Best Latin Food to Eat, According to a Cuban Chef
Food is the way to a culture's heart and soul. This Hispanic Heritage Month (or any month), go on a gastronomical journey through the region's incredibly varied cuisine. You'll be savoring flavorful rice, marinated meats, fruit juices and tons of carbs.
To help you along, Far & Wide spoke with Cuban chef Patty Morrell-Ruiz to get her insights into the most delicious Latin food dishes. And in case you can't find them at restaurants near you, follow her authentic yet unique recipes to bring a hint of Latin America to your kitchen.
Whether you're a curious outsider or yearning for home, these dishes will have you asking for seconds.
Meet Our Latin Food Expert
Patty Morrell-Ruiz is a professional chef and culinary instructor. Born to Cuban parents who migrated at the start of the Castro regime, she is based in Miami. She shares her recipes on the website, The Mad Table, and is the author of "The Essential Cuban Cookbook."
Before getting into some of her favorite Latin food dishes (with recipes), we'll let you in on some of her secrets. In her daily life, Morrell-Ruiz adds a splash of the Spanish Tio Pepe sherry to everything. She also recommends that cooking enthusiasts remember that "it's OK to change and improvise, or to leave something out" as you're following recipes. Follow her on social media for some craving-inducing content.
And while we agree, we have to tell you that her recipes are so good you probably won't have to improvise. Here are five of the best.
Carnitas is one of the absolute best Mexican foods. Period.
The tender pork meat is simmered for hours over low heat. Once ready, it almost melts in your mouth as you take a bite. While you can use carnitas — or "little meats" — in different dishes, the best way to eat them is in a taco.
If you can't get to Mexico just yet, many of the best taco places in the U.S. serve them.
Although carnitas usually involves letting the pork cook for three to four hours, Chef Morrell-Ruiz makes life simple with this carnitas recipe by making it instant pot-friendly.
The meat still comes out juicy and tender — a perfect contrast with the crunch of the tortillas.
Arroz con Pollo (Rice with Chicken)
One of the most ubiquitous dishes in Latin America, arroz con pollo is easy, plentiful and full of flavor. You'll find it everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico to Colombia. Its fragrance often fills the homes of Latinos in the U.S.
The dish consists of shredded chicken cooked in the same pot as rice and diced vegetables like peas, onions and peppers. The exact ingredients and the amount of condiments used vary by country. But the end result is always a burst of flavor, as the rice and chicken soak up the juices from the vegetables.
Arroz con Pollo Recipe
This arroz con pollo a la chorrera recipe adds chorizo, wine and beer to the base of the dish. While it departs from more traditional ways of making the dish, it's an arroz con pollo you'll want to keep making again and again.
Coming from the Spanish word "to mince," picadillo is a staple dish in several Latin countries like Cuba, Mexico and Costa Rica. Each country has its own style, but at the base, you have ground beef, tomato sauce and olives.
The dish can be used as a filling (for, say, tacos and empanadas), or as an entire meal, served on top of rice.
Chef Morrell-Ruiz says picadillo is the dish that started her love affair with cooking. Her family would make it when they were still adapting to the hardships of immigrant life, feeding themselves as well as their neighbors with this generous food.
Her picadillo recipe is juicy, flavorful and proudly Cuban.
Made with flank steak that is braised for hours, ropa vieja is one of the national dishes of Cuba. Its name hilariously translates to "old clothes." But don't worry, this has nothing to do with its taste. Rather, it comes from its appearance.
Sofrito, a cooking base typical of the Latin American Caribbean, guarantees intense flavor. Add pepper, garlic, onion, bay leaves, oregano and other condiments to enliven the tender steak.
Ropa vieja is typically served with rice and sweet plantains on the side.
Ropa Vieja Recipe
Only a Cuban chef could make authentic ropa vieja, so we wholeheartedly trust Chef Morrell-Ruiz's recipe.
This is an ingredient-heavy recipe, but you'll find that you already have most things in your pantry.
We should all be thankful to the Mexican people for bringing this mouthwatering dish to the world. Made with corn tortillas stuffed and rolled, enchiladas are topped with sauce and cheese and often garnished with ingredients like cilantro.
