For at least the last decade, one of the most-talked-about cookbooks has been one that hadn’t yet been published. “When is Maricel’s book coming out?” was a constant topic at gatherings of food writers. It seemed an unbeatable idea: a cookbook that covered the breadth of Latin American cooking, by an author, Maricel Presilla, who is not only an award-winning chef, but also knows how to do serious research (she has a doctorate in history).
Finally, “Gran Cocina Latina” has arrived and it looks to be worth the wait. I say “looks to be” because it’s going to take me a while to get a handle on the book. It’s a massive undertaking – describing the various traditions of Latin American cooking from the southern tip of Argentina to the Rio Grande. And it’s a massive book – fully 900 pages of recipes, photos and discussion.
Presilla, who runs Zafra and Cucharamama restaurants in Hoboken, N.J., has taken on as her mission discovering and replicating the true roots of home cooking in the various Latin American traditions – dishes that are made without the compromises brought about by adaptation and substitution.
Interestingly, rather than structure the book by country, Presilla does it by type of dish, arguing that there are broad similarities that defy geography. These she attributes to a few central influences, shared among nationalities. As she puts it in her introduction, “no matter how far I traveled to find Latin dishes, I kept finding medieval Spain.” She found the same around the Caribbean with influences from Africa.
All in all, it’s an awe-inspiring work and one that I predict will keep me – and a lot of other cooks – busy in the kitchen for years to come.
“Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America,” by Maricel Presilla, Norton, $45.