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By "Today" Food Editor
updated 4/7/2004 9:21:13 AM ET 2004-04-07T13:21:13

Spices and marinades, whether mild or hot, play a key part in making Latin foods both distinctive and tasty. And what would Latin food be without colorful, tasty and healthful produce?

Here’s a primer to some of the ingredients you’ll come across as you explore these cuisines. (NOTE: Latin food is the umbrella name we’re using for the fare from the Caribbean islands and South and Central America, including Mexico.)

PRODUCE

Anaheim Chiles
Anaheim (pronounced AN-uh-hym) Chiles (also called California Green Chiles or Long Green Chiles) are among the most popular and commonly available peppers in the United States. Closely related to a red variety (commonly known as New Mexico Chile or Chile Colorado), the Anaheim is pale to medium green in color with a long, narrow shape. Named after the Southern California city where it was originally grown, Anaheim Chiles are favored because of their sweet and mild flavor. Excellent roasted and stuffed (known as rellenos) and commonly used in salsas, dried red Anaheims are also used for making decorative wreaths or long strings known as ristras.

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Fresh Red Fresno Chiles
Fresno Chiles, also known as chile caribe or chile cera, are shaped very similarly to jalapeno chiles. They are available in red and green varieties, the red being the sweeter of the two. Often times the Red Fresno Chile is mistaken for the red jalapeno; however, it bears wider shoulders and hotter flavor. On the heat scale, it ranks a 7, 10 being the hottest. Red Fresnos are found in a broad range of Latin dishes. They are delicious added to soups, stews and dips or enjoyed whole when roasted with meats. Red Fresnos have a sweet flavor and are often pickled or roasted and blended into sauces.

Fresh Pasilla Chile
The Pasilla ((Pronounced pah-SEE-yah; also known as chilaca chile or Pablano) is dark green in color, and turns dark brown upon maturing. Anywhere from 5 to 9 inches in length, the curving Pasilla Chile is about 1-1 1/2 inches across. Used in a variety of traditional Latin dishes including mole sauce, the Pasilla has a rich, sweet flavor with a medium to intense heat. Fresh Pasilla can be roasted, skinned and shredded. Roasting gives the Pasilla a smoky, earthy flavor. It is also a favorite for the popular dish, chile rellenos.

Fresh Yellow Chiles
Yellow Chiles are also known as Güero Chiles, güero being the Spanish word meaning light skinned or blonde. Similar to the Hungarian Wax, these chiles are medium fleshed and slightly sweet with a sharp flavor and waxy texture. They impart a pleasant crunch and spicy aroma to recipes. They are primarily used in yellow mole sauces and are often used in a variety of traditional Latin dishes. Add fresh Yellow Chiles to salsas, salads, and sauces. Fresh Yellow Chiles are excellent pickled.

Fresh Jalapeno Chiles
Named after the capital of Veracruz, Mexico — Jalapa — Jalapeno Chile Peppers (pronounced hah-lah-PEH-hyoh; also called chipotles) are among the most popular and commonly available hot chiles in the United States. In 1982, these smooth, dark green chiles (the ripe form of the green jalapeno is red) were the first to be taken into space. Jalapenos are about 2 inches long and approximately 3/4 to 1 inch thick with a rounded tip. Jalapenos are found in a broad range of Latin dishes. Ranging from hot to very hot with a green vegetable flavor, Jalapenos can be easily seeded and added to soups, stews and dips or enjoyed whole when roasted with meats or stuffed with cheese. Red Jalapenos have a sweeter flavor and are often pickled or smoked.

Fresh Serrano Chile
The small Serrano chile varies in color from bright to dark green to red when ripe. It is one of the hottest varieties of chiles.  Serranos are often used in a variety of traditional Latin dishes, including guacamole, salsas and sauces, and are also excellent pickled. Fresh Serranos are excellent roasted or barbecued on skewers with meat and onions. They have a sudden and intense bite and a pleasantly high acidity.

Cactus Leaves
Also known as Nopales (noh-POH-lays), these leaves come from a large Mexican cactus called nopal. Often found growing throughout Mexico where they have long been favored, Cactus Leaves are also gaining acceptance in the United States. Available year-round, Cactus Leaves are at their peak in the spring when their tender paddles impart a juicy, “string bean” flavor. Ranging in color from pale to dark green, Cactus Leaves are generally diced or cut into small pieces or strips (called Nopalitos). Simmered in water until tender, Cactus Leaves can be added to a variety of dishes including salads and eggs.

Cilantro
Sometimes referred to as “the world’s most widely used herb,” Cilantro is a favorite in Latin, Far Eastern, Indian and Caribbean cooking. Cilantro is also known as Mexican parsley or Chinese parsley. The seed alone is called Coriander (KOR-ee-an-der). Extremely aromatic, it can be used in salsa, guacamole, mixed green salads and curried dishes. Cilantro seeds are used in pickling, potpourri and mulled wine.

