"Hola, Y'all," Sandra Gutierrez Brings Southern-Latino Cooking to Miami Book Fair

Her family motto was "Hola, y'all," and for an American girl growing up in Guatemala, Sandra Gutierrez had the best of both worlds -- hamburgers for dinner and arroz con leche for dessert. The New Southern-Latino Table (University of North Carolina Press, $30) reveals her secret desire to force together two seemingly opposite taste profiles on the food spectrum. Of course, we can only assume that when spicy meets greasy, good things happen.

This new cookbook explores the evolution of her Southern style as well as the influence of her Hispanic heritage. Like many who are good in the kitchen, she credits her grandmother who supervised all cooking activities. "Nothing left the kitchen without her approval." Gutierrez spent many years playing with ingredients and easily overcame American grocery store hurdles, replacing masa with finely ground cornmeal and fresh serranos with a tin of chilies. She did fail a few times: While attempting dulce de leche from scratch, "a few cans of condensed milk blew up." She says she "finally learned how to make it the safe way." That's good to know. 

Gutierrez will host a cooking demonstration at the Miami Culinary Institute at 2 p.m. this Saturday, November 19, and participate in a culinary panel discussion at the Miami Book Fair at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, November 20.

A preview of what's to come? No problem. And tune in tomorrow for recipes from her new cookbook -- chile cheese biscuits with avocado butter and collard green tamales. America's melting pot is just so food fantastic.

New Times: You were raised in Gautemala but later discovered your southern belle within, what would you identify as the commonality between these two completely different flavor profiles?
Sandra Gutierrez: To begin with, both cuisines, at their base, were formed by the same three ethnic groups: the indigenous peoples originally found in the Americas, the Europeans (who discovered the New World), and the Africans.

Secondly, we share the same basic cooking techniques, including deep frying and barbecue (the latter, by the way, was not invented by Southerners, it was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in what is today modern-day Dominican Republic where the Tainos referred to it as "barbacoa"). Finally, we share the same basket of ingredients, such as: corn, tomatoes, nuts, squash, pork, etc. What makes our cuisines so different is the way in which we interpret these three elements.

The most obvious example I can give you is the combination of rice and beans found throughout both cuisines. Take for example Southern Hoppin' John, and the myriad renditions like it in Latin America that include Nicaraguan Gallo Pinto, and Cuban Moros y Cristianos, and you get the picture.

It seems like your heritage really brought you the best of both worlds - fried chicken and chilaquiles, how did the contrast between Latino and Southern-style cooking effect your personal taste?
What makes my Latin culinary heritage so exciting is that there are over 20 different cuisines represented in our gastronomic landscape. It's not as if all Latinos eat Mexican food or Cuban food, etc. Since each of these Latin cuisines has its own global influences, the spectrum of flavors and ingredients that we eat is truly monumental. The foods produced in my family's home kitchen reflected this global reality, some days we ate Guatemalan tamales; others we would have Argentinean asados, and yet others we would eat Carolina hot dogs. So when I found myself living and cooking in the South of the United Sates, craving certain flavors of my youth and at the same time discovering the tremendous array of deliciousness found in southern cuisine, my culinary muses were unleashed.

Can you give us some examples of dishes that most clearly represent the melding of Latino and Southern flavors?

One of my favorite examples is my new version of one of Nicaragua's most famous desserts -  the tres leches. In my book, I transform it with the addition of Southern ingredients and the result is my Bourbon and Peaches Tres Leches Cake. In another recipe, I wrap pork in banana leaves and cook it slowly in a mixture of annatto, citrus and sweet spices like they do in the Yucatan Peninsula; then I shred it and top it with a traditional Southern coleslaw, to produce a favorite barbecue combo in the Carolinas, which I call Mini Pibil Barbecue Sandwiches.

What are some of the similar cooking techniques that cross over between Guatemalan and Southern recipes?

Braising and then shredding meat is common in Guatemala (we have a dish called "hilachas", very similar to "ropa vieja") and in the South, you'll find the same technique used to make Brunswick Stew, for example. What I do best is to find analogous or similar techniques, such as pickling (which we do using two different techniques), and produce dishes that are as recognizable here as they are there. My Pickled Shrimp for example are made with a technique called "escabeche" but Southerners will recognize the dish immediately.

What do you consider to be the "building blocks" of experimenting with new ingredient combinations?

They include the ingredients, cooking techniques and flavor bases, and the proper kitchen supplies. In French cookery, this would include knowing what "mirepoix" is; in Latin cuisine the equivalent is "sofrito". It involves knowing which flavors go best with another because only then can you be truly bold and break the rules successfully, and learning the basic recipes upon which others are built (such as knowing how to make great bechamel sauce that can later be used to top sauces or to make croquettes). And I consider these basics to be essential, no matter which cuisine you're trying to master. My book begins with a "basics" chapter, for this reason. Armed with these recipes, my readers have a whole world of possibilites at their disposal. In the end, cooking is a creative process.

Do you think this multi-cultural food trend will continue to draw fans away from traditional French and Italian culinary classics?

Not necessarily. Classics remain classics, as they should. But if you think of the history of food, you'll realize that through time, when different cultures converge in the same territory, changes are inevitable. It's the natural evolution of our foodways. When the first Europeans set food in the America's they didn't recognize any of the animals here. There were no pigs, no cattle, no dogs, no chickens. They also didn't recognize the plants and therefore had no idea what was edible and what was not. Can you imagine? They actually depended on the indigenous peoples to show them what to eat. Thus began the first culinary exchange.

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Lesley Elliott
Contact: Lesley Elliott