything.”

Feeling bold in the kitchen? Find the recipe at:

A Taste of Passion

img_3267Passiflora edulis in Latin, Chinola in Dominican, Maracujá in Portuguese. It’s a wonder that the unique passion fruit has so many identities, although its essence remains the same: tangy, sweet, pulpy and dotted with seeds, which can make it a challenge to eat, but in its different manifestations, becomes a pleasure. Its pungent fragrance reminds me of lazy summers in the D.R.. Tall icy glasses of its juice would wait for me  as I came in from playing in the yard, sweaty and giddy and craving refreshment. As colorful as America’s beloved Sunny D, my Chinola juice would quench my thirst with its bright and summery punch.

I found it once again years later and miles away from home, on a trip to Brazil. Actually, it found me; mixed with the local cachaca to create an exotic version of the caipirinha. It became our signature drink, setting the stage many evenings, with a memorable one spent at a local posada where we indulged in a banquet of local dishes laid out over banana leaves in the middle of the rain forest. It paired exquisitely with the coconut-spiked moquecas and spicy chicken stews, luring us into a happy buoyant surreality until the sun and moon both shared the sky.

Then, once again, a few weekends ago, it reappeared. Here on the 22nd floor of a New York City apartment. It lit up our evening and arrived at our party dressed as a mousse. It was silky luscious creamy and evoked the scent of somewhere lush and warm, which, along with the jokes and friendly chatter, it comforted us from the city’s gray cold.

 So I bring you today, in an ode to passion, a quick and easy rendition of passionfruit mousse. 


1 can of condensed milk

1 can of “creme de leite”

80% of the same can measurement of passion fruit juice 

Blend and place in a bowl. Refrigerate for 3 hours or until firm. Garnish with mint leaves or some fruit syrup.

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