Latin-American Books Bring Sizzle to Summer

By Amy Manczak

How better to stay cool this summer than to learn from those who live in these temperatures year ‘round? Latin American Cooking Across the USA, by Himilce Novas and Rosemary Silva, and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen offer some tantalizing fire for your taste buds.

Latin American Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, $27.50, 331 pages) covers the food of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Guatemala, and nearly every other corner of Latin America.

The authors took to the roads, skies, and cyberspace to uncover what everyday Latin Americans were cooking up in American kitchens. Thankfully, second and third generation home cooks retained the tradition of flavorful salsas, root vegetables, beans and rice, but eliminated some dishes like roasted guinea pig.

Recipes begin with homey tales on the origin, what makes it special, and serving suggestions. The authors describe unfamiliar ingredients, such as yuca (a dense, starchy tuber that tastes like a buttery potato with a hint of sweetness), and dende oil (a reddish orange oil extracted from the fruit of the African palm).

Some of my favorites included orange-scented pumpkin soup; shrimp stew with coconut milk, lemon, and cilantro (the coconut milk adds warmth while the cilantro refreshes); and the tamales negros, a specialty of inland Guatemala. Admittedly, the tamales were a lot of work—but worth it for an occasional treat—with bold flavors of raisins, prunes and green olives for the filling, and a mole sauce of chicken, pumpkin seeds, tomato, and chili.

Almost all the recipes call for easy-to-find ingredients and simple preparations, which is the point of the book: making another culture’s cuisine accessible to the average American home cook. It made me finally break down and buy those exotic ingredients that I’ve never tried or had only in restaurants—like plantains and cactus paddles (nopalitos)—that are now available in many grocery stores. Finally, I know what to do with them.

Try a Little Topolobampo at Home

Living in Chicago, I’m lucky enough to have Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill/Topolobampo restaurants in my hometown. Every dish I’ve had there has been innovative and flavorful. Could I recreate them at home? Mostly, yes. Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen (Scribner, 1996, $35, 448 pages) is comprehensive, educational, and mouthwatering.

Perhaps you’re wondering why you’d want a book on Mexican food written by a gringo. Bayless proves love conquers all – and he loves Mexican cooking. The book imparts his passion to the reader. It’s nicely organized, beginning with "essential" recipes that form the building blocks of many dishes that follow. Essentials are salsas, sauces and seasonings. After each, he lists "simple ideas from my American home" – spicy chicken hash, seared fish with tangy habanero. I could have been happy with these ideas alone.

But I became even happier as I ate my way through dishes such as anchiote-grilled turkey breast with tomato, chili, and mint, and chilied tortilla soup with shredded chard. My favorite basic salsa was the roasted tomatillo-chipotle. Bayless notes that the Indian people of southern Mexico and Central America have consumed more tomatillos since pre-Colombian times than the more familiar (to us) red tomato. Tomatillos are small, pale green, and covered with a papery husk. They differ from green tomatoes, however, having a tangier, more citrusy flavor and richer texture.

Many recipes are not quick-n-easy. They have intense, complex flavors that come from multiple ingredients and effort. They are worth it when you have the time. As for weeknights or simple summer weekends, you’ll find those, too. Use the advance preparations, shortcuts, variations, and improvisations that accompany each recipe

There are eight pages of photographs – obviously only a fraction of the dishes. I would have preferred more. A "Sources" section and excellent index complete the book.

You’ll be glad you added a few (or more) of these bold, satisfying dishes to your summer repertoire. Still, on a sweltering summer day, it’s a treat to let someone else perform their labor of love over a hot grill or stove. I’m off to make reservations and let Rick practice what he preaches.

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