A Soiree With Latin Sizzle

Mango, lime, chile, mint, ginger, coconut, cilantro - these are some of the flavors that Isabel Cruz loves the most. The San Diego-based chef likes to marry the tastes of the Latin American cooking she grew up with to the Pacific Rim tastes she's come to know as a Californian.

But most of all, Cruz likes to keep her cooking clean, fresh, flavorful and healthy. She likes to go for flavors that pop and offer contrast to one another. She has five restaurants on the West Coast, from Portland, Ore. down to San Diego, Calif. She has also published a cookbook, "Isabel's Cantina."

Cruz was raised in Los Angeles and in Orange County. According to her Web site, "My parents used to throw these crazy parties. The women would cook all day, and there was a Tito Puente-type band in the backyard. My father started inviting the neighbors so they wouldn't complain about the noise," she recalls.

"Many of these neighbors - Puerto Rican, Cuban, Peruvian - would bring food, each with their distinct flavors and fragrances. While learning to cook at home, she also spent time in the kitchen with her Asian friends learning Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine."

Thus was born her fusion of different flavors, which is on display in the party menu she created for "Chef on a Shoestring." We gave her a budget of $60 to create a dinner menu for six people; from the shrimp bites to the agua fresca, you'll find that the tastes are unique and exciting.

FOOD FACTS

Collard Greens: Long a staple of soul food, collard greens taste like a cross between cabbage and kale, and can be prepared in any manner that's suitable for spinach or cabbage.

Guava Paste: A combination of guava pulp, sugar, pectin and citric acid which is cooked slowly until very thick and rich. It comes in bars that are thick enough to cut. Isabel melts some guava paste mixed with water to use as a dipping sauce for her shrimp bites appetizer.

Sofrito: Isabel writes in her book, "Sofrito is a base of olive oil, bell pepper, onion and garlic used in Latin cooking to add body , depth, and fabulous flavor to almost every dish. I learned how to make this sofrito from my Aunt Eddie and while I might occasionally add a little hot chile pepper or dried oregano, this recipe remains the base, the starting point of so many wonderful Latin dishes." Isabel recommends making big batches of sofrito and freezing it.

Agua Fresca: This refreshing drink is made with a variety of fruits and cold water; it's a great alternative to soda and can be spiked with white rum or tequila if you choose.


SHRIMP BITES WRAPPED IN GREENS
(Serves 6 as an hors d'oeuvre)
"This is a Thai appetizer of shrimp wrapped with coconut, peanuts, and chiles in a leaf. I like to use raw collard greens as wrappers for these spicy little snacks, which I drizzle with a little guava sauce to complete the hot-sweet Thai flavors while also bringing these bites further into the Latin realm. Prepare these ingredients in advance, and then assemble these at the last minute."

INGREDIENTS:
6 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About 3 collard green leaves, cut into twelve 2-inch squares
½ cup shredded, sweetened, dried coconut, toasted
½ cup chopped unsalted peanuts
2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
2 Thai chiles, thinly sliced into circles
Guava sauce

METHOD:
Heat a grill or medium sauté pan over medium-high heat. In a small bowl, toss the shrimp with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp to the pan and cook until firm and opaque, about two minutes per side. Remove from heat and slice in half lengthwise. Set aside to cool.

Lay the collard green squares flat on a tray. Divide the shrimp halves among the greens and top each shrimp half with a sprinkle of toasted coconut, some peanuts and ginger matchsticks, and a few rings of chile. Serve the Guava Sauce in a bowl alongside the shrimp bites for drizzling on top.

To toast coconut:
Preheat the oven to 350F. Spread the coconut evenly on a baking sheet. Toast in the oven until the coconut turns golden brown, about 20 minutes, stirring after 10 minutes to toast evenly. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool completely. Store in an airtight container. For best flavor, use within a week.


GUAVA SAUCE
(makes about 1 cup)

INGREDIENTS:
1/3 cup cubed guava paste

METHOD:
Combine the guava paste with 2/3 cup cold water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for 2 minutes. Let cool completely.

Store the guava sauce, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Whisk with a tablespoon or two of water before serving to bring to the desired consistency, if needed.


CHICKEN DIABLO
(Serves 4 to 6)

INGREDIENTS:
1/3 cup Dijon or spicy brown mustard
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
1/3 cup olive oil
1-1/2 tablespoons red chile flakes
3-1/2 pounds bone-in chicken pieces

METHOD:
Whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, olive oil, and chile flakes. Put the chicken in a glass baking dish, pour the marinade on top, and turn the pieces to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat your grill to high, making sure you have an area for indirect grilling: Either bank the coals to one side or heat only half of a gas grill. Arrange the chicken pieces over the area of the grill without coals, cover the grill, and cook for 10 - 15 minutes per side. The pieces should be crisp with dark grill marks, but with the meat remaining moist. When an instant read thermometer registers 165 degrees when inserted in the thickest part of the meat (but not touching the bone), remove the pieces. Let rest on a platter for 5 minutes before serving, to allow the juices to redistribute and the meat to finish cooking.


CHIPOTLE WHITE BEANS
(Serves 6 to 8; makes about 8 cups)

INGREDIENTS:
1 pound dried white beans (cannellini, navy, or any small variety), picked over and rinsed
3 cups red bell pepper sofrito (recipe follows)
1 chipotle chile, minced, from can
2 tsp adobe sauce from canned chipotle chilies
Kosher salt

METHOD:
Soak the beans overnight in a large bowl or pot with enough room and water to allow the beans to double in size. Drain the beans in a colander and rinse well.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, heat the sofrito until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add the chipotle chile minced from the can and stir for 1 minute. Add the beans and stir well to coat them with the sofrito. Add 8 cups cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers. Cover partially and simmer for about 2 hours, or until the beans are tender. Add water as needed to maintain the water level 1/2 inch above the beans. Season with salt and simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes.

The beans can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Reheat over medium heat.

QUICK CHIPOTLE WHITE BEANS:

Prepare Chipotle White Beans, substituting two 14-ounce cans of white beans, rinsed and drained, and 2 cups cold water for the dried beans and water. Decrease the sofrito to 1 ½ cups. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Recipes for Sofrito, Romaine Salad, Corn Salsa, Cobbler and Agua Fresca on Page 2
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