Text & Instagram Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Back in early December, I read more than half a dozen cookbooks for gift round-up pieces on FOX News Latino and The Latin Kitchen. A couple of the cookbooks that made the cut were so good I thought they warranted some singled-out treatment.
By far, my favorite of the bunch was–no, is–Maricel Presilla’s Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. I feel about this book the way I feel about The Joy of Cooking: it’s an essential volume. For more than a decade, Joy has been my go-to cookbook, not just for recipes, but for conversions, substitutions, and decoding ingredients and techniques. It also does what so many cookbooks fail to do: provide context.
Gran Cocina Latina is to Latin American cuisine what Joy is to the North American kitchen, but even better because it’s an engaging read. Cuban-born Maricel Presilla, who owns two restaurants in Hoboken, New Jersey, brings a varied personal, academic, and professional history to Gran Cocina Latina; her experiences give the cookbook a breadth and depth that are unparalleled in English-language Latin American cookbooks.
Presilla has a PhD in medieval Spanish history, and her studies in that field were what sparked her interest in the transcontinental journeys of ingredients and the evolutions of foods that have come to signify entire countries and cultures: ajiaco in Colombia, arepas in Venezuela, moles in Mexico… and so on.
She brings that academic depth, then, but melds it with the impressive breadth of her experiences traveling in Latin America. It’s those experiences of standing at the sides of home and restaurant cooks that keep Gran Cocina Latina from being too dry; her appreciation for and admiration of the people from whom she has learned give the book life and carry over to the reader. I wanted to pack my cucharamama spoon and hit the road.
Besides the history and the human interest stories, Presilla provides pages and pages of essential information about ingredients, implements, and techniques. She does so in a way that’s equally accessible for the hobby cook who has little familiarity with Latin American cuisines and cultures and the pro chef who specializes in them. Though I hope I can keep it clean, I’m dubious I will; I’ve already hauled it to the kitchen several times for cooking-in-progress consults.
It’s amazing that W.W. Norton took a chance on this book. It’s massive, weighing in at almost 900 pages, and it’s $45.00, beyond the spending range of the impulse “That’s a pretty cover” cookbook shopper. And it’s also, despite North Americans’ growing interest in Latin food, still fairly niche. I hope their gamble pays off; it’s a fantastic book that deserves a wide and appreciative audience.