The Latin American pantry is bursting with fabulous flavors, but surprisingly, it is made up of fairly basic ingredients. Latin American food is flavorful, sometimes a bit spicy, and oh so diverse. Most dishes are easy to make, and require only a few basic seasonings and ingredients. I have compiled a list of my top 9 items to get you started.
1. Sofrito: No Latin American pantry is complete without sofrito, the tomato base concentrate most stews and bean dishes are seasoned with. It's made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices and cilantro. You can make it or buy it at the store in the Hispanic food section. If you make it at home, you can freeze it into ice cubes. This is what I do and if you are interested you can checkout my homemade sofrito recipe.
2. Recaito: Another necessary staple in the Latin American kitchen. This seasoning base is made with cilantro, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Again, you can buy it, but it is so easy to make and tastes so much fresher. Recaito freezes well. I make mine and freeze it into ice cubes. Recaito will give your rice, beans and stews an authentic Latin flavor. I have a homemade recaitio recipe you can make entirely in a food processor, no cooking required!
3. Jalapeno peppers: Although a more common ingredient in Mexico, than in other Latin American countries, it is still used in dishes that need a little heat. They are not really considered "hot" by Mexican standards. Jalapenos are a must in pico de gallo. I also like to use them in my stews.
4. Oranges and Lemons: Originally these citrus fruits hail from Asia but are extremely popular in Latin American cooking. They are used to make delicious fruit drinks as well as marinades, and fabulous desserts.
5. Garlic and onions: Ah, no Latin American pantry would be complete without garlic and onions. Believe me some Latin American dishes can have enough garlic to ward off evil spirits, but they taste so good! My recommendation is to always use fresh garlic. If you are not into peeling it, most well assorted grocery stores sell peeled garlic. Still too much work? Garlic is also sold minced.
6. Beans: These are a must in every Latin American pantry. They are also a staple of the Caribbean diet. The most popular ones are black and kidney. Apart from being delicious, they are packed with protein. Whenever I make beans, my main seasonings are: sofrito and recaito. My family loves my recipe for black beans and rice so much that I have to make it almost once a week!
7. Cumin: Cumin is THE most important spice to have when starting a Latin American pantry. It's pungent, and flavorful; black beans wouldn't be the same without it.
8. Paprika: Another must have spice to fill your Latin American pantry. I buy smoked, sweet, and hot. Mix them up for a great effect!
9. Olive oil: A good quality olive oil is a must in any Latin American kitchen. It's used in everything from a good sofrito, to dressings, stews and marinades.