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SABOR: Professor, Author & Chef Lourdes Castro Explores Zesty Flavors, Educates Hispanics on Healthy Eating Habits

First Posted: Aug 22, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
Lourdes Castro

Photo : Lourdes Castro

Lourdes Castro, professor, author and chef, has a profound understanding of superb food and energetic flavor combinations, which embraces taste and health. Her comprehension of dishes, such as Smoked Paprika Crusted Shrimp, Avocado Tomatillo Mousse and Braised Chipotle Chicken, is heightened by an unyielding commitment to nutrition, freshness and zest.

Castro was born in the stateside Cuban culinary capital, Miami, raised in a traditional Cuban household that was void of cooking. For the chef's family, cooking wasn't an essential theme or activity. Neither her mother nor her grandmother cooked following long workdays. Like many families, they often went out for food.

"I really didn't grow up with someone in the kitchen, with someone to help develop my interest or passion in food. The inception happened much later in life. While I always had some sort of interest in the kitchen, it wasn't really cultivated at a young age," Castro told Latin Post. "I went to NYU and I studied nutrition, and that really exposed me to the kitchen, to food science and culinary art. That's really where it all came to me. I didn't have any kind of preconceived notion about cooking, so when I approached the kitchen, I approached it more from a scientific perspective. Most learn from tradition."

Castro explained that she feels lucky that she wasn't bogged down with traditional cooking. Her grandmother and mother would have likely had a particular way of cooking, which she would have inherited. However, her personal journey allowed her more of an open mind about the cooking process, approaching it as an adult. Therefore, as a professor, she's able to understand that some students don't know certain things about food and cooking. So she offers feedback, making sure to "break it down for them, not dumb it down."

Education came first for Castro. She taught before she began food writing and making television appearances as a health-conscious inventor of recipes. She graduated from NYU and Columbia, and then moved to Miami for a short period, where she opened a recreational cooking school. The school provided an academic setting, more than a culinary setting. She then returned to New York City, where she started teaching. That provided her an opportunity to explain things from a culinary, health and nutrition perspective. The recipes she would later develop would further support the significance of nourishment.

"I'm working on this series of recipes now that focuses on vegetables, and different ways of cooking vegetables that are not only really tasty but also healthy. I have a background as a registered dietitian, and I consult with a lot of companies, developing recipes for them that are not only geared toward the Hispanic population, but healthy at the same time," said Castro. "One of the biggest obstacles that Hispanics face when it comes to healthy eating is that we aren't big vegetable eaters. I'm really trying to come up with some vegetable recipes that are tasty, but at the same time keep that health aspect in mind.

"I think of my own family, my own father who wouldn't touch a vegetable. You'd have to force it down his throat. So, I think of them and what they would like, and it's always flavor first. It has to be healthy, but it's always going to be flavor first. I would never put something out that, just because the numbers makes sense from a nutritional standpoint, is not going to be accepted from the average family from a flavor perspective."

To pep up the flavor profile of a dish, the chef recommended her favorite herb: cilantro. Also, for those who aren't fans, she suggested coriander, which is the seed of the cilantro plant. Cilantro can energize humdrum chicken breasts, whether encrusting it and grilling it, broiling it or pan searing it with a bit of lime. A poached shrimp recipe, which is primed with tomato, avocado, red onion, a lot of lime or parsley, is another perfect dish to try when searching for crisp perfection.

Castro professed her love for the Latin pantry, her love of the spices and the unique combination, stating, "It's the combination of flavors that distinguish Latin food from anything else. It's not just the spice because most countries will use garlic and parsley or something like that, but it's how we combine it with other things that really makes it unique. I love fresh flavors, a little bit of fresh herbs and citrus. I love lime and I'm good with lemon, too. For me, it's just anything that brightens up your food. I like the bold flavors, and given that I'm Cuban, I never really grew up with fiery foods, but I also enjoy fiery foods now as an adult."

When describing some of the best moments in her culinary career, she described an opportunity to travel to Spain for a culinary conference as a translator. There, she had the opportunity to work with Juan Mari Arzak and other grandfathers of cuisine. That experience helped to plant in her the seed of dedication, hard work, and "staying true to your track and doing what it is that you want to do," she says.

"I've been on television, and I would love to expand that. I'm in the process of developing another book, and would love to do more writing. All of that, even television writing, academic teaching and guest appearances on morning talk shows, it's all just platforms to teach. Within the last 15 to 20 years, the food world exploded in terms of exposure," said Castro. "Even though people are over-saturated with it, I still feel that little bits of information, useful information, is still something that people are craving. So I'm hoping that I can impart something that helps people think more about what they cook at home. It's really important, culturally, economically and from a health prospective. You cook for yourself and you're in control of your food, it keeps your family together. Also, if you invite friends over, from a cultural perspective, there's an exchange that happens."

Check out Castro's cookbooks and blog, Slice Thin, which offers simple lessons to cook, feel and eat better.

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