I have loved reading and cooking from cookbooks for several decades now, and just last week completed the 6 month classroom portion of chef's school, which was located in the heart of Tex-Mex land. While we made a few enchiladas, tamales, empanadas, and salsas, we did not have a block of study devoted to the foods of Latin America. I was, therefore, amazed and very happily surprised by the encyclopedic cookbook and reference on the subject by Maricel E. Presilla, The Food of Latin America Gran Cocina Latina.
First of all, Presilla defines Latin America as the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries that emerged from the disintegration of Iberian colonial power, which includes Mexico and spreads across the Caribbean to the three islands of the Hispanic Caribbean; Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. It continues through Mexico to Central America and South America, only excluding Belize, and Guianas since those countries were French, Dutch, etc. influence.
While I have read many cookbooks that were compiled largely from the author's study, Presilla is so well qualified to write such a culinary and historical book, that it will stand the test of time and be the expert book on the subject for decades to come. It is like getting Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II, the enhanced and expanded edition (which never actually existed) all at once! The author holds a PhD in Medieval Spanish History, is the chef and co-owner of two pan-Latin restaurants, and was named Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation. Presilla spent 30 years traveling all over Latin America, learning recipes and cooking from the most humble dwellings to the nicest ones. The author came to the U.S. from Cuba, and noted that that many Latin-American cooks, expecially those whose family came to the U.S. before good Latin American markets were in existant, used American ingredients as substitutions. Therefore, she documents the recipes as they were intended to be made, but does give some notes about where to find the ingredients, and at times substitutions.
There are over 500 recipes in this book, and the book itself is 902 pages. While I have only begun to read the book, the recipes are well written, and seem to be accurate and detailed in how to create them. I have made similar recipes of many of the dishes, and was on the lookout for any obvious errors, and did not spot any. (If the recipes are 100% error free in a book with this many recipes though, it would be nothing short of miraculous, so as with any recipe, the cook should read it all in advance and use common sense). There are color photographs of some of the dishes, which are located in groups of pages that are together in several parts of the book, as opposed to having a picture of each dish opposite the recipe. There are also beautiful botanical-type drawings, such as you see in Cook's Illustrated, to illustrate techniques and ingredients throughout the book. There are extras as well, such as kitchen tools needed, a glossary of peppers, and more. The formatting, text, and overall layout is well done. The text is readable even to older eyes. There are two recipe indexes, one for recipes in English, and one for the Spanish titles.
Instead of having the recipes arranged by country, which would have been head-spinning and confusing given how many countries are represented, the recipes are grouped according to ingredient or type. Chapters include Layers of Latin Flavor, Table Condiments, Tropical Roots and Starchy Vegetables, Squashes, Corn, Quinoa, and Beans, Rice, Drinks, Little Latin Dishes, Empanadas, The Tamal Family, Cebiches, La Olla (Soups and Hearty Potages), Salads, Breads, Fish and Seafood, Poultry, Meat, Hot Pepper Pots, and Dulce Latino (Desserts). Each chapter has its own table of contents at the beginning of the chapter.
As an example of the scope of the book, the section on Empanadas has The Empanada Filling, A Note about Frozen Empanada Dough, Working Ahead, Galician Empanadas, (Galician Empanada with Tuna or Salt Cod Hash, Galician Empanada with Chorizo), Savory Double-Crust Pies (Venezuelan Chicken Pot Pie, Helena Ibarra's Polvorosa Pot Pie), Folded Baked Empanadas (Chilean Beef Empanadas). Then comes Argentinean Empanadas (Making Authentic Argentinean Empanadas, Big-Bellied Argentinean Beef Empanadas, Matilde's Classic Beef Empanadas), Fried Empanadas (Cuban Fried Beef Empanadas, Argentinean-Style Blue Cheese and Caramelized Onion Fried Empanadas, `Hot Air' Cheese Empanadas from Cuenca). Next comes South American Empanadas with Cracked Corn or Plantain Dough (Fresh Corn Dough for Colombian and Venezuelan Empanadas, Instant Corn Dough for Colombian and Venezuelan Empanadas, Valle del Cauca White Corn Empanadas with Potatoes and Peanuts, Venezuelan Corn Empanadas with Shredded Beef, Black Beans, and Fresh Cheese, Plantain Empanadas with Shrimp in Merken Adobo, and Ecuadorian Green Plantain Empanadas with Cheese). And there is even more in this chapter not mentioned in the index, such as illustrations and steps for making the decorative border for Argentinean empanadas, and the secret way of cooking the onion....
In short, if you are the type of cook who loves to just read cookbooks, this one would keep you busy for at least a year I think. There are so many stories, historical notes, etc. that even a non-cook should find it a fascinating book to read. If you love to cook from your books, then you will probably need a few years or decades to make your way through this amazing reference. To say I am simply thrilled with the book is putting it lightly! Well done Maricel Presilla, I expect to see this book sweeping the cookbook awards! The only people who might be disappointed in the book are those that expect a color picture of each recipe opposite the recipe. However, if the book was done like that, you would not be able to lift it!
I have had this book for a few weeks now, and have grown to really appreciate the recipes for Rice, Beans, and other vegetables that are in the book. Since I am trying to cook and eat more of a plant based diet, the many variations of Rice and Bean dishes are a huge plus. I can easily substitute for the meat in these recipes.