Lorena Garcia: Chef Of The Week (RECIPE)

Latinos love food. Lorena Garcia is no exception.

Born and raised in Venezuela, Chef Lorena Garcia has made a name for herself in the U.S. with guest appearances on "The Biggest Loser" and "The Next Great American Restaurant" and, of course, as a judge on "Top Chef."

If not for Garcia's passion for food, she might be serving up heated arguments in a courtroom. She switched from legal studies to culinary school when she arrived to Miami, taking up culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University.

Now Garcia is one of the best-known Latina chefs in the country.

She has traveled the globe, developing and defining her cooking style as "modern Latin with a global twist." She has helped launch two restaurants in Miami: Food Cafe and Elements Tierra. A Lorena Garcia Cocina Restaurant recently opened at Miami International Airport, exposing her particular culinary brand to world travelers.

She has also joined the fight against childhood obesity with the program "Big Chef, Little Chef," which promotes healthy eating to reduce the health crisis among children.

"Knowledge is power," Garcia said. "Families are very willing to implement changes once they are given the tools and motivation to do so. This is why I have continued with the program for so many years, it is so fulfilling to me."

Garcia is working on her second cooking series for Utilisima network that will air nationally in 2012. She's also developing several recipes for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation that will roll out in public schools nationwide.

HuffPost LatinoVoices talked to Garcia about food, her favorite chefs and her plans for Thanksgiving.

What inspired you to become a chef?

I was born in Caracas, Venezuela and, when I came to the United States, I realized that being a chef was a career. I decided to follow my passion and enrolled in culinary school in order to pursue a venture that I wasn't able to do back home.

What are your favorite foods to cook? Which dishes are your biggest challenges and why?

I love to cook dishes that are from my culture, especially the foods I grew up with, like the rustic traditional dishes found in Venezuela. The foods I find most challenging are cuisines I have had little exposure to, such as Indian cuisine. The flavor profiles and techniques used are unfamiliar to me.

Who are your favorite chefs and why?

I have respect for a lot of chefs, Michelle Bernstein, Curtis Stone, Michael Symon and Bobby Flay, amongst others. The passion of cooking is at the forefront for these individuals first, before the glitz of TV.

If you weren't a chef, what else would you be?

I honestly think that I would be an elementary school teacher. I love children and I love to teach ... but my passion in life is food, which is why I chose to become a chef.

What are your plans for Thanksgiving?

I plan on keeping Thanksgiving simple this year. I will make dinner for an intimate group of family and friends. On the menu is pistachio crusted turkey breasts and my brown rice with cranberries and cilantro.

What are some of your favorite Thanksgiving recipes? Any Thanksgiving memories that hit close to home?

I love Thanksgiving classics like stuffing, which I make with cornbread instead of regular breadcrumbs, rice that is dressed up with unique ingredients and a delicious dessert to end the meal, like bread pudding and pecan pie. I get so much joy from smelling delicious baked goods from the oven, teaching my niece and nephew how to prepare thanksgiving dinner, and shopping for holiday center pieces. One of my favorite memories of Thanksgiving is seeing my nephew Carlos' face looking at all of the amazing food. It's his favorite meal that I make the entire year!

Her new cookbook, "New Latin Classics: Fresh Ideas on Favorite Dishes," was published this fall. It offers more than 100 30-minute recipes and tips on stocking a pantry. She dedicates the book to her mother and "all of the Latin Americans who have come to this country, fallen in love, and are proud to be called Americans."

Recipe: Butternut Squash, Coconut and Lemongrass Soup

Whipping this soup in the blender adds body and makes the naturally creamy butternut squash puree even lighter. For an extra hit of coconut flavor, add 1/2 cup shaved unsweetened coconut to the blender along with the soup (strain the soup after pureeing for a super smooth texture).

Large Butternut Squash, peeled, halved, seeded, and chopped into 1-inch pieces

1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tablespoon Unsalted Butter
2 Large yellow onions, chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 Carrots, sliced crosswise into 1-inch lengths
2 Celery stalks, sliced crosswise into 1-inch lengths
2 Leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
2 Lemongrass Stalks, trimmed
1 Large Zucchini, trimmed, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise into 1-inch lenghts
2 Bay leaves
1 cup Dry White Wine (such as pinot grigio)
5 cups Chicken Stock or Vegetable Broth
1 Bunch Fresh Cilantro, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon Toasted, Shredded Coconut (optional)
1 15-Ounce can of Coconut Milk.

Preheat oven to 400F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Place the butternut squash on the prepared baking sheet, season with the salt and paper, and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Roast until lightly caramelized and a paring knife easily slides into a piece of squash, about 1 hour. Remove the squash from the oven and set aside to cool.

Melt the butter with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, leeks, lemongrass, zucchini, bay leaves and roasted squash and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables soften and turn golden brown around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes.

Pour in the white wine and bring to a boil, stirring and scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Once the wine is mostly evaporated, pour in the chicken stock and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until all the vegetables are soft, 10 to 12 minutes. Turn off the heat and discard the lemongrass and the bay leaves. Set the soup aside to cool for 20 minutes.

Transfer one-half of the vegetables and broth to a blender jar. Cover and pulse a few times to release the steam. Add one-half of the coconut milk and puree the mixture until it’s completely smooth.

Transfer the soup to a clean pot. Repeat with the remaining vegetables and broth, and coconut milk.

Bring the soup back to a simmer over high heat, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat. Divide the soup among eight bowls and serve sprinked with cilantro and toasted coconut (if using).

Lorena Garcia's Growing Empire