Restaurateur masters wholesome Latin cuisine


Long before it was trendy, Isabel Cruz, of Isabel’s Cantina and Coffee Cup, was putting a healthy spin on Latin cuisine. Back in the 1990s, when she opened her first restaurant, The Mission, she put dishes on the menu she wanted to eat and would be healthful but that wouldn’t make her feel that she was depriving herself.

All these years later, she follows the same philosophy. “Our dishes have simple ingredients and are made from scratch,” she said. “They’re healthy and simplified and allow for restrictions, like gluten free, low-fat, and paleo.”

Cruz’s family is Puerto Rican, and her dishes reflect that tropical origin story with a lot of produce and seafood. Starting out with clean food, she said, has made it easier to lighten up and still keep flavor in each dish. She pointed out that Latin food doesn’t have a lot of dairy, such as butter sauces. She bakes instead of fries. And she switches out better oils for lard. Cruz also incorporates a lot of Asian culinary influences.

“They have many of the same ingredients and feature bold, bright flavors,” she explained.

Growing up, what was often on the Cruz family table were black beans and rice, roasted chicken and plantains, as well as salad. You’ll find them on the menu at Isabel’s Cantina, too. At home, Cruz loves a good roasted chicken, salt-brined for two days to create crispy bird on the outside and juicy inside, along with seasonal vegetables.

Cruz’s upcoming book, “The Latin Table,” which will be published by Skyhorse this spring, features all whole foods and everything made from scratch.

Among the recipes in the book is Turkey Albondigas — turkey meatballs bathed in a simmering broth. The meatballs are simple to make, including a twist of fresh mint leaves that brighten the flavor. Even the breadcrumbs are homemade — a simple pulsing of white bread in a food processor.

The broth, too, is the result of simple technique, but unlike a basic chicken broth, the addition of chipotle chilies in adobo and tomato paste adds a zing of flavor. Be sure to wait to add the kale until the broth is finished. That will let the leaves gently wilt but still keep some nice texture.

The inevitable New Year’s resolution of eating more healthfully usually involves salad. And somehow that often feels like punishment. But Cruz’s composed Citrus Salad is so gorgeous — with its brilliant reds and oranges — and her Cilantro Lime Sauce dressing so powerfully bright that it will feel like an indulgence. It’s marvelously easy and quick to prepare: just sliced oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, along with bursts of red onion, cilantro and mint over a bed of spicy arugula, and topped with that dressing.

Cruz is a brilliant sauce maker — and there are at least 30 in her new cookbook — so keep this one and her Orange Coconut Chili Oil that accompanies her sea bass dish below in your back pocket, or more literally in your refrigerator, to add to all sorts of dishes. The Cilantro Lime Sauce has all of four ingredients: fresh chopped cilantro, fresh lime juice, olive oil and salt. If it’s bitter (that can happen with cilantro), she said, just add a touch of honey to fix it. Drizzle on the citrus salad, but also over roasted vegetables, fish or chicken. Or use it as a marinade.

So, let’s talk about that Pepita-Crusted Sea Bass. Cruz gets most of her seafood from friend Dan Nattrass’ shop, Fishbone, in Liberty Public Market. If sea bass isn’t available, no worries. You can make this dish with any other fish — or even chicken or a thin pork loin chop. But the fish is divine and feels so light that you’ll crave this version. The “breading” is roasted and crushed pumpkin and sunflower seeds, along with coarse salt. Don’t overdo the pulsing of the seeds; you want texture here. Dredge the sea bass fillets in a shallow bowl of the seed mixture after rubbing them with oil. Then you’ll sauté them fairly briefly before putting them in the oven to finish cooking. Once they come out, you’ll drizzle the fish with what may be the best component of the whole dish — the Orange Coconut Chili Oil.

This is a two-step condiment — and if you like orange chili oil on its own, you can even stop here. It’ll last in the fridge for a couple of months and is something you can use on a variety of dishes or as a dip. But for this dish, take that extra step. First, you’ll combine orange zest with dried chili flakes, garlic and a good-quality vegetable oil, along with sesame oil, in a saucepan and slowly heat it for about 10 minutes. Cool and save. To make the sauce, whisk together your orange chili oil with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar and coconut milk. The result is a multidimensional, tangy dressing perfect for the sea bass but also guaranteed to have you eating salads daily.

Golden is a San Diego freelance food writer and blogger.

Citrus Salad With Arugula

and Cilantro Lime Sauce

Serves 4

1 navel orange

1 pink grapefruit

1 blood orange (if in season; otherwise more citrus)

1 tangerine

3 cups baby arugula, washed and dried

¼ small red onion, thinly sliced

¼ cup cilantro, chopped

¼ cup fresh mint, chopped and whole for garnish

Cilantro Lime Sauce (recipe follows)

Finishing salt of your choice, such as Maldon sea salt (optional)

Remove the peel, white pith and seeds from the orange, grapefruit, blood orange and tangerine and discard. Slice the citrus into ¼-inch rounds. On a large platter, lay arugula and top with all citrus, red onion, cilantro and mint. Drizzle with Cilantro Lime Sauce. Salt to taste.

