Cookbook of the Year: Gran Cocina Latina + A Spicy Bolivian Peanut Sauce Recipe

What happens when you combine a culinary pedigree that includes a Latin American/Spanish market and pastry shop (Ultramarinos) and two restaurants (Zafra and Cucharamama in New Jersey) with a doctorate in medieval history? Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, a 900-page homage to Latin American cooking by chef, restaurateur and historian Maricel E. Presilla, our Cookbook of the Year.

Other notable 2012 titles: Burma, The Art of Fermentation, The River Cottage Fish Book, The Art of the Confectioner. We could go on.

But we keep flipping back to the Latin American recipes in Presilla's cookbook, her "magnum opus" as the book jacket flap aptly describes. It serves as the kitchen culmination of 30 years of research and travel throughout Latin America.

Get more, and a recipe for spicy Bolivian peanut sauce, after the jump.

Books from chefs and restaurateurs by nature are singular in their focus; general history books can be so broad, the most interesting stories and details must be glossed over. Presilla manages to merge both those worlds into this collection of more than 500 recipes spanning 900 pages. The result: Cultures are literally explored within each recipe, from main dishes down to that Ecuadorian barley-thickened hot chocolate, Peruvian sprouted-corn beer (chicha, a mildly alcoholic beverage) and Colombian fruit and corn punch.

Presilla discusses fresh corn for various dishes the way Italians analyze wheat flour for pasta ("The qualities Latin Americans appreciate in corn are not necessarily the ones American farmers look for when creating new corn hybrids") and tackles Latin American ingredients (New World oregano and culantro, the flat-leafed cousin to cilantro) like an academic. But the recipes are the star here.

Some are her own variations of the dishes she grew up on in Santiago de Cuba. Others are from friends and family, like her grandmother's calabaza puree (pumpkin simmered with bacon, tomatoes, onion, peppers and spices) or her own re-creations from extensive travel and research.

Among them: cactus paddle soup from Querétaro, Mexico; Chilean cranberry beans with squash, corn and green beans; a Yucatan red onion relish pickled in bitter orange juice, which typically accompanies cochinita pibil (pit-barbecued pig); spicy Andean corn and pepper salad with queso fresco; and Ecuadoran plantain empanadas with shrimp in merkén (Chilean smoked pepper) adobo.

The breadth of cuisines covered is remarkable; the cookbook is a veritable encyclopedia of Latin American cuisine. The ingredients section alone offers pork cracklings that are popular in Minas Gerais, Brazil, another recipe for Ecuadorian black lard cracklings, and Cuban-style freshly rendered lard "and the reward" (pork cracklings). One chapter is dedicated solely to empanadas, another to "The Tamal Family" with recipes for variations on Chilean, Ecuadoran, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, and several tamales from different regions of Mexico. There are even Latin American beer and wine pairings, if you can find them ("preferably Venezuelan Polar Beer or a crisp Venezuelan Pomar Chardonnay" with those Caracas-style Christmas hallacas). Here, it comes across as authentic, part of the cooking and dining experience, not an attempt to appeal to a higher-end audience, as often happens.

As Presilla summarizes in the Introduction, her aim is "to adapt and transform the elemental beauty and tastes of Latin American cooking to the modern kitchen while respecting the food's primary flavors, and to create earthy, intensely flavored dishes that keep you reaching for more." As that chapter on condiments attests, with more than 70 (!) recipes for Latin American salsas and sauces, mayos and cultured creams, pickles and relishes, this book will leave us "reaching for more" for many years to come.

Bolivian Peanut Sauce (Ají de Maní Paceño)

From: Gran Cocina Latina

Makes: About 1 ½ cups

Per Presilla: "Anticuchos, the much-loved Peruvian grilled beef-heart kebabs (recipe p. 389), are served in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, with this spicy golden peanut sauce. The heat of the mirasol peppers and the acidity of the tomatoes provide a vivid counterpoint to the earthy peanuts. The sauce is delicious and versatile -- try it with grilled meats and chicken, even fish."

10 dried mirasol peppers (about 2 ½ ounces), stemmed and seeded

6 medium plum tomatoes (about 18 ounces), peeled and seeded

½ teaspoon salt

2 ½ ounces unsalted roasted peanuts (about 1/2 cup)

1. Heat a comal, griddle or heavy skillet over high heat. Add the peppers and roast for about 2 minutes, flattening them with a spatula and turning once.

2. Combine the peppers and 2 cups water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer until the peppers are softened, about 10 minutes. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the cooking liquid.

3. Place the drained peppers, reserved cooking liquid, tomatoes, salt and peanuts in a blender or food processor and process to a coarse puree. The sauce can be refrigerated, tightly covered, for several days. Bring to room temperature before serving; thin lightly with some warm water.

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