Cookbook review

Presilla’s glorious ‘Gran Cocina Latina’ is an instant classic



Yuca Fingers with Cilantro Sauce Presilla (Yuquita Frita con Salsa de Cilantro a la Presilla)

I never imagined that my yuca fries with cilantro sauce would become as popular as they have. The result of my curious exploration of Latin tubers and dipping sauces in the early 1980s, the pairing is now served in Cuban restaurants all over the United States.

3 pounds fresh yuca, peeled and cut into 5-inch chunks, or 2 pounds frozen yuca

Corn oil or light olive oil, for deep-frying


Creamy Cilantro Sauce Presilla (see recipe)

Boil the yuca until soft but not falling apart. Drain in a colander and let cool. Cut the yuca lengthwise into 3- to 5-inch-long fingers about an inch thick, like french fries. Line a baking sheet with wax paper and arrange the yuca fingers on it in a single layer. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate until chilled and firm, preferably overnight.

Heat the oil to 350 degrees in a large saucepan or deep skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, add the yuca fingers a few at a time to the hot oil and turn until lightly golden on all sides. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Serve at once with the sauce. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

What to Drink: Mojito, daiquiri on the rocks or a floral Susana Balbo Crios Torrontes from Mendoza, Argentina.

Source: Adapted from “Gran Cocina Latina” by Maricel E. Presilla.

Per serving (without sauce): 288 calories (4 percent from fat), 1.4 g fat (0.2g saturated, 0.2g monounsaturated), 0 cholesterol, 2.3 g protein, 66.4 g carbohydrates, 8 g fiber, 18 mg sodium.


Peruvian Warm Purple Potato and Squash Salad with Olive Oil and Paprika Dressing (Ensalada Tibia de Papas Moradas y Calabaza con Aceite de Oliva y Pimentón)

I first made this terrific salad on a day when my friend Harold McGee, the food science writer, came to visit bearing a jar of olive oil from Northern California. It was a first-press oil from green Mission olives, so fresh and peppery that its producer had named it “two-cough oil,” for the result when people tasted it. You won’t get the “two-cough” effect unless you have a very rambunctious young olive oil, but the salad will still be wonderful.

2 pounds purple potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 pounds calabaza (West Indian pumpkin) or butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes


1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon hot pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika)

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1⁄8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 small red onion (about 5 ounces), finely chopped (about 1 cup)

Place the potatoes and squash in separate saucepans, cover each with about 2 inches of water, and add 1 teaspoon salt to each pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook, covered, until tender but not mushy, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain. Meanwhile, to prepare the dressing, whisk together all the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Add salt to taste and whisk again. Combine the warm pumpkin and potatoes in a serving bowl. Toss gently with the dressing, and serve at once. Makes 6 servings.

Source: Adapted from “Gran Cocina Latina” by Maricel E. Presilla.

Per serving: 362 calories (47 percent from fat), 18.6 g fat (2.4 g saturated, 13 g monounsaturated), 0 cholesterol, 9.3 g protein, 38.6 g carbohydrates, 1.1 g fiber, 18.6 mg sodium.


Argentinean Chimichurri

I am infatuated with chimichurri, the infinitely adaptable sauce that Argentineans and Uruguayans serve with their grilled specialties. I like to use it as a table sauce for churrasco (grilled Argentinean skirt steak) and palomilla (a thin Cuban steak) and as a marinade for pork, chicken and lamb. I also like to toss penne or linguine with a couple of spoonfuls of chimichurri, or serve it hot or cold with grilled chicken.

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 large head garlic, separated into cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 tablespoon dried oregano, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup distilled white vinegar

1/2 cup safflower oil or extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Mix all the ingredients in a small bowl, or combine in a food processor and pulse to a coarse puree. Refrigerated, tightly covered, it will keep for 2 to 3 weeks. Whisk well before serving. Serve at room temperature. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.

