Food & Drink

Latins adore mellow, melded braises

Cuisines are defined by clusters of ingredients that make up regional or national flavor palettes and by techniques that reflect cooks' collective conclusions about how best to achieve particular effects. In Latin America, no method is more emblematic than braising.

Slow, moist cooking not only softens meat but mellows and melds flavors - a key to the Latin palate. We might enjoy a juicy grilled steak, but we swoon over marinated chicken simmered in its own juices or falling-off-the-bone beef braised in a garlicky tomato cooking sauce (sofrito) enriched with wine.

From Juarez to Patagonia, braises go by many names. In southern Peru, slow-cooked pork seasoned with a potent blend of hot peppers and spices is called adobo. In the Hispanic Caribbean and parts of Central America, a braised dish may be referred to as a guisado, "en cazuela" ("in a casserole") or an estofado.

Of these terms, estofado has the loftiest meaning, as it is generally understood to have complex seasoning or be enriched with wine. It also has an archaic connotation because the technique has an ancient Old World pedigree.

The Spanish word "estofado" comes from the late vulgar Latin "extufare," which in turn comes from the Greek word for steam. This makes sense, for most old estofado recipes call for cooking in a tightly sealed pot that traps the aromatic steam from the cooking juices and flavoring ingredients.

The Latin American estofado belongs to a large family of European dishes like the Italian stufato and French dishes a l'etuvee, in which meats or poultry are braised with seasoning vegetables, aromatic herbs and spices and a small amount of liquid, often wine or beer. The technique came to the Americas with the Spaniards, and each region developed dozens of variants.

As a child growing up in Cuba, I adored my aunt's braised chicken (pollo estofado), cooked with a cumin-scented garlic and onion sofrito and salty white cooking wine (vino seco). As an adult traveling through Latin America, I found more complex versions that produced a riot of flavor with half a dozen herbs and spices like oregano, cumin, thyme and rosemary.

Simple or complex, with wine or without, estofados feed the Latin yen for harmonious flavor and soothing textures. These dishes, mellowed with the steam of history and memory, never fail to satisfy.

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BRAISED CHICKEN BREASTS GUATEMALAN STYLE (Pollo en Estofado con Sabor Guatemalteco)

My recipe is inspired by a chicken estofado I once tasted in Antigua, Guatemala. For company, I often debone the breasts in the kitchen, slice them at an angle, and fan the meat over a pool of sauce. Serve with rice and a floral white wine such as Susana Balbo's Crios Torrontes or Laura Catena's Luca Chardonnay, both from Mendoza, Argentina.

CHICKEN & SEASONINGS:

2 whole, bone-in chicken breasts, split

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon dried thyme

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon, ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon dried oregano

bay leaves, crumbled

teaspoon salt

ESTOFADO:

1 medium yellow onion, unpeeled

8 large plum tomatoes

8 garlic cloves, peeled

3 tablespoons mild extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon capers in brine, drained

¼ cup dry sherry

2 tablespoons Central American cultured cream, creme fraiche or heavy cream

Prepare the chicken and seasonings: Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Place in a bowl.

Grind the seasonings into a fine powder in a spice mill or coffee grinder, and rub all over chicken. Cover bowl tightly with plastic film and set aside for about 20 minutes.

Make the estofado: Heat a dry, heavy-bottomed skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Place onion and tomatoes in skillet and roast, turning occasionally, until lightly charred, about 10 minutes. Peel onion, remove charred tomato skin and chop vegetables coarsely. Working in batches, puree them with the garlic in a food processor or blender.

Heat the oil in a 12-inch saute pan or skillet. Saute chicken pieces until golden, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Averting your face to avoid splatters, add the puree to the pan and simmer about 5 minutes. Return chicken to pan along with sherry and capers. Cover tightly, lower heat and simmer about 20 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a plate; cover with foil to keep warm. Strain sauce through a fine sieve and return it to the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat and whisk in cultured cream. Debone chicken, if desired (see note above), and serve with sauce. Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 333 calories (58 percent from fat), 21.4 g fat (5.4 g saturated, 11.7 g monounsaturated), 66 mg cholesterol, 20.1 g protein, 12.1 g carbohydrates, 2.2 g fiber, 716.6 mg sodium.

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