Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cocktail - Flor de Jamaica or Hibiscus

Cocktail - Flor de Jamaica or Hibiscus
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
We love cocktails!  A lot can be said about why we drink them, how the potions became popular all over the world and how they make us feel  when we enjoy them.  We can all remember stories and memories of special occasions with cocktails.  They seem to transport us to exotic islands or romantic cities.  A carefully crafted cocktail can take us on a time travel and make an evening seem more festive.  Even a hot summer afternoon can be lowered a few degrees or a chilly night can warm our souls with a sweet or savory cocktail.   

What is it about the cocktail that even awakens passion in us?  As we mix a drink, the alchemy of a cocktail happens instantly, right in front of  our own eyes.  The alchemy of a wine takes years before it becomes the wonderful drink.  Cocktail alchemy is magic to be experienced first hand.  There is a story about famous american writer H.L. Mencken, whom loved cocktails and was popular for his cultural criticism and writings.  As he was a man of ideas, he decided to invite a mathematician to a popular (and secret) watering hole or speakeasy, keep in mind this was in the 1930’s during the prohibition era in the United States, and so he asked the mathematician to calculate all the possibilities.  The mathematician came up with an equation that calculated the number of possible combinations of cocktails and came up with 17 million.  I believe that number falls short.. The possibilities are endless!

The flamboyance of cocktails are the design of mixologists just as food recipes are the design of chefs.  Here I present you a very popular latin flavor often served in the afternoons: flor de jamaica or hibiscus.  In Mexico especially, aguas frescas are sold by street vendors and flor de jamaica is one of the most popular flavors.  

Jamaica or hibiscus is a flower and when dried it is used to make tea infusions or flavorings for sauces or salsas.  The dried flowers have a tart, cranberry- like flavor and they contain vitamin C and minerals.  Traditionally the flowers have been used as medicine so imagine a cocktail that not only will help detoxify but supply vitamin C and cure ailments… That’s my kind of medicine!  
Hibiscus Rum Infusion
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

Cocktail Flor de Jamaica or Hibiscus Cocktail


For the Infusion (make the night before):

6-8 oz of White Rum
2 cups of Water
3-4 tablespoons Hibiscus Flowers or about a small handful

Mix all infusion ingredients and pour in a glass container and cover.  Keep refrigerated overnight.  

For the Cocktail:

10-15 Mint Leaves
3 oz of Orange Liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Triple Sec 
1/2 cup of fresh squeezed orange juice
4-6 teaspoons of simple syrup or to taste
Slices of oranges and orange twist for garnish
Sugar & crushed Dried Chile (to rim glasses)


For this cocktail it’s best to use short glasses.  Coat the rim of the glasses with a bit of lime or orange.  Next roll the glasses in sugar and follow with a coating of crushed dried chile.  Set them aside.  In a cocktail mixer, muddle the mint leaves along with the orange juice.  Fill the cocktail shaker with ice.  Pour the rum infusion and shake vigorously.  Fill the glasses with ice.  Pour the mixture into the glasses and garnish with the orange twist and pieces of orange.  It makes at least two good servings.  Enjoy!   

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Inside The Kitchen of Chef Norma Torres

Chef Norma Torres
Photograph by Ashley Rose
Norma Torres is a chef with an amazing sensitivity of the world and precise culinary skills.  Her main ingredients are love, passion, charisma, loads of humor, amazing flavors, and a rich inheritance of recipes well guarded by her mother and grandmother back in her native Puerto Rico.  All these elements are what make her food lively and original.  Simply put, upon entering a Puerto Rican kitchen, a very common expression when delighted with the aroma of the delicious food being prepared is “¡Ay Dios mio, que rico!” (Oh my God, how delicious!)  And the expression fits perfectly in chef Norma’s kitchen.   
When Norma was in her early twenties, she developed an ocean’s depth of passion for cooking and nurturing.  We can all agree that food is always a good answer to everything, and in Norma’s home, food was the rule.  So she poured her heart into cooking delectable dishes for family and friends adding just a touch of innovation, or as she calls them “twists” to traditional recipes.  They were “inventions” in the kitchen and although the recipes were not always successful, they were genuinely authentic.  Norma loved food and remained constant as she discovered new, fresh ingredients.  Slowly, errors in the kitchen were turned into inspiration and creativity for her own signature dishes.  A personal stamp on her recipes can be compared to that of a songwriter to a song.  The process runs along the same lines.

