Learning about the food of Latin America from 'Gran Cocina Latina'

Last October, a few weeks before Superstorm Sandy pummeled the Jersey coast and New York, I went with two good friends on a field trip to Hoboken, N.J. One of those friends, China Millman (now living in Brooklyn), should be familiar to PG readers as the newspaper's former dining critic.

The reason I was going to Hoboken -- Frank Sinatra's birthplace -- was to dine at Cucharamama, a Pan-American restaurant co-owned by Maricel E. Presilla, cookbook author, chocolate and chile expert and Beard-Award winning chef. Her new book, the encyclopedic "Gran Cocina Latina: The Foods of Latin America" (53rd in the Saveur 100) had just arrived in my mailbox. To better understand the book, I needed to eat her food. I was glad my friends were with me, because we were able to taste many more dishes.

Our meal starred flaky, wood-fire-baked beef empanadas; meltingly-tender roasted ripe plantains; sauteed shrimp atop an unforgettable Panca chile, eggplant and green plantain mash; Ecuadorian fresh corn tamales; and roasted-pork ceviche-style with red onion, lime and yucca. About halfway through, Ms. Presilla joined us. She ordered more wonderful things for us to taste and dug into her own dinner. She'd just returned home from Amsterdam, where she'd been judging chocolate.

A petite woman, she always wears high heels and a big smile. She has unbounded energy, which explains the years of scholarship and testing that went into creating this book.

Ms. Presilla is a native of Cuba. She traveled throughout Central and South America, doing research, collecting recipes, meeting local cooks, wandering through markets and accepting sound restaurant advice from taxi drivers, whom she thanks in the book's dedication.

She writes: "I traveled from village to village, from country to country allowing each place to leave its mark on me, as I did on it."

Cucharamama, her restaurant where we enjoyed so much fine food, was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy. River water flooded deep into Hoboken and cars floated through the streets. Cucharamama and Ms. Presilla's other restaurant, Zafra, have since reopened, as has the PATH train, the public-transit lifeline to Hoboken. The same storm slammed the island of Cuba as well, damaging her hometown, tearing the roof off her grandmother's house.

Cucharamama translates as "mother spoon," referring to a large spoon used in Ecuador to stir thick soups. To Ms. Presilla it symbolizes the strength of Latin American women "[the] kitchen matriarchs who rule with their pots... Their cooking is the magnet that draws the family together and brings them home again and again. These grandmothers and mothers are skilled at making the special comfort foods -- the laborious, painstaking dishes that take hours to make and everyone loves."

In the restaurant, vibrant large paintings lined the walls. Painted by her father, renowned artist, muralist and sculptor Isamel Espinosa. He died at age 92 in South Florida, just after her book was published. The book also is dedicated to her parents.

Throughout the book, you'll find culinary tales and history, careful instructions and detailed information about such things as chiles, kitchen equipment, kitchen superstitions and Latin American vegetables. There are recipes for authentic dishes and innovations along with the chef's personal creations. Perhaps like me, you'll not know which recipe to make first. Ms. Presilla gives each dish life, setting the table for you (very important in Latin American households), offering suggestions for sides, condiments and a complementary beverage, which could be tequila.

I'm stuck in the beginning of a chapter titled Squashes, Corn, Quinoa, and Beans. To help identify the squashes, there are illustrations and Latin names. As a gardener, I'm very excited about these recipes, which have to wait until the Cucurbita Pepo (summer squash, zucchini and winter squashes) can be planted and ripen. Then I'll prepare Presilla's Summer Squash in Tomato Broth with Almond, Sesame and Chile de Arbol Sauce.

But to use this book properly, you should start at the beginning, where she details the building blocks of Latin food. The first step, before cooking, is to add the flavor base: the adobo. Basically a marinade or aromatic spice rub, it might also be used as a cooking medium. Ms. Presilla often begins crushing seasonings, including allspice, with cloves of garlic in a mortar with a pestle. She adds the juice of bitter oranges, "for moisture and tang." An adobo can be more liquid, or more paste-like; some are spiked with chiles or herbs. That's where you start, rubbing it into the meat or fish or soaking the meat or fish in the mixture. (Most of the time.)

The next step is preparing the sofrito, or "the second layer." In the most general terms, it's sauteed onion and garlic. From this base, in most cases, the cooking sauce is prepared. She writes:

"This simple saute is the first stage in making a cooking sauce that will gain flavor from peppers, tomatoes, herbs, coconut milk, spirits, fermented liquids, such as vinegar, and/or cheese." To this you add the seasoned meat or fish and cook.

The "final layer of taste" is the condiment or a table sauce that's served with the finished food. Something to "wake up the flavor." Condiments can be as simple as a lime wedge, sliced tomatoes and onion, or a spoonful of Mexican crema. Some condiments may require a bit more preparations, such as pico de gallo, (what we think of as "salsa" yet salsa simply means sauce). Condiments also include relishes such as vinegared slaw and pickled peppers and onions. Table sauces might be Cuban mojos, with garlic and bitter orange; Argentinean chimichurri; mayonnaise-based sauces, often with garlic or chiles; or sauces based on peanuts and/or seeds.

