Spicing Things Up

Latin-inspired hors d’oeuvres at Joy Wallace Food. Design. Experience in Miami include petite plantains stuffed with pulled chicken.

With Mexican a popular mainstay, cuisines from other Latin American countries are adding a world of flavor to catering menus

By Deanne Moskowitz

You may be surprised to learn that the state with the fastest-growing Latin American population between 2000 and 2015 was Georgia, according to the Pew Research Center. That demographic change has spurred demand over the last 10 years for Latin American cuisines at Talk of the Town Catering & Special Events in Roswell, a suburb of Atlanta, according to Andrew Brackner, executive chef and owner. As people see so many different cultures living next door, he says, they are “naturally curious” about every aspect—“most importantly, their food.”

Brackner has had requests for items from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Nicaragua, often because a family member or guest of honor is from that country, but sometimes simply because a client is “fascinated by that specific cuisine.”

He is not alone in feeling the impact of America’s evolving demographics, with Mexican still the major ethnic minority but other Latin nationalities starting to disperse nationwide. As they do, their flavorful cuisines are showing up on catering menus, too.

At Janet O’Brien Caterers + Events in the Hamptons and New York City, where Latin food has been a specialty for 10 years, it continues to grow “hugely,” according to Janet O’Brien, owner/president, who credits its popularity in part to the “wonderful Latino influence among us,” particularly the Latinos who run restaurant and catering kitchens all over America. Among those staffing her own kitchen are Argentineans, Colombians, Guatemalans and Mexicans. And while O’Brien designs the menus, she says “the hands that make the food make the difference.” Strong interest there in Brazilian food five or six years ago has slowed, and Mexican remains the major Latin attraction, its freshness and simplicity appealing to a high-end clientele who considers it both delicious and healthy.

Located in Miami, a hub of Latin culture, Joy Wallace Food. Design. Experience serves a lot of Latin cuisine, but it’s primarily Argentinean, Brazilian, Cuban, Peruvian and Venezuelan, rather than Mexican, explains Elgin Woodman, corporate executive chef. A “huge influx of Venezuelans during the last three to five years” has made arepas a staple. A lot of the company’s Latin business comes from destination weddings and corporate visitors, including requests for Havana-themed nights—complete with roasted pig, paella, cigar-rollers and Latin dancers.

The success of high-end Latin restaurants, showcasing regional variations of Mexican and other Latin cuisines, is helping educate Americans about the sophistication of Latin dishes and stimulating a desire to try them. People used to “think that every country in Latin America ate tacos,” Woodman points out, but now they’re “beginning to realize that each country has their own cuisine, and they’re all quite different.”

Yossi Ohayon, founder and executive chef of Culinary Art Catering in Dallas, who serves Mexican food three or more times a week, serves a clientele that wants “newer” Mexican cuisine, not the street tacos sold at any gas station. “It’s a symphony of flavor,” he says, explaining its broad appeal. He also sees demand for long-cooking, old-fashioned fare, such as carnitas.

With its spiciness and suitability for interactive formats, factors so favorable with millennial diners, Latin food is likely to be welcome at catering operations here for a long time, regardless of immigration policy. Sometimes staying authentic but often reinterpreting, chefs are adopting it and making it their own.

Boundless Bites

Although clients may be Latin lovers, they usually fear inflicting full-blown Latin menus on possibly less adventurous large groups. So Latin-inspired hors d’oeuvres abound on these caterers’ menus, serving as tiny ambassadors to new cuisines.

At Talk of the Town, the great assortment of one- or two-bite items—including mini tacos, empanadas, elotes and tamales—is “always a big hit,” claims Brackner. Three of the most popular are mini chile relleno tartlets served in a black bean phyllo cup; langostino tostadas with avocado and grilled pineapple; and Argentinean chorizo skewered with peppers, coated with Reggianito (an Argentinean hard, granular cheese) and served with chimichurri.

At Janet O’Brien, hors d’oeuvres representing various cultures showcase the company’s creativity and reliance on fresh, local ingredients. Among the options are mini empanadas, which may be filled with bison or collard greens and queso fresco; cheese-stuffed mini arepa triangles with salsa verde; and ceviche, featuring fluke or another local catch, with diced jalapeño, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Extremely popular, the mini corn taco is freshly made in-house, filled with tuna tartare, and finished with an Asian accent, the dressing speaking to its Peruvian heritage. And, since everyone is “insane” for fish tacos year-round, O’Brien sometimes brings tiny ones to New York City cocktail parties.

