Piglet Community Pick: Gran Cocina Latina

February 12, 2013

Read up on some of 2012's most-loved cookbooks, tested and reviewed by the one and only Food52 community.   

Today: LucyS takes on a great tome of Latin American food.

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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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Written by: LucyS


drbabs February 12, 2013
I reviewed this book, too, and I had a somewhat different experience, maybe because there's a Latin American grocery store about 4 miles from my house, and Latin American food is one of the few "foreign" cuisines that my husband likes, so I was somewhat familiar with the style and ingredients. The book is huge and can be unwieldy, but once you figure out how it's organized, I think it's relatively easy to decide what to make. (That said, it's true that there were several versions of each type of dish; I just chose what to make based on what ingredients I could get easily.) What I love about the book was that everything I make from it is absolutely wonderful. The directions are clear and easy to follow. The condiments she recommends add immensely to each dish's flavors. And I could substitute things I could get easily (commercial corn meal in place of ground fresh corn in the winter for example), and still make a great dish that we loved. And there are cool techniques that I use again and again--her method for making rice is easy and foolproof, and produces perfect non sticky grains every time. I didn't like the desserts I made--probably because she (and I guess lots of Latin Americans) uses sweetened condensed milk, which I found made everything cloyingly sweet. In my opinion, it is an interesting read, but it's an even better cookbook if you have access to the chiles and other ingredients she uses.
fiveandspice February 12, 2013
This is such a helpful review! Nicely done.
boulangere February 12, 2013
A very nicely written review. I appreciate that you describe both its heft and its thoroughness honestly, as well as the far-flung nature of ingredients. To me, it sounds as though it would be an interesting read, but not necessarily a good answer to "what shall I make tonight?" Thank you.
LucyS February 12, 2013
Thank you! I think that's a perfect summary.
hardlikearmour February 12, 2013
Nicely written review. The pork tacos you made sound amazing!
LucyS February 12, 2013
Thank you!
Greenstuff February 12, 2013
I have been waiting for this review! It's an amazing cookbook, both encyclopedic and personal. I'd love to take a course that used it for a text. That fish in coconut milk in the style of Bahia looks really good, easy to make, and won't require a special trek in search of ingredients. I think I'll make it tonight.
LucyS February 12, 2013
Ohmygosh do it. I really enjoyed it. I also made it with shrimp and that worked really well too.
Greenstuff February 13, 2013
Made it! Easy and delicious. Just a scratch of the surface of this huge book, but I was glad to plunge in.