(Sept. 28) You know Latin flavors have gone mainstream when one of the more popular namesake desserts at The Cheesecake Factory restaurants is dulce de leche caramel cheesecake and when ice cream king Haagen-Dazs comes out with that same flavor plus a popular tres leches ice cream. Even some of Hershey’s white chocolate Kisses soon will be filled with dulce de leche.

There’s good reason for you to consider adding a Latin flair to your menu.

Hispanics have become the largest minority in the U.S. — 32 million people, or 12% of the population. In his 2003 book, “La Comida del Barrio — Latin American Cooking in the USA.,” Aaron Sanchez, chef-owner of Paladar restaurant in New York, points out that there are more Latin Americans in the U.S. than there are residents of Canada.

Many chefs say Latin food is becoming almost as popular among Caucasians and other ethnic groups as it is among Hispanics.

“The way I try to give inspiration to my food is based on the usage of great Latin produce and Latin ingredients,” Sanchez says. He frequently uses yuca, a huge Latin staple that often is added to hearty root vegetable stews that sometimes include beef.

You can use uses citrus like sour seville oranges to marinate pork. Likewise limes, pummelos and tangerines, though mainstream favorites, also add a Latin flair.

Sanchez frequently cooks with such herbs as epazote, recao (cilantro) and chili peppers — “the definitive Latin-Mexican food,” he says.

You also can use Latin root vegetables like boniato and malanga (taro), calabaza (chayote) and plantains to enhance your meals, says Allen Susser, owner-chef of Chef Allen’s in Miami.

UP AND COMING

Latin food is the next hot wave, and it’s moving upscale, says Maricel Presilla, co-owner of two restaurants in Hoboken, N.J. — Zafra, which serves South American food, and Cucharamama, with pan-Latin offerings.
She says you can add a Latin touch to your mainstream dishes with flavorful marinades featuring garlic, citrus or spices like cumin or oregano. Or try braised dishes with Latin flavors like cilantro or chilies from Mexico.

“These things can be used interchangeably,” she says. A tasty marinade for pork also may work for beef, lamb, fish or chicken.

Cilantro and fresh or dried chili peppers are Latin staples. “Just the name of a chili is an enticement,” Presilla says.

You can gently transition American cooking to Latin by using tubers that are similar to the ones mainstream diners are used to. For example, use a yuca (not a yucca, which is an ornamental, she says) like a potato or add Mexican jicama to a salad.

Or add a Latin flair by using chili peppers as garnishes. Roasted poblanos atop a steak, grilled fish or chicken can be wonderful, Presilla says.

With specialties like coldwater oysters on the half shell and cracked Dungeness crab, Shaw’s Crab House in Shaumburg, Ill., isn’t exactly known as a Latin restaurant. Yet executive chef Will Eudy says his fish taco is one of the eatery’s best-selling items.

Eudy created the fish taco sensation almost accidentally. “I needed to figure out what to do with the little pieces (of fish) left over,” he says. “There are only a few things that lend themselves to that — Latin and Asian cooking.”

He was surprised at the popularity of the dish.

He makes the tacos with ahi tuna or Mexican brown shrimp, American red snapper or other fish that has been marinated in lime juice and cilantro and serves it with corn tortillas and fresh pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa. “Just very, very simple stuff,” he says. Although the taco may resemble something you’d pick up at a quick-serve restaurant, it’s a bit pricier — around $10.

He also offers a piece of grilled fish like American red snapper marinated in chili peppers, lime and cilantro served with a tropical fruit salsa made with papaya, mango or pineapple.

LATIN FAVORITE
If you’d like to spice up your menu with a Latin dish, consider one of Susser’s favorites — chicken mojo with yuca fries. Marinate chicken with onions, garlic, citrus juices, oregano and cumin. Then prepare yuca fries similar to steak fries.

“Very easy, very flavorful, nice and aromatic,” he says. “There’s not a hot heat but a nice use of spice.”

Or try one of Sanchez’s favorites — calao or salted cod. He prepares it with sofrito, which is the base for a lot of Latin stews, sauces and soups that combines onions, peppers and garlic that can be puréed or left whole.

Sanchez says that while he tries not to label his ingredient-oriented cooking, it could definitely be considered Latin-inspired food.

That’s not difficult for him to do since his restaurant is next to the Essex Street produce market, which is known for its Latin produce.

He says he takes a California approach to his cooking, which means “from the garden to the plate with as little manipulation as possible.”

Consumers flock to restaurants that offer Latin food because it’s flavorful food, Presilla says. Since 90% of her customers are not of Latin descent, there is enormous crossover potential.

If you’re planning to add a Latin dish to your mainstream menu, it’s imperative that you do it right, Eudy of Shaw’s Crab House says, adding that If you put something on the menu and make it sound good but don’t execute it well, you’re going to turn people off.

FAVORITE FLAVORS

These are the top-selling Latin items in order for the foodservice accounts of Los Angeles-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce:

1. Cilantro
2. Jalapeño chili peppers
3. Avocados
4. Jicama
5. Tomatillos
6. Serrano chili peppers
7. Pasilla chili peppers
8. Chayote squash
9. Yuca root
10. Yellow chili peppers