Woodman draws hors d’oeuvres from all over the map, keeping them authentic, Americanizing them, or mixing a classic with an interpretation at the same station. She gives pulpo causa (a Peruvian mashed potato appetizer stuffed with octopus) a fun treatment, turning it into a push-pop; fills a Cuban fried spring roll with plantains and mojo pulled pork, and serves it with fresh sour orange dip; and sauces tequeños (pastry-wrapped Venezuelan cheese sticks) with savory guasacaca (made from avocado, peppers, onions, cilantro, vinegar and oil) or with guava for a sweet and savory take. Among the arepas, frequently passed as hors d’oeuvres, on hawker trays or at stations, are sweet Colombian versions stuffed with stewed oxtail, and arepa sliders with classic or Americanized fillings.

At Culinary Art, Ohayon often presents trios of tiny tacos filled with brisket, chicken and fish. They’re given such upscale twists as “a beautiful modern aioli,” an apricot or peach barbecue sauce, or a sprinkling of toasted sunflower seeds to distinguish them from typical street tacos. Although sometimes messy, they’re a favorite hors d’oeuvre with corporate clients but may become a classier side on wedding entrees. He also features Argentinean arepas, usually with shrimp fillings.

Talk of the Town’s chef-attended ceviche bar.

Spicier Stations

Hard to plate attractively, Latin food doesn’t generally lend itself to sit-down service, these caterers agree. But it makes for sizzling stations that can turn ordinary events into fiestas.

One of the most popular action stations at Talk of the Town is build-your-own ceviche, usually offering scallop, shrimp, snapper and octopus options. Other favorites include the Brazilian and the taco al pastor carving stations.

For the opening of the Latin food company Goya’s latest distribution center, Talk of the Town produced a brunch extravaganza of passed hors d’oeuvres and stations, serving more than 15 savory dishes from a variety of countries, in addition to desserts. Brackner did broad research to authentically reproduce the fare, which included baleada, a traditional Honduran dish composed of flour tortillas folded and filled with mashed fried red beans and various optional accompaniments; Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche with popcorn; and Mexican tamal bites with shrimp in chipotle sauce.

A chef-attended fajita bar and fish taco station (specialties of Janet O’Brien Caterers for many years) contributed to the celebratory mood of a birthday party catered by the company on the candle-emblazoned property of a beautiful home in the Hamptons. After being welcomed by waiters offering trays of margaritas and wine, and enjoying various stationary appetizers, guests were led to dining tables set with shots of aged tequila, lime wedges and salt, and—after raising their glasses for a toast—were invited to visit the food bar, where chefs rolled tortillas to order and waiters helped them to guacamole, salsas, sweetened red onions, pico de gallo, and sides of black beans and Spanish rice. Appetizers included chorizo on skewers with a trio of mustards, and tuna “tartare” with ouzo, lime and cilantro dressing to scoop into homemade corn mini taco shells. The fajita bar was abundant with striped bass fish tacos, hot off the fire; cooked shrimp ceviche; and fixings for vegetable, grilled sliced steak and chicken fajitas, plus a Hampton Crisp Salad, consisting of diced cucumber, avocado, radish, mango, corn kernels and hearts of palm, with roasted Cubanelle vinaigrette dressing.

Fond of having fun with Argentinean cuisine, so heavy on sausages and meats, Woodman says that the easiest way to incorporate it into an event is with a “grill” station, where manageable cuts of meat are cooked on griddles on the spot. Often she’ll pair Argentinean with Brazilian, also known for its steak, and may include picanha, a Brazilian cut of beef, as well as farofa, a crumble made from flavored yucca flour sauteed with butter or pork fat that Brazilians put on everything. Joy Wallace’s most beloved hors d’oeuvre for locals and out-of-towners, regardless of occasion, the Cuban sandwich is often included as part of a carving station. Depending on the size of the bread, which may be as big as a baguette, the sandwiches are made and pressed at the station, or at the commissary and reheated.

People at Culinary Art’s events love live action excitement, so Ohayon serves most of his Latin menus as interactive stations. His favorites include an avocado bar, where the fruit is halved and filled with grilled shrimp, sour cream, salsa and other “goodies”; an elote bar, where ears are grilled and kernels are combined in serving cups with chile, sour cream, mayo and pepper flakes; and a tequila-marinated ceviche station, where white fish or shrimp is chopped and combined with lime juice, cilantro, V-8 juice, garlic, and salt and pepper.

Chef-attended street taco station by Culinary Art Catering. Photo by Pixel Fusion Images.

Entrees with Accents

While these chefs don’t often produce authentic Latin entrees for sit-down meals, they take advantage of Latin herbs, spices and sauces to spark American classics.