The recipes below are merely a tasting from the book. To whet your appetite, to start you on your own journey. As Maricel Presilla tells it, they are "earthy, intensely flavored dishes that keep you reaching for more."

Picadillo Cubano Mi Casa

PG tested

So good I wished I'd doubled the recipe. Ms. Presilla calls it Cuban Ground Beef Hash and serves it over white rice with a spoonful of black beans. More traditional accompaniments are fried plantains or 2 fried eggs.

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (I added a tablespoon more)

  • 10 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

  • 1 medium red bell pepper, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

  • 1 medium green bell pepper, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)

  • 10 Caribbean small sweet peppers (ajies dulces) or 1 cubanelle pepper, finely chopped

  • 1 pound ground chuck or top round

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 6 medium plum tomatoes, about 1 pound, peeled, seeded and finely chopped

  • 1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped or 1 teaspoon cayenne or crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

  • 1/3 cup dark raisins

  • 12 pimiento-stuffed olives, thinly sliced

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine, preferably Latin American vino seco

  • 4 tablespoons tomato puree

Heat oil in large, heavy, deep skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 20 seconds (mine took a little longer). Add onion and cook until soft, 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Add red, green and Caribbean peppers (or cubanelle pepper) and cook 2 more minutes. Stir in beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.

Add bay leaves, oregano, cumin and allspice; stir to combine and cook 1 minute. Add tomatoes and jalapeno or cayenne, if using, and cook until tomatoes have softened, about 5 minutes. Add raisins, olives, salt and cilantro. Pour in wine and tomato puree, stir well and reduce heat to low. Discard bay leaves and taste for seasoning, adding more salt, or a pinch more cumin or allspice if necessary.

Cover and simmer 20 minutes, until meat has absorbed its juices and is plump.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America" by Maricel E. Presilla (Norton, 2012, $45)

Shrimp in Spicy Peruvian Pepper Sauce (Picante de Camarones)

PG tested

To purchase the chile peppers, go to La Reyna. They carry dried panca peppers. They have mirasol peppers as well, but these are sold frozen or in a paste. I used all dried ones, but if you get the frozen, use 3 or 4, depending on size. Defrost them and remove the seeds, then add them to the simmering water for the last 5 minutes, until tender and proceed as directed. This was superb and it's not fiery-hot at all, just amazingly flavorful. Serve over rice.

For the shrimp

  • 2 pounds small shrimp, thawed if frozen, peeled and deveined (I used medium shrimp and cooked them a little longer)

  • 1 kosher teaspoon salt

For the cooking sauce

  • 4 dried panca peppers (about 3/4 ounce)

  • 4 dried mirasol peppers (about 3/4 ounce)

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped

  • 1 large red onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)

  • 4 large russet, Yukon Gold or Yellow Finn potatoes, (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 cup fish broth or low-sodium chicken broth

  • 1/4 cup Peruvian or Chilean pisco, grappa or dry vermouth (I used vermouth)

  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro leaves

  • 4 ounces creamy French sheep's milk feta crumbled (I used Bulgarian feta)

For shrimp: Place shrimp in large bowl and rub with salt.

For Peppers: Stem and seed peppers. Put in medium saucepan; cover with 4 cups water and boil until softened, about 15 minutes. Drain peppers; reserving 1/4 cup cooking liquid. Process in blender or food processor with reserved liquid until smooth.

For the Sauce: Heat oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and saute 20 seconds. Add onion and cook until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Pour in pepper puree; cook 5 minutes, stirring. Add potatoes, cumin and salt and cook, stirring until ingredients are well integrated, about 1 minute.

Add broth and pisco and bring to a gentle boil. Lower heat, cover and simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 15 to 18 minutes, stirring often and adding a touch of water if it gets dry. Add shrimp and cook for 2 minutes (mine were medium and took about 6 minutes. Add cilantro and feta and stir to mix. Serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

-- Adapted from "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America" by Maricel E. Presilla (Norton, 2012, $45)

Jicama Sticks with Chile and Lime

Ms. Presilla likes to serve these with a shot of aged tequila. When looking for jicama, she suggests you choose medium-sized ones that are dense. Peel them like a carrot, with a vegetable peeler.

  • 1 pound jicama, peeled

  • Juice of 2 limes (about 1/4 cup)

  • Juice of 1/2 bitter orange (about 1 tablespoon) or regular orange juice

  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground dried chile, cayenne or red pepper flakes

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped cilantro (optional)

  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar (only if the jicama is very fresh and firm)

Cut jicama lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices, then cut slices into 1/2-inch-wide sticks. Place in medium bowl and toss with remaining ingredients. Arrange in small 2-ounce tequila shot glasses, standing up like breadsticks, and moisten with the juices of the marinade.

Makes 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America" by Maricel E. Presilla (Norton, 2012, $45)

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.


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