This article (and recipes) appeared last week in the Asheville Citizen-Times as a tribute to the Latin and Hispanic individuals who have made Asheville their home, shaping Western North Carolina's cuisine with bold culinary traditions. With gratitude...
During his quest for gold, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto cataloged his journey through the Appalachian Mountains as early as 1540. His visit marks one of the earliest Hispanic interactions with North Carolina natives.
It was not until the early 1990s, as the economy spiked, that North Carolina became home to an influx of Latinos; another boom occurred from 2000-06. The state remains home to a large population of this diverse group with roots ranging from Argentina to Spain, influencing North Carolina’s cuisine with its rich cultural network.
Latin food is often misinterpreted as Mexican cuisine, which is associated with complex spices and corn-based dishes. Corn cultivation is believed to have originated in Mexico thousands of years ago, but it spread throughout the Americas long before Europeans arrived and serves now as a Southern cooking staple. Yet the most commonly used starches of Latin and Hispanic cuisine differ greatly from one country to the next. (So do each region’s use of spices.)
Besides corn, the starches Cassava root, rice, beans, plantain, quinoa, potatoes and wheat are central to Latin cuisine based on agricultural conditions and historical influences of each region.
Cecilia Marchesini of Cecilia’s Kitchen has been serving Asheville residents her native Argentine dishes since 1998, when she made Western North Carolina her home. Her dishes reflect the Italian and Spanish influence of her home in Córdoba, Argentina.
In Córdoba, foods are seasoned with little more than salt and pepper, which are Argentina’s primary spices. “The ingredients tell you the flavors,” Marchesini said. “If you are eating meat, you taste the meat. If you are eating spinach, you taste the spinach.”
Preparation, also, is straightforward. “I slow cook much of what I prepare,” Marchesini said. “Argentinian dishes do not usually include beans, which so many people associate with Latin food. I have an Argentinian friend who has never had a bean in her life.”
Marchesini grew up in a remote town, with much of what her family prepared coming from her grandfather’s garden or from nearby farms.
“An avocado was an exceptional ingredient,” she said, unlike in Mexico where they grow in abundance. Sunday lunch in her household was a gathering of extended family, including uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. This meal would last 3-4 hours and include up to five courses.
As a passionate cook, her father’s specialty was homemade pasta, influenced by her grandmother’s Italian lineage.
“Eating in our household was an act of pleasure and ceremony, a very important part of life. We made use of all the ingredients we had,” she said. “If my family came upon capers or olives or prosciutto, these ingredients were treated specially.”
Marchesini’s favorite dishes include Argentinian style barbecue, or grilled meats (also seasoned with salt and pepper) and her personal specialty, beef empanadas. Argentina is the third largest beef exporter worldwide; the lush grass from substantial rainfall and the geography of the landscape is ideal for raising cattle.
Marchesini’s love for empanadas is so strong, she began making them after she relocated to Asheville, and they soon became the foundation of her business. She takes pains to use local, grass-fed beef and other local ingredients as it best reflects the pure flavors from her home.
Empanadas are found throughout most Latin and Hispanic cooking, uniting many regions. Bolivian empanadas, or salteñas, are often filled with beef, pork or chicken along with potato, peas, hard-boiled egg or raisins. Chile uses various seafood like prawns and mussels, whereas Columbian empanadas are crafted with a cornmeal-based pastry and served with a cilantro sauce.
In Spain, the dish is usually prepared with tuna, sardines or chorizo and includes tomato puree, onions and garlic before being fried in olive oil. The use of locally available ingredients sets each preparation apart from one another, displaying a distinguishing regional thumbprint.
Like empanadas, different versions of Latin beverages have become popular in the United States. Horchata, a creamy, rice-based drink, originated in Egypt before it was brought to Mexico by Spaniards. Its preparation varies by region and can include almonds, milk or lime and other ingredients depending on availability.
Aguas frescas (“fresh waters”) have a following stateside as well. This often fruit-based drink can include flowers, such as hibiscus, seeds or cereal grains. Agua fresca is consumed regularly in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. The combination of sweetened fruit blended with water and served over ice is a refreshing remedy to summer heat.
Asheville’s food scene has become a mosaic of flavors from across the globe, thanks to those who have brought the tastes of their region to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Whether it’s a simply spiced empanada served from Cecilia’s food truck, or octopus doused in Spanish olive oil and dusted with smoky paprika from Cúrate, or a home-cooked meal simmered in centuries of Latin tradition prepared in home kitchens across town, the taste of Appalachia has been shaped by gracious contribution.
To share one’s culture through food is a language universally understood.
Hemos encontrado oro. We have struck gold!
4 cups fresh strawberries, rinsed, tops removed and sliced
8 cups water
1/2 cup wildflower honey
1 bunch mint or 1 lime cut into wedges for garnish
Place the strawberries in a mixing bowl and toss with the honey to coat. Transfer to a blender and blend on high speed with 1 cup water until smooth. Add remaining water and blend again. Divide into cups filled with ice. Garnish with a mint sprig or slice of lime.
Note: If you desire a pulp/seed free drink, simply strain contents after first round of blending before adding remaining water.
Makes about 12 small empanadas.
1 cup organic AP flour
1/4 cup organic whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoons sea salt
8 tablespoons cold, high quality unsalted butter, cubed
3-4 tablespoons ice water
Blend dry ingredients in a food processor. Add butter. Pulse. With blade running, slowly add the water, one Tbsp at a time, until dough forms. Turn out onto a floured work surface. Shape into a disk, wrap in parchment and place in freezer for approximately 15-20 minutes while preparing filling.
1 large bunch fresh spinach
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
8 ounces mozzarella, shredded
Splash of water
Olive oil for sauteing
Rinse spinach in cold water and remove stems. Chiffonade leaves, and set aside. In a large cast-iron skillet, saute garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add spinach to pan once garlic is slightly browned. Saute just until wilted. Season with sea salt and pepper. Remove from heat and transfer to a strainer to remove excess water.
Mix cheeses together with 1 of the eggs in a medium mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in spinach mixture once cooled.
Line a baking sheet with parchment. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Roll dough out on a floured work surface, to about 1/4-inch thickness. Using a large round biscuit cutter, or the rim of a water glass, cut out as many circles as the dough allows. Gently roll out each circle to create a large enough surface for stuffing (slightly larger than the palm of your hand).
Working in batches, place 2-3 tablespoons of filling to one side of each dough circle. Fold dough over filling to create a pocket. Crimp the rim of the empanada with the back of a fork to seal sides together, or crimp edges by hand. Transfer to baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Slash each empanada with a sharp knife to create small steam slits.
Separate yolk from second egg. Whisk the yolk in a small bowl with a splash of water. Coat the empanadas with the egg wash using pastry brush.
Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until pastry is golden. Allow to cool slightly before serving.