Per tablespoon: 52 calories (95 percent from fat), 5.5 g fat (0.3 g saturated, 0.8 g monounsaturated), 0 cholesterol, 0 protein, 0.6 g carbohydrates, 0.2 g fiber, 117 mg sodium.

Uruguayan Variation: Though Uruguayans insist that their version is totally different, the two are in fact very similar. For 1 bunch parsley, use 1 head garlic, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 tablespoon crushed pepper red flakes, 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 1 cup corn oil or light olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste and 1 teaspoon white pepper.

Main Dish

Grilled Skirt Steak with Argentinean Chimichurri (Entraña con Chimichurri Argentino)

Skirt steak, popularly known as churrasco, is a staple of practically all local Latin restaurants, not just Argentine steak houses, and available in our area’s supermarkets. The savory green steak sauce chimichurri has also become a staple, with many cooks substituting cilantro for the traditional parsley, thus “creolizing” this recipe even more.

4 skirt steaks (about 1 pound each), trimmed

Coarse salt

Chimichurri (see recipe)

Light a grill or heat a broiler on medium-high heat. Season the steaks with salt and brush with some of the chimichurri sauce. Grill or broil the steaks about 4 inches from the source of heat for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until medium rare. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. If you wish, thinly slice the steaks across the grain at an angle before serving.

Bring to the table with a bowl of chimichurri. Serve with rice and beans or Peruvian Warm Purple Potato and Squash Salad (see recipe). Makes 8 servings.

Source: Adapted from “Gran Cocina Latina” by Maricel E. Presilla.

Per serving (without sauce): 371 calories (56 percent from fat), 23.2 g fat (9.2 g saturated, 10.7 g monounsaturated), 129 mg cholesterol, 40 g protein, 0 carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 127 mg sodium.


Creamy Cilantro Sauce Presilla (Salsa de Cilantro a la Presilla)

Indian cilantro chutney had caught my imagination on a trip to India, but I decided to turn it into a mayonnaise flavored with cilantro and my favorite spices, and of course garlic. The day I tried the recipe on Cuban and Indian friends, they almost drank it from the bowl.

2 cups mayonnaise, homemade or store-bought

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup (well-packed) cilantro leaves, washed and dried

1 serrano or jalapeño pepper, seeded, deveined and coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)

Salt to taste

Place the mayonnaise in a blender or food processor. Add the garlic, cilantro, hot pepper, cumin, allspice and oregano. Process until smooth and velvety. Season with the lime juice and salt to taste. If using a jarred mayonnaise, you might not need either since some brands are already tart and salty. Place in a bowl and serve with Yuca Fingers. Leftovers may be refrigerated, covered with plastic film, for a couple of days.

Source: Adapted from “Gran Cocina Latina” by Maricel E. Presilla.

Per tablespoon: 100 calories (97 percent from fat), 10.9 g fat (1.6 g saturated, 3.7 g monounsaturated), 5.2 mg cholesterol, 0.2 g protein, 0.6 g carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 78 mg sodium.

Meet the author

Maricel E. Presilla will appear at Miami Book Fair International at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 17 on a panel with “The Cuban Kitchen” author Raquel Rábade Roque (free) and at noon Nov. 18 in a cooking demonstration (free but ticket required);

In a seminal essay on the Latin American novel, Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier talked about “culinary context” as one of the essential elements of the region’s fiction. As in his own novels, Carpentier was reaching for that overarching component that made Latin America, well, Latin America.

Maricel E. Presilla titles the first chapter of her 902-page Gran Cocina Latina (Norton, $45), “What is Latin America?” The book is an ambitious work that encompasses all Latin American cooking, thus claiming that, say, Mexican pozole soup is of a piece with Ecuadoran ceviche. We are all in this together, Presilla is saying by the very act of writing this book, taking her cue from another Cuban compatriot, José Martí, who defined “America” as the parts of the hemisphere where Iberian, not Anglo-Saxon, languages are spoken.

