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Magazine Celebrates Latin American Cuisine

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A spicy fiesta of Latin flavors is featured in the most recent issue of Gourmet magazine. Ruth Reichl, lead editor of the publication, talks about the celebration of Latin food and its influence on American cuisine.


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: The Mocha Moms get a back-to-school check up. But first, for years, Latin food has been popular in places like Los Angeles, Miami and New York - cities with large Latino populations. Now it seems the rest of the country is discovering what others have known for years. Latin cuisine is - dare I say it - hot. So hot that Gourmet magazine will devote its entire September issue to the flavors of Latin cuisine.

In a moment, we're going to hear from a chef and Latin cuisine historian. But first, Gourmet editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl. She joins us from her office in New York. Welcome, Ruth.

Ms. RUTH REICHL (Editor-in-chief, Gourmet Magazine): My pleasure.

MARTIN: How did the idea for the Latin foods issue come about?

Ms. REICHL: We were all sitting around talking about what the thing that we most wanted to learn about, and all of us said, you know, we don't know as much as we'd like to about Latino food. What's the difference between the food of Puerto Rico, the food of Cuba, the different regions of Mexico? You know, we have eight test kitchens, and all of the cooks in the kitchens really wanted to do this and all the editors did, too. And it just seemed like such a clear idea, you know, it's something that we all want to learn, we figure then our readers do, too.

MARTIN: In a way, probably when you put it together, you were thinking what took me so long?

Ms. REICHL: Absolutely, I was. And I kept thinking, oh, I hope somebody doesn't do this before we do, because we worked at this for a year. And we kept saying don't tell anyone we're doing this.

MARTIN: You worked on this for a year?

Ms. REICHL: We worked on this for a year, yes. You know, we sent people all across the country to eat and, you know, found out some really surprising things.

MARTIN: Like what?

Ms. REICHL: Where do you think the fastest growing Hispanic community in the country is?

MARTIN: Illinois.

Ms. REICHL: North Carolina.

MARTIN: Oh. Demerit. Ding, ding, ding.

Ms. REICHL: But…

MARTIN: North Carolina?

Ms. REICHL: Who would think that? Or, you know, who would think that the Mexican community in Scottsbluff, Nebraska is almost a hundred years old? I mean, the thing is that this is not new. These countries have been our neighbors for years, and we've been having this influence of this food, but nobody is really given it the kind of respect it deserves. We have this wonderful piece by Junot Diaz about Dominican New York, which I am ashamed to say, you know, it's just - I can walk there in about half an hour - less than half an hour…

MARTIN: And you've never been there.

Ms. REICHL: No, I go there, but it's, like, I sort of ignored how rich it was.

MARTIN: That's interesting. So it's almost like you - you're seeing it with new eyes or new - experiencing it with new taste buds. Mixing metaphors wildly, here. Mixing metaphors wildly like a salad. Even though you're so well versed in food, are there some things that you learned from working on this issue?

Ms. REICHL: Oh, I learned so much. One thing we did was we decided to focus on a couple of ingredients and then do recipes for chicken, how chicken is used in Puerto Rican culture, how it's used in, you know, different regions in Mexico, what Cubans will do with it. And I learned about, you know, all of these different ways of cooking rice, ways of using spices that are widely different.

I mean, one of things that we have thought going into this is those of us who are not of these cultures tend to sort of think of them as, you know, one big mishmash, and that it was really time to separate them out.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, you know, some Latin food has been known or thought to be a little unforgiving on the hips if you consider some of the traditional preparations with the lard and so forth like this. But are there alternatives?

Ms. REICHL: I have to say we did not use a lot of lard. We did do these recipes for the modern cook, which meant that we tended to substitute vegetable oils for lard.

MARTIN: One article that just cracked me up was the "20 Tacos You Must Taste." You - on the one hand, I think what a great challenge. On the other hand, you know, yet another thing I'm not going to be able to master, you know, in my lifetime - like tacos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHL: Well, actually, (unintelligible) 20 tacos.

MARTIN: Oh yeah.

Ms. REICHL: I mean, we sent this guy to follow the taco trail across the country, and, of course, what's happened with tacos is what happens with everything, which is that people improvised wildly and there are all this completely untraditional kinds of tacos that people are selling out of these trucks - you know, one more fabulous than the next. You're never going to be able to eat all of them, but you really want to.

MARTIN: I want to try, though. I want to try. It's something to aspire to. Now we're just down to our last minute here, Ruth, and I want to run home and I want to cook some Latin food. So give a quick dish that's flavorful but suited to a newbie.

Ms. REICHL: We have this very easy recipe for grilled fish tacos. You know, it takes about 40 minutes for this whole thing, which is a salad. And, I mean, it's a meal in one. And they are completely unscary and totally wonderful. And we have this whole amazing meal from Oaxaca that is so incredibly delicious. And it starts with these little mini tortillas with fresh salsa, and it has this wonderful piece, it's just a huge hunk of meat - it's very easy to cook -that's wrapped in banana leaves.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh man, but really easy wrapped in banana leaves. Where am I getting banana leaves?

Ms. REICHL: Well, you know, you could substitute a piece of aluminum foil. It doesn't look as good, but it'll work.

MARTIN: Ruth, when am I getting invited to one of these gourmet taste testing things? What - did my invitation get lost…

Ms. REICHL: Anytime…

MARTIN: …in the mail, I think?

Ms. REICHL: Anytime you show up - you can come anytime and taste what we're doing.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, thank you. Ruth Reichl is editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. She joined us from her office in New York. Thank you so much.

Ms. REICHL: Thank you. Come to New York.

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