Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gran Cocina Latina

Chicken and corn made according to recipes from Gran Cocina Latina
Using indirect heat over aluminum drip pan
Mainly because of its historical content, I have been reading Maricel E. Presilla's gigantic and ambitious cookbook titled Gran Cocina Latina. By gigantic, I mean that it weighs close to 4 pounds, and has 900 pages. By ambitious, I mean it covers every culture and country in South and Central America, including pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern food history and hundreds of recipes. There's lots of emphasis on the author's native Cuba, but plenty about all the other countries as well.

After a couple of days of reading, I also wanted to taste. So for dinner tonight, I chose "Grilled 'Leaping Frog' Chicken" from Argentina (p. 665), a simple recipe for using a spice rub after flattening a whole chicken -- sometimes called butterflied, but the author depicts the final shape as frog-like. Her description of grilling was a bit sketchy, but we used the indirect heat technique that's worked for us before when doing whole chickens. I also followed her suggestion to steam or boil corn on the cob and then briefly finish it over the fire (p. 237). I served the corn and chicken with some sliced tomatoes with cilantro, an herb that often flavors South American and Mexican dishes.

I'm reading a copy from the public library.
It has the dust jacket.
I'm not finding the organization of the book to be satisfyingly clear. The first chapter is fine: it includes a necessary and highly enlightening discussion of cooking utensils and appliances. There's a wonderful description of women who sit on the floor to prepare food and of how an old-fashioned cook can dice an onion one layer at a time. Presilla is completely convincing that the result of using a box grater or a mortar and pestle can be very different from using an electric appliance for similar prep. (Alas, today I smashed both my mortar and pestle while crushing the garlic for the spice rub -- this hasn't ever happened in the 30 years or so I've owned it. Guess I'll have to buy a new one.)

Next, several chapters deal with specific foods, such as "Table Condiments," "Tropical Roots and Starchy Vegetables," "Rice," and a couple of others. After these, several chapters deal with types of food like "Little Latin Dishes." There's an entire chapter on "Empanadas" followed by a series of chapters on other individual dishes or preparations like "Cebiches." After a while the book gets back to specific foodstuffs like salads, breads, fish, poultry, and meat. Finally there's "Dulce Latino."

Each chapter provides detailed descriptions of the varieties of each type of food: for example, a illustrated list of dozens of peppers, a description of many types of beans, or of various brands of rice (warning that if you change rice brands, you may need different amounts of water and different cooking times or methods). Very valuable historical, ethnic, agricultural, and social information about the foodstuffs and dishes are interspersed in these chapters. And of course, each chapter includes many traditional recipes, recipes from the author's friends or acquaintances, original recipes from her restaurant, and recipes from other sources. Reading through the book requires intense concentration to follow these many different trains of thought.

The information is so interesting and important, however, that I have found the patience to sit with this tome and carefully go through the narrative portions, as well as scanning through the recipes. (I'm about 2/3 done.) There's so much to think about in terms of the many cultures and historic influences. For example, there's a very traditional Cuban dish called "Moors and Christians;" that is, black beans and white rice. Consider this: the black beans in this dish are one of the key New World species -- we all know the trio of corn, beans and squash that natives of North and South America relied on. And the white rice...

In "Moors and Christians" the white rice represents the Christians, that is, Europeans, and it did definitely come from the Old World. Columbus brought rice and probably seeds for cultivating it on his second voyage. From at least 1515, Presilla writes, "rice was part of the Spanish settlement in the New World." Soon it grew on all the Spanish Caribbean islands, and the Spaniards viewed it as a very important staple food.

Rice wasn't really native to Spain, though: it had been introduced by the Arab conquerors known as "Moors." And as time went on, "rice became one of the most important foods in the diet of the African slaves. Gradually rice was embraced by everyone.... Even the potato-eating Indian farmers of the Andean regions succumbed to the lure of rice."

Some of the varieties of rice used in modern South American cuisine in fact later came from other parts of the Spanish Empire; for example, "via the galleon trade with the Philippines or ... from Dutch and Portuguese traders who had long-established contacts with the rice-growing regions of Asia and the Indian Ocean."  Latin-American cooks also valued and still value rice from the American South; for some dishes they prefer "Carolina" rice or even Uncle Ben's. (All quotes from p. 287).

"For seven centuries, Moors and Christians fought one another in Spain," the author writes, "but in the guise of black beans and rice they surrendered to each other's charms within the all-embracing New World pot. Like the hybrid culture that flourished in medieval Spain, the rice dish known as moros y cristianos is an exemplar of exchange between civilizations." (p. 310)

I find a key to Presilla's viewpoint about food at the beginning of the book. She says of her many travels collecting recipes and food histories: "Again and again, I was forced to remember that food is always deeply political." (p. 2)

Note: I heard of this book on the blog of food historian Rachel Lauden.


~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae!

Well, this is just perfect. I don't know whether you are aware of it or not but tomorrow (Sept,15) kicks off National Hispanic Heritage Month. I'm thinking about doing a round up of the celebration in October. This post would be wonderful to include. There will be a note about it my post for tomorrow. (Sunday)

In the meanwhile, I commend you on diving into this book. I've never come across it in my travels but now that you mention it, I may just need to add it to my "wish" list.

Thank you so much for sharing...

Rachel Laudan said...

It is a huge book and can take a bit of getting into, I agree. But I am so glad that you find it enlightening, Mae.