by Sean Keeley, culinary specialist, Lincoln Land Community College
I spent my formative years in the California, Bay Area where I developed a love for Mexican and Latin cuisine. There is no doubt that the flavors and techniques heavily influence what I create for my menus.
I am happiest in the kitchen making these dishes and can literally turn off my mind and cook almost effortlessly. The two styles have a lot of similarities flavor wise with chilies, cilantro, cumin and oregano used for seasoning. The main difference would be the influence of a region’s agriculture. In South America beans are uncommon, but seafood is used more often. Whereas in Mexico pork and chicken are used frequently – these animals were not indigenous and introduced to the country from Spain.
It was not so easy to learn this style of cuisine as a young chef. I took for granted all the restaurants and tacos stands that were on every corner in California, so there was no reason for me to learn this method when all I had to do was walk a few steps and buy whatever sounded delicious that day. I learned that “sessos” means cow brains. I only found this out after eating a dozen or so, but they were still tasty. When I moved back to Springfield there were not many Mexican restaurants at all. I really longed for those flavors I enjoyed almost daily in California.
As with many styles of cuisine, practice makes perfect, or at least makes the effort become effortless. For me it was after several failed attempts when I had an epiphany. It all made sense at once. I was more patient when braising meat, I fried my rice before cooking so it would be fluffy, and I picked the freshest produce. I have never stopped cooking Latin cuisine and it is quite often my “go to” comfort food.
Here are a couple of my favorite recipes. They are good bases for many different variations. Try adding your favorite fruit, or substituting a different vegetable for one of the ingredients. Have a few out at your next cookout this summer – hopefully summer arrives soon!
Pico de Gallo fresh salsa
Yields 1.5 quarts
12 each ripe roma tomato, diced
1 each white onion, diced
6 each serrano pepper, sliced thin
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 each juice of 3 limes
1 bunch cilantro, minced
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
Mix all ingredients together and serve or store in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
NOTE: A variety of ingredients may be added to your salsa. Diced mango and/or cooked shrimp are my favorite. Try pineapple or sweet peppers and use with your favorite tacos.
5-6 ripe avocados, removed from shell and pit
1 small red onion, diced fine
2 jalapenos, diced fine
½ cup minced cilantro
juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoons dry oregano
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
Place all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mash together with a wooden spoon, meat tenderizer or spatula until your desired consistency is reached. Some like a chunky guac and other prefer a smooth paste.
Served with tortilla chips and/or veggie crudités. Personally I love fresh sliced jicama, cucumber and radish chips for dipping. Try adding goat cheese or pine nuts to your guacamole. Pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top give it a festive appearance.
Want to know more?
Lincoln Land Community College offers associate degree programs in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and academic credit certificates in Culinary Arts and Baking/Pastry. For more information call 217-786-4613 or visit www.llcc.edu/hospitality-culinary-arts.