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Today: LucyS takes on a great tome of Latin American food.
If you want to know literally everything about Latin American food from all corners of the Caribbean, Central and South America, or if you want to wander to the farthest corners of your city to track down masa and dried peppers from a tiny bodega with no English labels -- if you want to surround your kitchen with the smells of chili and cumin and lime, slabs of very fresh fish and slow-cooked pork ribbons, then this is the book for you. But it is an undertaking.
I tried to start small with Gran Cocina Latina, but I soon realized that starting small is not an option. It took me a few hours of wading through its 900 pages to find a place to start; there is such an incredible wealth of information, history, and food that it’s hard to know where to begin. Maricel E. Presilla has 20 chapters, ranging from specific types of dishes (tamales, empenadas) to ingredients (squashes, rice, meats). It’s fascinating, but it can be overwhelming, especially for a cook who is not extremely familiar with the techniques of Latin American cooking. For example, when I wanted to make tacos, I spent about an hour combing through recipes before landing on one to make (though the results – Michoacán-style pork tacos, pico de gallo, Venezuelan chunky avocado sauce, and Veracruzan refried bean dip – were delicious). The recipes themselves tend toward the involved and elaborate. This can be great fun -- but also confusing.
Ingredients pose another challenge. Perhaps it is just me and my tendency to crave something and want to make it now, but I was frustrated at times by finding a recipe I wanted to try and later realizing that I would have to wait until I could order spices online or trek to my Mexican grocery. This is, of course, the nature of authentic Latin American cooking, and I appreciated knowing exactly what would produce the best results. Still, the inclusion of more alternative techniques and ingredients would have been appreciated.
That being said, the food produced is wonderful. The pork tacos I made were simultaneously bright, rich, and immensely porky. My favorite recipe was braised fish in coconut milk in the style of Bahia, which is fresh and creamy and spicy and which I have made twice in the last month. For a pre-review finale I decided to try tamales, so I combined recipes for Cuban style fresh corn tamales and Guatemalan white corn cheese tamales. This was another challenge, and another place where alternatives for hard-to-find ingredients might have been useful. I improvised, though, and the recipes are such that even when hybridized, they turn out amazingly rich, moist, and flavorful.
This is a beautiful and extremely rich book. The only problem is in navigating it.
Have you spent some time in the kitchen with this book? What is your take?
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