Much of what we do at the museum is for the visitors: exhibits, programs, lectures, and performances. We want our guests to enjoy themselves. Heritage month celebrations are no exception; we hope our visitors will learn something special from the unique and focused programming.
In addition to pleasing visitors, our Hispanic Heritage Month celebration has become a highlight for our staff. An essential part of our museum-wide observance is the special menu in our Stars and Stripes Cafe. The Latin flavors are appreciated not only by the guests who get to try a different special every day, but also by the kitchen staff tasked to prepare the dishes.
When I approached our chef William Bednar and asked him to create Hispanic-themed specials, he said (as he always does), “no problem.” But this time, in addition to opening his cook books, he turned right around to his staff and asked them for their ideas. Many of our cooks and servers are from Latin America. Some of the countries represented are El Salvador, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Colombia. This month is their turn to be “top chef” and dictate the recipes to Chef William. The result is an abundance of wonderful home cooking served to the masses in our café.
Like any family, there is lots of discussion along the way: different countries favor different seasoning; one person learned to add masa (corn flour) to empanadas, while others use only wheat flour. Pupusas are an example of a dish that is different in different regions. Originating in El Salvador, pupusas migrated around South America and morphed along the way. Basically, they are thick, hand-made corn tortillas with a stuffing. The pupusas I tried were stuffed with cheese. The dough and filling may vary, but the one constant that seems most important is that they are handmade. Selling hundreds of pupusas a day means a lot of rolling and patting, but no one complains, especially not those of us who taste the savory treats.
A key ingredient in many Latin foods is yucca. It is a starchy root vegetable that is like a cross between a white and sweet potato. This month I have tried it fried, mashed, and accompanying other ingredients on our salad bar. I was skeptical, because I don’t usually care for potatoes, but these chulitos made a believer out of me. Don’t take my word for it, though; try some yourself. If you can’t make it to the Stars and Stripes Cafe, try them in your own kitchen. Here is a recipe for Chulitos, a.k.a. Cassava Mini Bites, a.k.a. Stuffed Yucca. No matter what you call them, they are delicioso.
Chulitos, or Cassava Mini Bites (Stuffed Yucca)
2 pounds yucca, peeled and grated
1 pound chicken, diced
¼ bunch cilantro
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red onion, diced
1 large green pepper, diced
Black pepper to taste
3 cups canola oil for frying
1) Boil yucca in salted boiling water until tender and squeeze out extra liquid. Season with salt and pepper and mash to paste.
2) Saute onions, garlic, bell peppers. Add chicken. Once seared, add tomato paste and cook until chicken is tender. Remove and cool.
3) Place a 1.5 ounce ball of yucca in your hand (oil hand lightly so it does not stick).
4) Place a .5 ounce portion of chicken filling and place in center of yucca. Enclose the chicken and roll into a ball.
5) Fill a pot with 2 inches of oil heated to 350 and deep fry golden brown. Drain and season with salt and pepper.
Kathy Sklar is the business program manager at the National Museum of American History.