Tomatillo
Except for the thin, parchment type covering that surrounds the Tomatillo (pronounced tohm-ah-TEE-oh), this fruit — it belongs to the tomato family — resembles a small, green tomato in size, shape and flavor. Used most often when firm and green, the somewhat “sweet-sour” flavor of the Tomatillo can be enjoyed both raw and cooked. A necessary ingredient for a favorite Southwestern dish called salsa verde or green salsa, the Tomatillo can also be roasted and added to other ingredients or used to make salads and sauces.

Chayote squash
A member of the gourd family, this versatile vegetable from Mexico is quickly becoming a produce department standard. Roughly pear-sized in shape and light to dark apple green in color, Chayote Squash has a smooth skin with slight ridges running from stem to end. The average Chayote weighs about 1/4 pound and measures approximately 3-4 inches in length. Though similar to summer squash, Chayote usually requires a longer cooking time because of its firmer texture. Makes a wonderful addition to soups or stir-fry and may be sliced or chopped and used raw like a cucumber. The seed is edible.

Jicama
Jicama (also known as a Mexican potato) is a large, bulbous root. This crunchy, juicy tuber has a thick brown skin and a white crunchy flesh. A popular Mexican vegetable, Jicama can weigh anywhere from one to six pounds. Its sweet, nutty flavor is good both raw and cooked. Once cooked, Jicama retains its crisp, water chestnut-type texture and flavor.

Yuca Root
Yuca Root (also known as Cassava) is a root that ranges from 6 to 12 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches in diameter. This crunchy tuber has a tough brown skin and a crisp, white flesh. Originally a native to South America, Yuca Root has become an important staple of Africa. Although there are many varieties of Yuca Root, there are only 2 main categories: bitter and sweet. Bitter Yuca Root must be cooked! Used as a thickener in the making of tapioca, grated and sun-dried Yuca Root is called Yuca Root meal.

Baby Bananas
Considered a food staple around the world, there are over 300 varieties of bananas worldwide. Baby Bananas(also called Nino, Ladyfinger or Finger Bananas) are smaller and sweeter than the popular Cavendish banana. Native in the tropical countries of Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico, small crops are also grown in California and Florida. Familiar in Latin American, African and Asian cooking, Baby Bananas are amazingly versatile. Shaped like miniature slender bananas, this small, crunchy specialty banana is usually eaten out of hand or sliced raw in fruit salads. Peeled Baby Bananas can also be left whole and gently baked or flambeed with brown sugar, brandy or rum.

Red Banana
Sweeter than a yellow banana with a touch of raspberry flavor, the short and plump Red Banana is easy to distinguish. The slightly pink and creamy flesh within a reddish-purple skin is often used to add flavor and color to many dishes. Similar to the yellow banana, this tropical fruit is imported mostly from Ecuador.Use in fruit compotes and salads or use in baking as you would any yellow banana.

Plantains
Larger and firmer than dessert bananas, Plantains are commonly used as vegetables rather than fruits because of their lower sugar content. Extremely popular in Latin American countries, Plantains are also favored in West Indian and African cooking. Plantains are usually baked or fried and served like a potato. These “cooking bananas” have a mild, squash like flavor and are used in a wide range of savory dishes.

Cactus Pears
Cactus Pears come from several varieties of cactus and are also sometimes called Prickly Pears, Indian Figs, or Tunas. Extremely popular in Mexico and Central and South America, the purple-red and sometimes green prickly skin of the Cactus Pear can be peeled away to expose a soft, ruby-red or golden colored flesh with tiny, edible seeds. Cactus Pears are usually served cold, peeled and sectioned with the seeds and served in fruit salads or they can be sprinkled with brown sugar, lime juice and topped with whipped cream to create a unique dessert.

Mango
The Mango, a native of India and cultivated in Asia for over four thousand years, is grown around the world, including areas of Mexico, California and Florida. Available in a wide range of varieties and shapes (oblong, kidney and round), the skin of the Mango turns yellow, then orange to red upon ripening. The bright yellow to orange flesh is fibrous and contains a large, flat pit. The unripe Green Mango is purposely harvested prematurely and will not color or ripen. This green fruit is used extensively in Southeast Asian and Indian cooking where it is often treated like a vegetable. An important fruit for many tropical countries, the Mango contains enzymes useful for tenderizing meats and also acts as a digestive aid. Both fresh and dried Mango may be added to salads or used in vegetable or poultry dishes.

Coconuts
Although all parts of this fruits are used, only the milk and meat of the Coconut are used as food. Coconut milk makes a nutritious drink and can be used in curry sauces, while Coconut meat can be eaten fresh, dried and used in baking, or pressed (where it is known as copra) and used to make Coconut oil. The fruit of the Coconut palm, Coconuts are grown in Malaysia and parts of South America, India, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.  Coconuts grown in the Dominican Republic usually contain more meat and juice than Coconuts harvested elsewhere.

Strawberry papayas
Once a native to tropical America, Papayas can now be found growing in Brazil, Hawaii, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Florida, and Southern California. Similar to a regular papaya from the outside skin, it differs from a regular papaya in that it has a salmon-red to pink flesh. Also it is sweeter than a regular papaya, with a refreshing flavor with hints of peaches and berries.

