Maricel Presilla’s Gran Cocina Latina is not just the most important cookbook to be published this year, I’m convinced it will also prove to be a culinary landmark of the 21st century. The fact that people of Hispanic or Latino origin are this country’s largest ethnic group was often mentioned during this most recent Presidential election. It’s a given that if you want to understand other cultures, the best way is through their food.
Presilla has written a veritable encyclopedia on the many cuisines and customs from all over Central and South America, based on almost 30 years of travel and research to unearth the secrets behind the vast array of flavors and cooking methods within Latin American cooking, which she describes in the first chapter as “the world’s first and greatest laboratory of intercontinental culinary ‘fusion.’”
And Presilla’s got the credentials to produce such an incredible tome. A Cuban by birth, she lived in Spain for several years before coming to the United States, where she got a doctorate in medieval Spanish history from New York University. But thank goodness Presilla didn’t stay in academia. She was so fascinated by food through her research that she eventually became a chef and co-owner of two restaurants in Hoboken, New Jersey: Zafra, a pan-Latin café, and Cucharamama, a more serious restaurant featuring what she describes as artisanal South American cooking. Her food is so good, she was named the Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region by the James Beard Foundation in 2012.
To say this 900-page book is encyclopedic might imply to some people that okay, it’s informative, but probably a bit dry and boring. Nothing could be further from the truth! Every time I open the book to a different page, I’m instantly absorbed and fascinated by the delightful and detailed story behind each recipe.
Take the topic of cultured cream. Students of Mexican cooking are familiar with crema, a slightly tangy cultured cream along the lines of French crème fraiche, but did you know that there’s a Venezuelan ripened milk, an Ecuadorian curd and whey, and a Central American ripened cream, similar to crema, but saltier and more fermented? Presilla knows what she’s talking about and explains it with real charm.
In my favorite chapter, ”The Layers of Latin Flavor,” Presilla takes us from adobo, through the intricacies of sofrito, Dominican recado, peppers, oils, loaf sugars, and cheese, ending in her take on Latin umami in the form of smoked shrimp and dried salted fish. Gorgeous color photos of food you want to dive into are sprinkled throughout the book.
If you want to be Latin food-literate, which is a timely trend that’s only going to grow, this is the must-have book of the year.