Chef and culinary historian Maricel Presilla owns two restaurants and has written many cookbooks. But her newest book, Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, is her attempt to give fans a heaping helping of the many cultures she blends into her world.
"It's my whole life," she tells Morning Edition host David Greene. "There are recipes there of my childhood, things that I remember my family, my aunts doing. But also things that I learned as I started to travel Latin America."
Greene recently invited Presilla into his kitchen to whip up a batch of yuca fries with cilantro sauce, a dish served in many Cuban restaurants. The fries are authentic, but the now-common sauce isn't, Presilla says. "It's my recipe," she told Greene, created while she was a consultant for Victor's Cafe in the 1980s in New York and Miami.
Inspired by an Indian cilantro chutney, she created an aioli with garlic and cilantro to accompany yuca fries on the restaurant menu. "Everybody who tries that thinks it is a traditional Cuban recipe when, in reality, Cubans don't like cilantro that much," she says.
You don't often get yuca fries without the green stuff on the side these days — at least not in the U.S.
As the pair prepared Presilla's famous sauce, Greene asked her about the value of sitting while cooking, something she calls the "Zen of the Latin kitchen."
Presilla says chores like making tamales or grating coconut don't require standing up. "So you can sit down. You can even lie down in a hammock." (We'd like to see that one!)
She writes in her book that this Zen comes in part from the time when the floor was the chief work space for cooks, but it can also be "a realistic way of coping with the time-consuming demands of artisanal Latin cuisines." That leisurely way of cooking can even be seen in some restaurants. Presilla visited one in Cartagena, Colombia, and found the female cooks sitting at a large table and chatting as they grated coconut.
But she does stand while she chops onions "because we're doing something with a knife."
She and Greene also work on a recipe she discovered in Ecuador, a spicy onion and tamarillo salsa that is call ají, or "pepper," in the town of Cuenca. The dish calls for sliced onions, but when Presilla was visiting a friend's mother, a woman well-versed in traditional Cuenca food, she discovered she was doing it wrong.
In her book, Presilla writes that she had been slivering the onion finely but was told "they should be good and thick, a style popularized in Cuenca by a woman who owned a successful shop called La Gorda de los Sandwiches," which translates as "the fat woman of the sandwiches."
To write her encyclopedic tome, Presilla traveled across Latin America. "I went looking for housewives and street vendors and just regular home cooks," she tells Greene.
And she found a cuisine that is quickly changing. "There's creativity and there's new classics being created every day," she says. And in the U.S., "all Latin cultures are coming together," she notes. "It's really unavoidable that sooner or later you're going to start learning from your neighbor."
But the differences between cuisines aren't as large as some might assume, Presilla says. "If you look at the sofrito, the cooking sauce that is the foundation of our cooking, well, the woman from Cartagena gets a grater, and she grates the onions. While in Cuba, we chop everything finely. And in Puerto Rico, well, she would put everything in a blender," she says. "But in the end, we all have the same elements of culture."
"If you look at the origin of the majority of these things...you realize that they all go back to medieval Spain," she says. "It's a common DNA."
Recipes adapted from Gran Cocina Latina
Ecuadorian Spicy Onion And Tamarillo Salsa
Ecuadorian highlanders make table sauces and cebiches with the yellow tamarillo, an Andean fruit they call tomate de arbol, or tree tomato. They usually reserve the red variety, which reaches them from Colombia, for dessert.
Makes 4 cups
4 fresh or frozen tamarillos (about 1 pound), preferably yellow
1 large red onion (12 ounces), halved and cut lengthwise into 1/4 to 1/2 inch slices
1 tablespoon salt
Juice of 2-3 large limes (about 1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferably extra-virgin olive oil
2 Ecuadorian hot peppers, or serrano or cayenne peppers, seeded, deveined and finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
Salt to taste
Cut a small cross on the tip of each tamarillo. In a medium saucepan, bring 1 quart water to a boil. Add the tamarillos and cook for one minute for fresh tamarillos, 10 minutes for frozen. Drain. Peel the tamarillos and coarsely mash with a fork. You should have about 1 1/4 cups. Set aside.
Place the onion and salt in a medium bowl. Add tap water to cover, stir and allow the onion to stand for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with your hands.
Place the onion in a colander, rinse under cold running water and drain thoroughly. Place in a medium bowl, toss with the lime juice, and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in the tamarillo pulp, along with the rest of the ingredients. Serve at room temperature.
Yuca Fingers With Cilantro Sauce 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
Boil the yuca in 3 quarts of water with salt in a 4-quart saucepan. Reduce heat to medium and cook at a gentle boil until soft but not falling apart, about 30 minutes. 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 waxed paper and arrange the yuca fingers on it in a single layer. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or waxed paper and refrigerate until chilled and firm, preferably overnight. (The yuca can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 days before frying.)
Heat the oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit 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 Creamy Cilantro Sauce Presilla (recipe follows).
Creamy Cilantro Sauce Presilla
Yield 2 cups
2 cups mayonnaise
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup well-packed cilantro leaves, washed and dried
1 serrano or jalapeno pepper, seeded, deveined and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 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. (You may need less salt if you use prepared mayonnaise.)