The stuffing is usually meats, with chicken and beef being the most traditional ones. But there are now plenty of vegetarian variations that are just as satisfying.
Chicken Enchilada Recipe
Salsa verde is one of the two most common salsas used in Mexico. This green chicken enchilada recipe uses a generous amount of green salsa, accompanied with diced green chiles for added spiciness.
The avocado topping gives it a freshness that complements the heaviness of the baked enchiladas perfectly.
In their most basic forms, tostones are smashed plantains that are deep fried. They can be found throughout Latin America and have a million uses — find them accompanying main dishes, acting as appetizers or stealing the spotlight as main dishes.
The latter is perhaps the most interesting (though we do love starting a meal with tostones). When made to be full meals, tostones are topped or stuffed with various ingredients that vary by country and region. Fried meats and seafood with fresh vegetables are popular and quite tasty.
Chicken Vaca Frita Tostones Recipe
We have to say that this is one of the most appetizing tostone recipes we have ever seen. Chef Morrell-Ruiz takes some creative leeway with it, getting inspiration for her method from typical dishes but adding a flair of her own. The result is simply a *chef's kiss*.
The recipe is one of the most complex, not because it's difficult but because it requires many ingredients and many steps. But the results are crispy tostones topped with crispy chicken, a smooth avocado cream and sweet-and-tangy mango salsa. Perfection is the word that comes to mind.
This is a dish that you won't usually find in Cuban restaurants but that is a staple in Cuban households. The principle is similar to that of any meatball — it's a ball of meat that's fried and topped with sauce. But trust us when we say that the flavor is not at all like that of the more famous Italian or Swedish versions.
For one, Cuban meatballs tend to be a bit bigger. They also use Cuban-style seasoning and can include ingredients like corn. Finally, they're normally served with rice and plantains rather than with pasta.
Cuban Meatballs Recipe
Chef Morrell Ruiz believes that Cuban meatballs can be a great introduction to Latin food for people who are not used to its flavors. It's familiar enough for picky eaters but brings a different flavor that reflects the region's cuisine.
Follow her delicious family recipe for Cuban meatballs, and see for yourself.
Mexican Street Corn
If you ever find yourself roaming around the streets of Mexico and see an elote (street corn) stand, do yourself a favor and stop. One of the country's most popular street foods, elotes are usually grilled to crispy perfection. But what sets it apart from virtually any other corn on the cob in the world is that, instead of butter, the toppings include a generous amount of mayo, chili powder, cheese and lime.
Yes, we know it sounds like a lot. And it is. But it is, oh, so very worth it.
Mexican Street Corn Salad Recipe
Sadly, many of us don't have access to authentic elotes whenever we walk out of the house. The next best thing is to make your own. Chef Morrell Ruiz recommends taking the flavors of Mexican street corn and making them into a salad.
The recipe is incredibly fast, easy and convenient. All you're doing is grilling the corn, then cutting the kernels off and topping them with a mix of ingredients. Make it a full meal by adding grilled shrimp, which is cooked in a couple of minutes.
Flan is originally a European dessert, but it's become an important part of Latin American food heritage. You'll find it throughout the continent. And while there are some slight variations, the formula is pretty much the same.
The caramel-based dessert is easy to make and fluffy. It keeps for a long time and tastes oh-so-good. Flan is also popular in the United States, so you can easily find it in supermarkets or restaurants.
Though, of course, nothing beats the homemade version.
Coconut Flan Recipe
Bring this coconut flan recipe to a family gathering, and you'll be showered with compliments. The traditional flan is given a bit more flair with a coconut topping.
You won't spend an absurd amount of time on it, and it is sure to please absolutely everyone.
Bonus: Piña Colada
Latin food is amazing, but we don't want to leave drinks off the table. Take a break from margaritas (although they are great) and enjoy a piña colada.
As the national drink of Puerto Rico, the tropical cocktail is fruity and sweet yet perfectly refreshing.
Piña Colada Recipe
Piña colada (literally, blended pineapple) is often done with premade mixes. But that simply will never come close to using real pineapples, as this recipe advises.
The other secret is mixing rums to get both smoothness and deepness. You'll use white rum while blending, then top the drink off with dark rum as you serve each glass.
That's the stuff of dreams.