Just like many professional chefs, Norma began discovering world cuisine and for her, mastering her culinary skills became an obsession.  Sometimes her humor came through and expletives (latina style) might have dashed out when a dish didn’t turn out as expected.  But when a dish was perfect she moaned with sensuous approval, “I just hit a ‘G’ spot on my palate… so good… sooo good!”

Apart from her culinary creations, Norma is a mother, a grandmother, a friend, and a lovely wife (lucky caballero!)  A major motivator for Norma are the expressions of content and sheer joy when a person enjoys her cooking.  “It keeps me going and it invigorates me to strive for excellence in the kitchen.”  One thing that many passionate chefs have in common is their love for sharing their creations with the world and Norma took it upon herself to write her recipes in her personal blog aptly named Plátanos, Mangoes & Me!  

“My blog started as a way to embrace my love for the three ‘F’s’… family, friends and food.”  “My goal was to create a personal album and collection of recipes that the family most enjoyed during their childhoods, particularly recipes that represent our heritage which is a mixture.  We have roots in Spain, Corsica, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Philippines, Eastern Europe, Germany, Portugal and Cuba.  I’m very proud to embrace our roots, especially at the dinner table.”

Over the years, Norma’s dinner table has gotten bigger, and her cooking experiences and memories keep growing and growing.  Through food, she has managed to celebrate all of life’s ups and downs.  “There’s nothing more remarkable than food to bring the family together, especially during hard times.”   Through her personal and sincere anecdotes written on her blog, she allows her public and fans to take a peek into the passionate life of a chef at home.  She shares with her readers a journey of travels, love of food, knowledge and the pleasure of feeding people and receiving comfort and joy in return. 

Norma cherishes her childhood memories and it’s not surprising they were all food related.  It’s no wonder she became a chef!  

“I have very pleasant memories of my dad sitting me often on his lap as he drank a glass of homemade wine with homemade cheese and hot bread fresh out of the oven.  He would dunk a bit of the bread in the wine and let me savor a little morsel.  I would go to shows with my mom in Spain and instead of popcorn, we nibbled on Spanish olives from a little wooden keg and langoustines wrapped in a newspaper cone with a never ending supply of fresh crusty bread.  I remember in Venezuela enjoying arepas right off the griddle with chocolate caliente (corn cakes with hot chocolate).  We had a Sunday ritual of enjoying spaghetti and meatballs at an Italian restaurant.  The stairs to go up to the restaurant seemed so long, but when I returned many years later to that same restaurant it was funny to see that there were only five steps… but as children we dashed up so fast for the weekly treat right after Mass”. 
Bacalaítos - Puerto Rican Fried Cod Fish
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

In Norma’s cooking she gives every dish a very personal perspective.  Many of her dishes are traditional latin cuisine with contemporary finishes and her international repertoire is artfully precise.  In addition to being a chef and owner of a successful catering business, Norma manages to lecture and teach cooking classes whenever possible in New York where she lives with her family. 

From her recipe book, chef Norma Torres shares with us a very home grown recipe of Bacalaítos direct form La Isla del Encanto, Puerto Rico.  Bacalaítos are a tradition almost on par of a religious experience in the hot tropical island.  They almost compete with another Puerto Rican pastime: béisbol (baseball).  Bacalaítos are crispy cod fritters made lovingly at home by mamis just as much as they’re served up from roadside stands or beach kiosks.  Traditionally, they’re made in a round shape and many street vendors even make them in giant sizes.  Family recipes are so delicious and I’m thrilled to take a trip with Norma down her culinary memory lane.

Bacalaítos - Puerto Rican Fried Cod Fish


1 lb salted cod fish or bacalao
1 1/2 cups of flour
2 packages of Sazon Goya with Achiote
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 garlic cloves minced
1 tsp. baking poder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup of chopped cilantro
salt/pepper to taste
oil for frying


Rinse the cod and cut into two inch pieces.  Boil for 15 minutes to remove excess salt.  Drain all the pieces, flake and set aside.  Next, mix all the dry ingredients with water until it has the consistency of pancake batter.  If it’s too thick, just add a little more water.  Add the flaked cod and incorporate into the batter.  Heat oil until hot.  You can test the oil with a small drop of the batter.  Once it floats to the top, then it’s ready.  Drop the batter lengthwise and fry until all sides are crispy.  Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.

All this goodness is best enjoyed with lemon or lime wedges and an ice cold beer.

“Ay Dios mío , que rico!” - Chef Norma Torres

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