Note: An easy way to cut the citrus is to slice off the top and bottom ends of the fruit. Place a flat end on a cutting board and, using a chef ’s knife, cut away the peel from top to bottom, removing as much of the white pith as possible. Slice into wheels and half wheels.

Cilantro Lime Sauce

Makes 1 cup

¾ cup chopped cilantro

¼ cup lime juice

½ cup olive oil

Salt to taste

Combine cilantro and lime juice in blender or small food processor. Purée on low while pouring in the olive oil in a steady stream.

Blend until combined. Add salt to taste. Best used the day made.

Note: Sometimes cilantro will have a slightly bitter taste. If this is happening, just add a bit of honey, and the honey will fix it.

Pepita-Crusted Sea Bass With Coconut Chili Oil

Serves 4

½ cup roasted pumpkin seeds

½ cup roasted sunflower seeds

1 teaspoon salt (coarse salt works best here)

4 (6-ounce) sea bass fillets (or other fish), skin removed

Olive oil

Orange Coconut Chili Oil (recipe follows)

Pulse pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and salt in blender or food processor. Cruz says she likes a nutty texture, so don’t pulse too long. The longer you pulse, the closer you’ll get to a powder, which you don’t want.

Place pepita salt mix in a shallow dish. Rub the sea bass with oil, dredge the fillets in the pepita-salt mix, and gently press to get a nice coating. Repeat on opposite side. Set pepita-crusted sea bass fillets on a plate.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 1/8-inch olive oil in a cast-iron pan or large sauté pan over medium heat. Place the sea bass fillets in the hot pan. Brown for about 2 minutes on each side, then transfer to oven and bake until opaque throughout, about 5 minutes, more or less, depending on how thick your fish is.

Transfer to desired serving container. Serve over rice or the Citrus Salad. Drizzle Orange Coconut Chili Oil over fish and rice.

Orange Coconut Chili Oil

This recipe takes two steps. You can use the Orange Chili Oil as a condiment on its own. Adding the soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, brown sugar and coconut milk turns it into a luscious sauce.

Makes 1 cup


Zest from 3 large oranges, washed thoroughly before zesting

½ cup dried red chili flakes

1 large garlic clove, peeled and lightly smashed

1 cup vegetable oil (a good-quality corn or peanut oil works well)

½ cup sesame oil

Combine ingredients in a heavy, non-aluminum saucepan on medium-low heat. The goal is to heat the oil and ingredients slow and low and for the mixture to slightly bubble (if the bubbles get big, turn it off — you don’t want to burn the ingredients) for about 10 minutes. Adjust the heat accordingly. Remove from the heat and let stand until cool or overnight.

Transfer the oil and seasonings into a clean glass mason jar. Discard the garlic. If refrigerated, chili oil can last a couple of months.

Notes: Cruz suggests using organic oranges. If you don’t have a good zester, you can peel away the orange skin with a good peeler (try to leave as much of the white pith behind as possible) and finely mince.


¼ cup orange chili oil (stirred well so you get a good amount of the orange rind and chili flakes)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons brown sugar

½ can full-fat coconut milk

Whisk chili oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and brown sugar until combined. Slowly stir in the coconut milk. If properly refrigerated, sauce can last 3 days.

Turkey Albondigas

Serves 6


1 pound ground turkey, preferably white meat

2 cloves garlic

½ yellow onion, minced

2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

1 egg

½ cup breadcrumbs, preferably homemade (See note)

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup flour, for dredging

¼ cup vegetable oil, for frying


2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 chipotle chilies in adobo

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion, peeled and diced

5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 carrots, diced

2 celery stalks, diced

1 cup white wine

8 cups chicken stock

3 cups lacinato kale, chopped

Fresh mint, chopped, for garnish

¼ red onion, chopped, for garnish

Combine the first 7 meatball ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Use your hands to lightly form small meatballs, about 1 inch in diameter. Set the meatballs on a platter, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to cook. This can be done up to 1 day in advance.

For the broth, combine the tomato paste and chilies in a blender or food processor. Pulse and set aside. Heat olive oil in a stockpot over a medium-high flame. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots and celery. Continue cooking for a few minutes more, stirring well to coat the vegetables with the olive oil. Add the white wine and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato/chipotle mixture. Add the chicken stock and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

While the stock is simmering, lightly coat the meatballs with the flour. Heat the vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over a medium flame. Add the meatballs in batches until cooked through, about 5 minutes. When the meatballs have browned, transfer the cooked meatballs into the simmering broth. Stir in kale. Remove the pot from the heat.

Serve the soup steaming hot, topped with a sprinkling of chopped mint and red onion.

Note: To make Quick Homemade Bread Crumbs, place 4 slices of hearty white bread in a food processor and pulse to a fine crumb.

Recipes courtesy of Isabel Cruz, of Isabel’s Cantina and Coffee Cup.

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