4 Famous Chefs Share Healthy Twists to Traditional Latin-American Cuisine
CHEF JAMES TAHHAN
James Tahhan, or as he is better known Chef James, was born in Los Teques, Venezuela, and comes from a large family of Arab-Armenian origin. He moved to the United States with his mother when he was 13. “At that time I suffered from childhood obesity, I started playing tennis and practicing martial arts to overcome obesity. And I learned that the world of cooking could go hand in hand with healthy eating,” according to his bio. He studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris specializing in international cuisine and pastry and writes at his website and blog ChefJames.com.
At the site, he shows his commitment to inspiring home-cooked meals with simple steps to delicious creations. He also lays out his philosophy of making the world a better place based on, yep, home cooking, which can be summed up:
It helps families bond. It allows for healthier eating. When done right, it helps small and local businesses, farmers and fishermen. And that helps the environment.
And that is all muy bueno. But what’s his healthy recipe for amazing guac?
CHEF JAMES’S PERFECT GUACAMOLE
Chef James tells CHICA:
“To have a perfect guacamole, all you need is five ingredients: avocados, cilantro, lemon juice, red onions and jalapeños. In my case, I like to use serrano chilies because they have more presence and they add more character to the recipe. They are a little spicier.
A great tip on making the right choice when it comes to avocado: You should always go for hass avocados, the ones with the dark almost black looking skin. They have the least content of water, which at the end gives you a creamier guacamole.
If we use other types of avocados, like the big green avocado, the water content will make the guacamole split and create a not-so-pleasant liquid standing on the top.
You can create endless avocado recipes starting from the traditional recipe. For example, adding roasted tomatoes and zeta cheese, watercress and radishes from extra crunchy and deliciously healthy guacamole, or roasted bacon for a smoky guacamole. Use your creativity and your possibilities are endless.”
CHEF GABRIELLE QUIÑÓNEZ DENTON
Quiñónez Denton is an Ecuadorian-American chef who, alongside her co-chef and husband, Greg Denton, opened Portland’s Ox Restaurant in 2012 to critical acclaim. Ox is Argentine-inspired with a focus on South American wood-fired grilling traditions and featuring the bounty of the northern Pacific. Five years later, they won the James Beard Award for Best Chefs: Northwest in 2017 — the culinary Oscars.
Quiñónez Denton began cooking in college at UC Berkeley, gaining inspiration from vegetarian cookbooks. She soon knew she wanted a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach, to research a dish’s origins — where it’s eaten and its history.
After culinary school, she landed a job at Terra, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa Vally in 1999, where she met her husband, Greg Denton. They have been working as a team since.
The couple are co-authors of the cookbook Around the Fire: Recipes for Inspired Grilling and Seasonal Feasting From Ox Restaurant (Ten Speed Press, 2016), and, in 2018, they opened Bistro Agnes, a restaurant dedicated to classic Parisian-style bistro cooking, located in downtown Portland.
Quinonez Denton, who shares two recipes, tells CHICA about one of her simple vegetarian delights:
“Having spent most of my youth in Southern California, I have a deep love for Mexican food, especially soft tacos. One of my favorite quick meals to make is essentially a salad taco. I warm corn tortillas over a burner and then tuck the following ingredients into them: sliced tomato, avocado, and fresh mozzarella, cilantro sprigs, chopped jalapeño, and then a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a generous sprinkle of sea salt, and a squeeze of lime. It’s so satisfying and delicious!”
CAULIFLOWER LOCRO WITH SALMON
“Locro is a hearty stew indigenous to the Andean highlands of South America. It often contains some kind of slow-cooked meat, hominy, beans, potatoes and/or pumpkin; but my favorite version is the one my Ecuadorian family would eat most often whenever I visited. It is locro de papa, a modest potato chowder seasoned with onion, achiote and cumin, and garnished with queso fresco, cilantro, scallion and a drizzle of hot sauce. We typically eat this as a starter to both lunch and dinner, but I like to turn it into the main event by poaching small pieces of salmon in the hot, finished soup.
To make the locro a little more healthful, I’ll often sub in cauliflower for the potato. I’ll blend it into a light yet creamy purée, and once the salmon is cooked, I serve the soup with chopped cilantro, a little pickled red onion, and crumbled feta cheese. And always with some ají salsa on the side for an extra kick!”
Locro de Coliflor recipe:
2 pounds cauliflower, roughly chopped, stem and florets
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium-size yellow or white onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3 large cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp achiote powder (ground annatto seeds)
1 T kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 tsp coarsely cracked black peppercorns
1/4 tsp ground espelette pepper (or sub cayenne pepper)
4 cups water
1 cup whole milk (optional)
12 oz boneless, skinless salmon filet
1 each avocado, peeled and sliced
1 cup crumbled feta cheese or queso fresco
2 tsp chopped cilantro leaves
1/4 cup pickled red onion (recipe below)
In a medium sized pot, warm the olive oil and garlic cloves over medium heat. Cook the garlic until lightly browned, then add the onion. Sauté the onion until just tender, then add the cumin and achiote powder and stir to coat. Add the cauliflower and then the water. Add the salt, black pepper, and espelette, and bring up to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and partially cover the pot with a lid. Simmer until the cauliflower is very tender, about 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat and purée in a blender. Pour soup back in the pot and bring back up to a simmer. Taste the soup, and add milk if you choose. The soup is surprisingly creamy without it. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
Cut the salmon filet into 1-inch cubes. Poach the salmon in salted water, or alternatively, place the salmon cubes in the soup, and stir gently until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and divide among four bowls. Garnish with avocado, crumbled feta, cilantro, and pickled red onion, and serve with hot sauce on the side.