Talk of the Town, which stocks cilantro, coriander, cumin, sesame, ginger and lime, shops a nearby Hispanic grocery for specific dried chiles or Mexican oregano, and has adopted such sauces as aji amarillo, chimichurri, Mexican crema, guasacaca and mole. When it catered a private dinner for its coffee partner, Thrive, and some Central American coffee growers in town for a conference, the caterer employed some favorite Latin ingredients with American fare. For example, a coffee-braised short rib was served over aji amarillo mashed potatoes, and a chile-crusted cobia was accompanied by grilled corn and lime-crema puree.

Woodman, herself Peruvian, does a lot of Peruvian cooking, so aji amarillo and rojo are regulars in her kitchen, along with the lime and cilantro. While she produces such authentic dishes as lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry normally made with potatoes, she reinterprets it to please more palates, instead topping a tenderloin steak with Peruvian sauce and yucca matchsticks, and elevating the dish by substituting cilantro risotto for cilantro rice.

Satisfying people’s penchants for sauce on the side, O’Brien often brings Latin sauces to non-theme events. When serving steak off the grill, she may present a choice of three: perhaps a Brazilian vinaigrette (actually a salsa of diced bell peppers, olive oil and vinegar that ordinarily accompanies the meat skewers called churrasco); a chimichurri, which she says people love on everything; and—to please more traditional tastes—a classic horseradish. At a “regular wonderful Hamptons evening” where she’s grilling fish, she might accompany a striped bass with a citrus salsa, or with a peach, cilantro and lime juice salsa in August, when the fruit is ripe.

Ohayon, who uses ancho chile paste on “almost every dish,” buys the peppers 20 pounds at a time to make it. Among its uses is in a mole made with chocolate and cinnamon, which goes into enchiladas and completely coats the chicken for another dish. Latin ingredients are secrets to some other entree innovations: tortilla-crumb coated chicken, which is topped with salsa verde, corn relish and sometimes mango relish with habanero; and seared red snapper finished with tomatillo and corn relish.

From Tequila to Flan

The popularity of Latin has spurred interest in Latin beverages and desserts, not necessarily only at Latin events.

O’Brien, who remembers when caipirinhas were the craze at the height of the Brazilian trend, says that “good sipping tequila,” perhaps with a splash of soda, is “super popular” now. She reports continuing popularity for flavored margaritas, such as jalapeño, ginger and ginger cilantro, which she makes with fresh lime and spices produced from scratch.

Predicting continuing interest in signature flavored margaritas, Brackner says that tequila bars serving refined “sipping” tequilas over ice have been edging out bourbon bars lately. He’s also getting increased requests for aguas frescas.

At Joy Wallace, Peruvian pisco sours and rum-based mojitos reign, such as the popular Passionfruit Popsicle Mojito. Getting in on the agave action, the Rose Petal Mezcal Swizzle is winning attention.

While Latin desserts have begun to appear on catering menus, they are often mini versions or reinterpretations of traditional recipes.

Most desserts at Joy Wallace are small bites, usually containing dulce de leche, passion fruit or a combination of the two. Among the most popular are passion fruit panna cottas, served both at seated meals and in shot glasses on buffets; dulce de leche filled meringue kisses; and alfajores, the dulce de leche filled shortbread cookie sandwiches from Peru and Argentina.

Janet O’Brien Caterers + Events serves up locally caught ceviche (usually fluke), diced with jalapeño and cilantro, and finished with squeezed lime juice. Photo by Jason Penney.

Allowing guests mobility after dinner, multiple miniature desserts are commonly served at Janet O’Brien, including classic “flan” inverted on a small saucer and Key lime pies in shot glasses, which—although not strictly Latin—work because Florida’s Key limes taste very similar to Mexican ones. Among the most successful desserts are sauteed plantains served with ice cream and brandy and flambéed; passion fruit mousse served in a mini flared glass with an espresso spoon; anything made with dulce de leche; and various Brazilian desserts, particularly brigadeiros—two-bite chocolate balls made from condensed milk, cocoa powder and butter, sprinkled with chocolate.

At Talk of the Town, apple empanadas, tossed in cinnamon, and fresh churros are on the list, along with a twist on the famous Latin dessert milhojas, with coffee ice cream filling the puff pastry layers instead of the usual Chantilly cream, frosting or dulce de leche.

Should any question remain whether Latin food has been assimilated, the controversy should be squelched by the entrenchment of tres leches wedding cakes on American menus. Brackner’s kitchen was just finishing one when we spoke. And Ohayon reports that of the 90 percent of wedding clients who order wedding cake as dessert, most choose tres leches, now available there in such flavors as caramel, chocolate, coffee and raspberry.

For More Information

Talk of the Town Catering & Special Events

Janet O’Brien Caterers + Events

Joy Wallace Food. Design. Experience

Culinary Art Catering