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.)
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
If you haven't had your breakfast yet this may get you in the mood. If have had your breakfast, this may get you in the mood for seconds.
Our colleague David Greene recently had a visitor and a cooking lesson.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
MARICEL PRESILLA: Yes.
GREENE: Hi, I'm David Greene.
PRESILLA: Hi, David. How are you?
GREENE: Very nice to meet you, welcome to my home.
PRESILLA: I have a tamarillo, book...
GREENE: You have a restaurant in a suitcase.
PRESILLA: More or less.
GREENE: My guest, Maricel Presilla, she's a petite woman with one huge personality. And she dragged this roll-aboard suitcase down to Washington, D.C. from Hoboken, New Jersey, where she owns two restaurants. Now, she doesn't like the word chef. She says it sounds too French. But she's written a lot of cookbooks and her newest is a guidebook to Latin cooking, it's called "Gran Cocina Latina."
PRESILLA: Here, I brought yuca.
GREENE: So that's what a yuca looks like. It's brown. It's shaped sort of like a big cucumber, I would say.
PRESILLA: A big cucumber, are you kidding? Have you seen a cucumber of that size?
PRESILLA: Not even the biggest cucumber...
GREENE: A really big cucumber.
GREENE: Presilla, who's a native of Cuba has cooked in kitchens all over Latin America. And she brought one of her recipes to my kitchen.
PRESILLA: Yuca fries is a large with cilantro sauce a la Brasilia. I need a big knife.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
PRESILLA: So we cut this yuca into four-, five-inch lengths, cutting through two layers of skin. So you see there's a thin, brown bark-like...
GREENE: It's almost like the bark of a tree.
GREENE: You're peeling off the bark.
PRESILLA: Exactly. Now, let's get a pot of water.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING AND A POT)
PRESILLA: And then let's start cooking.
GREENE: OK. So tell me about the name of the book.
PRESILLA: "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America."
GREENE: And it is a massive book. Its how many years of work went into it?
PRESILLA: My whole life. My whole life. 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 through travel Latin America. For example, I went to Mexico and I remember being in Oaxaca and I befriended a woman who's a very good cook. And she made tamales with black mole from Oaxaca. And I just loved those tamales. And I loved the sauce. And I took down the recipe very carefully.
GREENE: Now, those yucas have been boiling for a long time.
GREENE: They've got to go for a while?
PRESILLA: Yeah, they're done. You see they start to open. There's a section here, like a spindle, that you have to get rid off before you cut this into fry-length pieces. All right, so we're going to make the cilantro mayonnaise. And, you know, there is a story about this.
GREENE: What's the story?
PRESILLA: The yuca fries in cilantro sauce are now in every Cuban restaurant. But it's my recipe. And I did that because I was so in love with yuca, with experimenting with yuca, and I said yuca needs a sauce. So I said, OK, I want to do something similar to cilantro chutney; something that I learned in India. So when I went back to my house in New Jersey, I just experimented with it. And I created this creamy aioli, almost a mayonnaise with garlic and cilantro.
And so, everybody who tries that thinks it is an authentic traditional Cuban recipe. When, in reality, Cubans don't like cilantro that much.
GREENE: So we're bringing a marriage of India and Latin America here, right?
PRESILLA: So when I started doing this, of course, I used to make my own mayonnaise. But...
GREENE: I don't need to make my own mayonnaise to be able to make your recipe here.
PRESILLA: Oh, no, no, no. You need help with...
PRESILLA: ...here it is. And just about two cups. You need about two cups.
GREENE: Into the blender.
PRESILLA: Into the blender. I'm chopping cilantro now.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)
PRESILLA: Did you get the hot peppers?
GREENE: We have hot peppers. We're both those standing here, but you talk about the value sitting when you're doing cooking - Latin America cooking.
PRESILLA: It's a chore, absolutely. I call it the Zen of the Latin kitchen.
GREENE: Ooh, the Zen.
PRESILLA: The Zen.
GREENE: So we're not Zenning-out here because we're...
PRESILLA: No, we're not. We're not because we're doing something with a knife. But in Latin America, there are many chores like preparing the dough for tamales, wrapping tamales, or grating coconut to make coconut milk, that do not require standing up. So you can sit.
GREENE: So you would rather sit.
PRESILLA: You can even lie down in a hammock. All right, so it's about one teaspoon of cumin.
PRESILLA: I love cumin. It's an elusive spice. I also use like half a teaspoon of oregano and about a quarter teaspoon of the allspice. So you have to easy because allspice is powerful. All right, so we're going to puree it.
(SOUNDBITE OF A BLENDER)
GREENE: What does this tell us about a Latin America dish and how it can kind of evolve with a new spin in the United States?
PRESILLA: What's happening in the U.S. is that the U.S. is another Latin American country, because all Latin cultures are coming together. So it's really unavoidable that sooner or later you're going to start learning from your neighbor. Maybe in your own country you guarded your pot. But when you're here, so in the same boat.
GREENE: The rivalries just melt away.
PRESILLA: So they melt away. I was shocked by how much we share when I started traveling in Latin America. And sometimes it would be very subtle. I would be, for example, in Cartagena and I would get a taxi. I begin to bond with this man and we started singing and we know the same songs, and they're not Colombian songs. We're singing Mexican songs.
GREENE: Can you give me a line or two of one of the songs you sang in the...
PRESILLA: (Singing in foreign language)
PRESILLA: (Singing) Pa-da-da-da-da-da.
GREENE: So what did you sing? What are the...
PRESILLA: I'm saying, you know, if I...
PRESILLA: My Dear Mexico, if I die, you know, outside of Mexico, please bring me back. So we both get teary eyed when we started singing this song.
GREENE: So you're Cuban. You're with a Colombian.
PRESILLA: Yeah, I'm Cuban with a Colombian. We're singing Mexican songs.
GREENE: Mexican songs.
PRESILLA: I think that we should check the yuca and see how we're doing.
GREENE: Let's check the yuca.
PRESILLA: OK, you're going to cut this.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)
GREENE: Looks like thick French fries. We're ready to fry?
PRESILLA: We're ready to fry.
GREENE: Now, give us the set-up here. We've got vegetable oil.
PRESILLA: Yeah, so we want to create a beautiful, pleasurable cross. You know?
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING)
GREENE: We have our yuca in the oil.
PRESILLA: Looks like a Jacuzzi.
GREENE: It does look like a Jacuzzi, yes.
GREENE: It's bubbling oil.
PRESILLA: Yeah. Try to get it golden like this.
GREENE: And you just put it on a plate with a paper towel under it.
GREENE: So it's tasting time?
PRESILLA: So, it's tasting time.
GREENE: I'm going in. Oh, yeah. That is really tasty. Mmm.
PRESILLA: The result that is really this dish that it's very simple but very appetizing, it's something you can do when you have guests. And you have your mojitos in the kitchen or your capellania, and it's about conviviality. People are there watching you fry this and they eat the yuca fries with the sauce, as you fish it out...
GREENE: As they're coming out of the fryer.
PRESILLA: ...of the fryer. And so it's just perfect.
GREENE: Well, we're going to dig in here. But first, Maricel Presilla, thank you for coming into my kitchen. This has been so much fun.
Oh, for me, it's been fantastic, muchas gracias.
PRESILLA: Muchas gracias.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
INSKEEP: And that was our colleague David Greene with Maricel Presilla. You can find recipes from her book, "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America," at our food blog, The Salt at npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.