Every new day your in-laws visiting troupe are taking over your house has an impact on how much you wish you could turn yourself into four, especially if you are expected to cook for twelve people and some are vegans and others follow a strict meat eating diet, with no space for raw dishes filled with the whole rainbow spectrum. A trip to the market in search of proper chef material for such an event can turn into a “space odyssey” into the return of the Publix employee’s questions and answers nightmarish hyperactive lady”.
Most people think that Latino dishes are often simple and very common, and this probably happens when we think about how other cultures entertain their palate. To understand another country and its eating habits we must remember that the menu in a restaurant from such a country is usually a result of a mixture of its own traditional dishes and its neighboring countries. This is the beauty of cultural interconnectedness, even our kitchen dances to a tune of integration. You don’t know a culture’s cuisine until either you must feed a dozen of your in-laws at a time, every other month, or if you stay more than two months in a country truly absorbing its cooking essence, among other things. If you do have to cook for a hungry crowd of visitors, then my own adventures of proper research and endless trips to the Hispanic bodegas in town will make sense.
Most popular dishes in many countries are the result of years of simple cooking, flavorful yet easy to make dishes, that were usually so common among the poor people from our societies decades ago, that they became as traditional as the clothes our forefathers use to wear. Most Latin American countries base their diets on beans, rice, some form of shredded beef, chicken or pork, usually accompanied by either plantain; fried or sweet, and mixed salad or an avocado salad. Just as the Quebecois people had their Poutine or patb chinois, the Indians had their curries, and the Asians their noodles, the Latin-Americans had their rice and beans, and when it comes to the beans it is not just water and salt.
The essence of every meal, every dish, every soup, every flickering candle, every romantic poem, every song, every acapella singing session and every tender remark comes from the magic of “el sofrito”. This is the witches brew, the cornerstone, the blessed elixir, the divine wine, the mother milk, the universal rain of every happy married couple in Latin America, it is the greatest source of conversation as it is also the greatest enchanting moving force when you are searching for that ahh remark during dinner. And beans without this wondrous brew of oil, onions, garlic, peppers, salt and mojos reigns king amidst any other preparation for a serious Latin evening meal plan.
It sounds simple, but trust me, if you burn the garlic too much the flavor will completely change, giving your vegetables or meat a metallic taste that everyone will remember until the next time they are invited, and someone will remember that, somehow you will know. As with every dish we prepared in our lives, temperature, space, time, it all plays a major role. Make sure you have grandmas phone number handy, the greatest chefs always have something to say about their grandmother. More than popular believes and hearsay, grandma’s kitchen is a school for those trying to be as prolific in their cooking as for those who are trying to impress a bunch of crazy hungry dancing musical inclined Cubans, as it is my case.
Once I mastered the right coloring, taste, feel and amount of sofrito in accordance with each dish I knew the battle was almost over. Adding the sofrito to each individual dish was the next step, and little by little I started realizing that adding limes or lemons, bitter oranges, regular oranges and some other spices in accordance with what was needed was the catalyst for the awe-ness I was searching for. The Mahi-Mahi turned their eyes upside down, the creamy shrimp sauce had my brother-in-law humming a tune, and the black beans made Mima look at me with real kindness, as a Master looks upon his or her disciple when they achieve a higher level of awareness. That evening they sang Celia Cruz song “La vida es un carnaval” in four harmonies, in perfect time, spoons, guitars and all. My sofrito brew made its name among the Cubans I love, and the white girl from Quebec City was quite happy.