Latin Flavors, American Kitchens Symposium at CIA San Antonio

Mexican Flavors from Austin Gardens: Matali and Hoja Santa

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the fifth annual Latin Flavors, American Kitchens Symposium hosted by CIA, San Antonio. The purpose of these three-day gatherings is to expose American chefs, purveyors, and foodservice executives to traditional cuisines of Latin America, presented by innovative visiting chefs who work within those cuisines.

Chef Christian Bravo at Latin Flavors, American Kitchens, CIA San Antonio (Photo by Amy Miller Myrdal)

CIA students assist the chefs in preparing bountiful, amazing food for the guests, and Iliana de la Vega (chef/owner of Austin's own Restaurante El Naranjo as well as CIA instructor/curriculum developer) is instrumental in organizing and facilitating both the food preparation and the chefs' presentations.

Each year, CIA showcases different countries and regions; this time around, chefs from Panama, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Yucatan, Mexico demonstrated ingredients, dishes, and concepts from their home cuisines and restaurants, providing cultural context as well as suggestions for adaptation to American restaurants.

There were excellent introductory sessions on the varieties and geographies of chiles and on the starches and tubers fundamental to Latin American gastronomy. We were treated to Latin-inspired cocktails by Jeret Peña of San Antonio's Esquire Tavern, and Chef Hajime Kasuga of Lima deliciously educated the crowd about Nikkei cuisine, the happy fusion of Japanese technique with Peruvian ingredients that reflects the large, multi-generational population of Japanese immigrants to Peru.

Two dishes demonstrated by chefs from Yucatan particularly piqued my interest: both use leaves of plants that grow abundantly in Austin gardens! Who knew that the groundcover taking over my yard makes a beautiful and delicate drink enjoyed in Yucatan and Tabasco?

Matali Growing in Austin (Photo by MM Pack)

Agua de Matali with Mint and Lime
Adapted from Chef Christian Bravo, Restaurante Punta del Mar, Merida, Yucatan

Matali is the Mexican name for Tradescantia zebrina (striped) or Tradescantia pallida (purple), a species of spiderwort native to the Gulf Coast of eastern Mexico. In the US, it's known as inch plant, purpleheart, and wandering jew, and it's used for ornamental planting. In Mexico, the leaves are infused to make agua de matali, a refreshing, cool tonic. Chef Christian Bravo riffs on the traditional drink to make a mocktail that he serves in his restaurant Punta del Mar in Merida, Yucatan. Matali grows all over Austin, so we can enjoy it here, too. The purple variety makes an especially pretty presentation.

1 cup washed matali leaves
3/4 cup sugar
4 cups water
fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons lime juice
Crushed ice
Lime wedges for garnish

In a saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil; add matali leaves and remove from heat. Cover and let rest for five minutes. Strain infused liquid and cool to room temperature.

Place ice in a tall glass, add lime juice and mint leaves, and fill with matali liquid. Stir, then garnish with a slice of lime.

Hoja Santa Leaves (Photo by MM Pack)

Vegetarian Hoja Santa Tamales with Chiltomate Salsa
Chef Federico Lopez, Taller, Cancun

Hoja santa, "sacred leaf" (Piper auritum) is an aromatic plant whose complex flavor hints of root beer, anise, mint, eucalyptus, and black pepper. It is used in all kinds of Mexican cooking, from stews to moles to drinks. It grows well in temperate climates; with regular watering, it will thrive in Austin. It freezes to the ground in winter, but returns with a vengeance with warmer weather. I already knew to wrap the big leaves around fish for grilling, and now I'm in love with these little white-bean tamales swaddled and steamed in the velvety, heart-shaped leaves.

Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides) is a perennial herb that also grows well in Austin gardens; traditionally, it's used in Mexican cooking to flavor beans. (Tip: A little goes a long way.)

3/4 pound dried white beans
1 sprig epazote
1 cup finely chopped green onions
1 cup pumpkin seeds
3/4 pound fresh masa
20 hoja santa leaves, washed
salt to taste
Chiltomate salsa (see recipe below)

Cook the beans in water with the epazote sprig. Drain the beans, reserve the cooking liquid, and set both aside to cool. Once beans are cool, add green onions.

In a large skillet, dry roast the pumpkin seeds over medium-low heat, shaking constantly to prevent seeds from burning. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely. Grind seeds.

Mix the beans and ground pumpkin seeds, season with salt, and set aside.

Mix the masa with the bean cooking liquid; use as much of the cooking liquid as needed to form a soft paste. Season with salt. Form the masa into balls slightly larger than a golf ball. Flatten the balls into circles, arrange some of the bean filling in the center, close up the circle to enclose the filling, and wrap the tamal in a hoja santa leaf.

Cook the tamales in a steamer or tamalera until the masa is firm yet fluffy (start checking after 30 minutes).

Serve the tamales with chiltomate salsa on the side. No need to unwrap them; the steamed hoja santa leaves are delicious.

Chiltomate Salsa
1 pound ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small white onion, peeled and sliced
Salt to taste
1 habanero chile

Dry roast the whole tomatoes on a hot comal or iron skillet til charred. Transfer them to a blender and process for a few seconds; do not liquefy. The salsa should have some texture.

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat; sauté the onion for one minute or until soft.

Add the tomatoes and salt to the saucepan. Add the whole habanero. Simmer until the mixture is reduced to about 1 1/4 cups. Serve warm with tamales.

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CIA San Antonio, Latin Flavors American Kitchens, Iliana de la Vega, matali, hoja santa

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