And what is the binding element in “Our America,” as Martí called it? In a word, colonialism, the “common history” Presilla says has thrust us together, too often reluctantly.

There is a depth to this colonialism, as Presilla discovers in her culinary journeys. Though Spain rushed to claim its chunk of the Americas at the dawn of the 16th century, its attitude was not that of the Renaissance but of the Middle Ages. Thus, Presilla, a trained historian as well as a chef and restaurateur, finds Latin cooking medieval at heart. In specific techniques, yes, but also in attitude.

Slow food, a recent movement stateside, is business as usual in a Latin kitchen. Ripeness is all. The sensuality of flavor, what Latins call sabor, achieved by a required marinade ( adobo) for meats, an aromatic vegetable sauté ( sofrito) for main courses and labor-intensive procedures like scraping sweetener from a bar of raw sugar ( panela). This unique taste (which, like flavor, translates as sabor), created by time-intensive traditions and a loving relationship to them, is a legacy of the medieval.

But Iberian colonialism yielded another phenomenon. Criollo, the Spanish for Creole, meaning “from the soil,” is what Latin Americans call themselves and their culture. Thus, Presilla’s book could be called “Gran Cocina Criolla.” And criollo cuisine, like its New Orleans Creole cousin, is the happy amalgam of (Southern) European, Native American and African traditions. History is a horror show (just think of slavery), but sometimes forced marriages live happily ever after, in the kitchen if not the bedroom.

Presilla is offended when she hears traditional Latin American dishes “patronizingly pigeonholed as ‘hearty peasant food,’ ” for, as she notes, “the work that goes into them is stupendous.” Indeed, ask a Puerto Rican cook about making pasteles, a term that elsewhere means “pies,” but on the island names tamales made with malanga, green bananas, green plantains and calabaza. Pasteles are made at Christmas, and the process is as daunting as the judgment reserved for their worth by fastidious puertorriqueños.

Not everything is challenging. An Argentine churrasco calls for nothing but skirt steak and salt – the asado or parrillada it’s often a part of is more elaborate, though any backyard grill master will enjoy making it. And the provolenetta appetizer, offered at every Argentine steak house, requires just provolone cheese and oil.

Whether of mind-bending complexity or stark simplicity, the dishes found in this book will treat the initiate to wonderful new sensations of the palate, while instructing Latin cooks on the cooking of their neighbors or even the undiscovered secrets of their own national cuisine.

Presilla pairs her dishes with drink, often beer or wine from the region, and equally a nonalcoholic drink that may be the traditional accompaniment.

There are notes galore, tips on storing and personal anecdotes. Gran Cocina Latina is rich enough for those who enjoy the vicarious pleasure of reading culinary writing even if not following a recipe for tonight’s dinner. And in the best cookbook tradition, recipes are carefully detailed.

This is the right moment for this book, an instant classic that is destined to become the go-to text on the subject. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, intelligent in its history and recipes, beautifully laid out and illustrated, Gran Cocina Criolla satisfies curiosity about cultures and marvelous cuisines that are increasingly present beyond regional borders.

Not just in Miami, where Presilla is a contributor to The Miami Herald’s Food pages, but throughout the United States, there is a growing familiarity with Latin American food. This book will set the record straight for those acquainted with sometimes distorted versions of classic dishes. Want to make standards like a Cuban arroz con pollo or Argentine chimichurri steak sauce? Here are not just recipes, in their original splendor, but also contemporary adaptations. Presilla, like the good historian she is, knows that traditions are not static and that what we call “fusion” is an old and constant process, nowhere more so than in Latin cooking.

It will take years if not decades to cook one’s way through this glorious volume. And like any great cookbook, this one beckons two kinds of reading, with one eye on the page and the other on the stove. And intimately, at a comfortable reading spot. Yet, what could be more intimate than cooking? What other activity resembles lovemaking more in its lovely balance of focused attention and sensual abandon? Read. Cook. Savor.

Enrique Fernandez is a Florida writer.

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