Pickled red onions:
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp fresh lime juice
Mix the three ingredients together in a small bowl and let sit for at least 30 minutes, refrigerated.
CHORIZO-SPICED ZUCCHINI AND EGGS
(Pictured: Gabrielle’s husband and partner, Greg Denton, working the wood-fired grill at Ox.)
Gabrielle tells CHICA:
“At Ox, we are known for our wood-fired meats and grilled house sausages, like our chorizo and morcilla. I like to take our dry spice blend that we use to season our chorizo and apply it to vegetables instead for a healthier option that has the zesty flavors of a rich sausage. Take a zucchini, for instance, and cut it in half lengthwise. Rub a small amount of olive oil on the cut side of the zucchini and season with salt. Place the chorizo spice in a flat dish and press the zucchini into it so that the spice sticks. Place the cut side of the zucchini into a preheated non-stick pan with a small drizzle of olive oil and cook over medium heat until the chorizo spice just begins to blacken, then flip the zucchini over to cook the rounded side. Remove from pan when the zucchini is just heated all the way through but still has some texture and firmness. Serve alongside scrambled eggs for a lighter alternative to chorizo and eggs for breakfast or lunch.”
Chorizo Spice recipe:
2 T ground ancho chile
1 T sweet Hungarian paprika
2 tsp smoked sweet Spanish paprika (pimentón dulce)
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground cayenne
Place all ingredients in an airtight container and shake well to combine.
Diana Dávila, who spent years studying cuisine in Oaxaca, creates dishes that are inspired by her Mexican heritage as chef and owner of Mi Tocaya Antojería.
Having grown up working in her parents taqueria, the born-and-bred Chicagoan tells CHICA:
“I think it’s really important to keep traditions alive and one of the ways I do that is through cooking. In Mexico, and I think in a lot of Central and South America, making a meal and enjoying a meal are very communal experiences. In my family for big events, everyone is responsible for something — cooking, making drinks, cleaning up etc — I love how we all come together to create not only a meal but an interactive experience; there’s always dancing and music and conversation — no topic is too taboo — and I try to bring this atmosphere to Mi Tocaya as well.”
In 2017, the restaurant was named one of Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants and was a James Beard semi-finalist. Davila was listed as one of the 2018 Best New Chefs by Food & Wine.
When asked about a healthy swap, one dish in particular that came to Davila’s mind is her fish con mole verde. Traditionally, mole verde is served with pork, however, at the restaurant they use fish. She also uses sunflower oil in her recipe as opposed to lard which is more traditional for frying.
Mole Verde recipe (12 quarts)
Charred poblano 7 each
Charred sliced onion 3 each
Charred garlic cloves 24 each
Charred Serrano 9 each
Charred tomatillos 30 each
Toasted pepitas 15 oz
Toasted sesame seeds 1.5 cups
Toased whole cumin 6 grams
Toasted whole black peppercorn 15 grams
Toasted dried Mexican oregano 8 grams
Chicken stock 5 qt
Romaine 3 each
Spinach 3 pounds
Mint 1 pound
Flat leaf parsley 1 bunch
Cilantro 6 to 8 bunches
As you char ingredients place them in an airtight container and add salt.
Let steep for 10 minutes then puree finely.
Evenly toast all spices into a stainless steel bowl, add salt and make sure to stir.
Let sit for 10 minutes.
Add onto 3 qts of stock and steep for 15 minutes before finely pureeing.
CHEF RICKY CAMACHO
At executive chef Ricardo Camacho’s Mexican small plates and tequila bar in New York City, Anejo Tribeca, celebrity sightings are common. His revamped menu after a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, was a hit. The brand, including another NYC franchise in Hell’s Kitchen, is famous for its upscale pre-fixe all you can eat and drink brunches.
The latest proof that Chef Ricky is a unique talent in any culture: his Carnita Fries took home the gold at the Gourmet French Fries Competition in France.
So what’s his healthy swap for a traditional Mexican dish?
CHILE EN NOGADA
“While Chile en Nogada is generally served throughout the months of August and September to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, we chose to repurpose and modernize the dish to celebrate the arrival of spring, and wanted to lighten it up accordingly. Instead of the traditional heavy filling of potatoes and short rib, we filled the roasted poblano chile with bright green spring vegetables, Okinawa (purple) sweet potatoes, and queso enchilada, and topped it with the traditional pomegranate seeds, ultimately transforming the dish to be super colorful and light, and inclusive of vegetarians.”
Spring Chile en Nogada recipe
Roasted poblano chile, Okinawan sweet potato, asparagus, caulilini, queso enchilado, pecan and pine nut cream and pomegranate seeds
Sweet potato puree:
Sweet potato, roasted 5 oz
Melted butter 1 oz
Salt ¼ tsp
Black pepper 1 pinch
Poblano Chile, charred Peeled and deseeded 1 each
Okra, charred 3 each
Asparagus, blanched 5 stems
Caulini, blanched 2 each
Queso Fresco 1.25 oz
Pomegranate seeds .25 oz
Diced Okinawan potato, boiled until tender .25 oz
Sweet potato puree 3 oz
Spread the potato puree evenly around the entire inside of the chile. Place all vegetables inside of the chili in the form of a bouquet
Pecans 1.5 oz
Blanched almonds 1.5 oz
Pinenuts .5 oz
Goat cheese .75 oz
Milk 2 cups
Melted butter 30 grams
Nutmeg 1 pinch
Salt ¼ tsp
Soak the almonds, pecans and pine nuts in milk for one hour. Place all ingredients in a blender jar and blend until smooth. Spoon sauce over the chile and garnish with pomegranate seeds and some micro greens.