SPICES AND MARINADES

South American

Adobo (with and without pepper)
This blend includes salt, granulated garlic, oregano, black pepper and turmeric.  It originated in the Philippines, but today it is more commonly associated with Latin American cooking and used to enhance the flavor of chicken, beef, and rice.

Complete Seasoning (Sazon Completa)
Its name says it all. This blend, containing salt, pepper, cumin and other spices, was inspired by the flavor of Latin cooking and by adding it to poultry, fish and meat it will have it ready in seconds for grilling, braising and other preparation methods. It is also a useful ingredient in salads, stews, sauces and vegetables.

Sazon Tropical
Latinos have repeatedly used formulas like this that are family-friendly, appealing to everyone.  By rubbing one of these packets to meats, poultry, and fish, the essence of Hispanic flavor will be achieved immediately.

Saffron
This spice has been used in the Mediterranean region since ancient times. This product gives deep orange color and a delicious aroma to many meat and poultry dishes, and is indispensable for good paella and other rice dishes.

Badia Sour Orange Marinade
Badia’s own Sour Orange is made with real Sevillian oranges. It is a very popular marinade for chicken, turkey and all kinds of poultry. Its Latin origin makes it delicious for yucca and plantains dips and it is indispensable for preparing the original “mojito”.

Mojo Marinade
Mojo is a pungent Latin marinating sauce made of onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, salt, black pepper, orange, and lemon juice. In the process of marinating, this liquid ingredient adds flavor by being absorbs over a few hours and makes raw foods tender for preparation. It is typically used in meat, poultry, shellfish and vegetables.

Mexican

Chili Powder
This original Tex-Mex mix is ideal for use in cuisine typical of the Mexican border region. This is recommended for mixing with ground beef and hamburgers, and is also perfect for creating the traditional chili con carne.

Fajita Seasoning
This blend of spices with chili pepper unites the key flavors of Mexican cuisine and will give your fajitas, meats, poultry and fish a distinctive taste. Add half hour before cooking.

Taco Seasoning
This zesty Mexican blend can transform ground beef, steak or even a can of refried beef into a family “fiesta.” Taco seasoning can be also used for party dips and salsas.”

Menudo Mix
Menudo is a delicious and hearty stew that is very popular in Mexico. It combines beef tripe and hominy in a rich broth, and our mix contains the right amount of herbs, chili and spices that will make a perfect dish. You can also use this mix to add flavor to soups and salads.

Chimichurri Sauce
This both tangy and herbaceous sauce is made from garlic, parsley, olive oil, vinegar and herbs. It is traditionally served with the Argentinean “Asado” barbecue and is perfect for grilled meats and sausages. It can also be used as a spread with bread or to add a boost to vegetables, salads and soups.


Caribbean

Jerk Seasoning
Originally from Jamaica, this seasoning has a pungent flavor and irresistible aroma. It brings a special appeal to BBQ meats and fishes that are commonly moistened with garlic and lime juice after being cooked.

Caribbean Heat Habanero Pepper Sauce
The main ingredient of this popular and healthy sauce is the lantern-shaped Habanero, an extremely hot chili. Native to the Caribbean, the Yucutan and the north coast of South America, the Habanero pepper ranges from green to bright orange when ripe.

Tortuga Rum Bar-B-Que Sauce
Flavored with Tortuga Dark Rum, this tangy and naturally smoky combination of spices and seasonings is a delicious complement to ribs, chicken and all meats.

Tortuga Caribbean Spicy Mango Pepper Sauce
This 2004 Scovie “Fiery Foods” winner is a versatile spicy-sweet hot sauce makes an excellent relish or marinade, and is a unique “secret ingredient” to add Caribbean flair to any recipe.

Tortuga Hell-Fire Hot Pepper Sauce
Another Scovie “Fiery Foods” award winner! This premium hot sauce is blended with the hottest Caribbean scotch bonnet peppers available. Ideal zesty companion for meat, fish and poultry dishes.

Tortuga Sweet Heat Caribbean Pepper Sauce
Fiery Caribbean peppers are married to the tropical Carambola fruit producing a "tangy-sweet flavor". Use as a condiment to bring "sweet heat" to gravies, seafood, poultry and meat dishes.

Tortuga Spicy Seafood Grill Sauce
The fish will be definitely be biting when you add this to your next fish or seafood meal! Use as a baste or marinade for grilling seafood and kebabs, a dip for fish fingers, shrimp, crab cakes and conch fritters.

Latin Food Resources
Melissa’s Fresh & Exotic Produce: www.melissa.com
Badia Spices: www.badiaspices.com
Goya Foods (entrees, spices, sauces, rice and beans): www.goya.com
Schwan’s Home Delivery: www.schwans.com
Caribbean Food Delights: www.caribbeanfooddelights.com
Tortuga Rum and Cakes: www.tortugarums.com

Want to know more about Phil and food? Visit his website at www.supermarketguru.com.

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