Part historian, part chef, Maricel Presilla authors the new “bible” of Latin cuisine

Maricel Presilla is not your average cook, and so it stands to reason that her newest book, Gran Cocina Latina, is not even close to your average cookbook. More than a chef—she’s a James Beard Foundation award-winner with two acclaimed restaurants (Cucharamama and Zafra) in Hoboken, NJ—Presilla is a historian, a scholar, a world traveler, a graceful writer and, above all, a nostalgic romantic when it comes to the magic that happens in Latin kitchens around the world. All of this is on full, lyrical display in her 900-page tome featuring more than 500 recipes, released this month. “Latin kitchens,” she muses in one of the opening sections, “are as varied in their contours as Latin women.” She adds: “No other room of the Latin house is so shaped by history.”

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Maricel Presilla, master chef and historian, is author of the new Gran Cocina Latina, her opus magnum. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

Presilla is Cuban-born, her earliest cooking memories tied to a pre-revolutionary Cuba and then to the Florida and New Jersey kitchens where, like so many immigrants, she kept her beloved island alive through platters of rice and beans and tamales. But it was in the seaside villages and cosmopolitan cities of South and Central America, in the pueblos of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic—every Hispanic country to which she traveled over the course of the last 30 years—that she became the culinary authority she is today. Her book, the third she’s written, chronicles these travels, sharing delightful stories of the Latin cooks who lovingly invite her into their kitchens, from indigenous circular huts, called rukas, in southern Chile to professional catering outfits in Bogotá to tiny timbiriches in Perú, and teach her their most treasured, authentic ways of putting food on the table.

But beyond the recipes and techniques, beyond an impressive guide to the essential tools of a Latin kitchen (think molcajetes, calderos, comales, tostoneras and things even an experienced Latina cook may have never heard of), beyond entire chapters on rice, empanadas, tamales and cebiches, Presilla offers history, geography, anthropology and, yes, even a little mysticism. A whole section is devoted to the superstitions that exist in Latin kitchens, the kinds that cause cooks to sprinkle salt or pour lime juice in the shape of a cross so as to ensure a dish is warded of evil. “The point is that if you think ingredients are inanimate objects, to be impersonally manipulated, you can cook a Latin dish efficiently enough,” she writes, “but you won’t be inside the right frame of reference unless you can imagine that the food is alive, listening and feeling in your company.”

Gran Cocina Latina is a first-of-its kind effort, a book (some have called it a Bible)  that sets out to truly tell the story of Hispanic cooking, of our ingredients, of what Spanish and Portuguese speaking kitchens have in common, of the women (and occasionally the men) who through the ages have governed the nourishment of our bodies, souls, cultural identities. Indeed, just about every dish has a story, a person, a family behind it. As so many U.S. Latinos, immigrants as much as second and third generations and beyond, already know: comida criolla is more than just traditional ingredients on a plate. It’s an expression of who we are, where we come from. “To cook this food,” Presilla writes, “is to help knit the fabric of the family.”

In the book’s opening acknowledgements, Presilla thanks her parents “for feeding my curiosity, and making me believe even someone born on an island could eat the world.” Just what you’ll want to do after reading this book.

NBC Latino caught up with Presilla last week at the Culinary Institute of America’s Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference. A member of the CIA’s Latin Cuisines advisory board, Presilla was there to launch her book and, this time, invited us into her kitchen to share one of her favorite rice dishes, an easy one-pot creamy, cheesy concoction (arroz con palmitos) with the classic Puerto Rican spicy salsita called ajilimójili. Check out the video of her making it, plus the recipes below.

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Baked rice with hearts of palm (Photo/Betty Cortina)

Baked rice with hearts of palm (arroz con palmitos)

5 cups cooked white rice

4 scallions, white and pale green parts, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 1/2 cups light tomato sauce (recipe follows) or canned tomato sauce

1/2 cup Mexican crema or creme fraiche

1 cup grated Monterrey Jack cheese (about 4 ounces)

1/4 cup plus 1 T freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Two 14-ounce cans hearts of palm, drained and cut into 1/4-inch rounds (about 3 1/2 cups)

2 T butter

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degree F. Butter an 8-by-10-inch glass baking dish.

2. In a large bowl, combine the rice, scallions, tomato sauce, crema, Monterrey Jack cheese and 1/4 cup of the Parmigiano. Gently mix in the hearts of palm, taking care not to break them.

3. Spoon the rice mixture into the baking dish. Dot with the butter and sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano.

4. Bake for 20 minutes. Unmold onto a decorative platter and serve. Makes 8 servings.

Puerto Rican-style ají dulce sauce (ajilimójili)

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Puerto Rican-style ají dulce sauce (Photo/Betty Cortina)

12 Caribbean sweet peppers (ajíes dulces)

1 cubanelle pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1/2 Scotch Bonnet or habanero chile, seeded

7 garlic cloves, peeled

1 small yellow onion (about 5 ounces), coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)

1 cup extra-virgen olive oil

1/3 cup distilled white vinegar

1 bunch cilantro, leaves stripped from the stems (about 2 cups)

1 1/4 tsp salt, or to taste

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/4 tsp ground cumin

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and process to a coarse emerald-green sauce. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator,, tightly covered, for 2 to 3 days. Makes about 2 1/4 cups.

Light tomato sauce (salsa de tomate ligera)

3 T extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1 medium yellow onion (about 8 ounces), coarsely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

7 or 8 ripe medium plum tomatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds), cored and quartered, or drained canned tomatoes

2 flat-leaf parsley sprigs

4 thyme sprigs or 1/8 tsp dried thyme

1/2 tsp salt, or to taste

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

1. Heat the oil in a large (12-inch) skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until it ripples. Add the garlic and onion and sauté, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

2. Pass the sauce through a food mill. The food mill will render a smooth, seedless, full bodied sauce. Makes about 1 1/2 cup. (Keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week.)

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