"It was like getting a second Ph.D.," says Cuban-born culinary historian and chef Maricel E. Presilla about researching her soon-to-be-released guide to Latin American cooking. "I'd come back from each trip like a packed mule, weighed down by books and pots and artifacts. I didn't want to just get recipes and leave—I wanted to learn how these vastly different cultures are alike, what unifies them." And so Presilla visited not only kitchens but farms, markets, churches, libraries, museums—even hardware stores.
"The book evolved...and evolved...combining my passion for research with my love for the kitchen." That combination has pretty much defined her life: It was in the '80s, while pursuing a doctorate in medieval history at New York University, that Presilla first started cooking professionally, under the tutelage of Felipe Rojas-Lombardi at Manhattan's The Ballroom. "I remember looking at the guests, astounded, and thinking, These people are actually paying for my flan!" she says. Presilla, with a partner, Clara Chaumont, now owns the restaurant Zafra, in Hoboken, New Jersey; they plan to open a second place, Cucharamama, next month.
F&W asked Presilla for a classic recipe from each of 10 major South American countries, focusing on dishes that are little known in the United States. Her choices reveal the ingredients (corn, potatoes, garlic) and the techniques (grinding, marinating, grating) that underlie traditional cooking all across the continent. "Climate, altitude and history have shaped each country's preferences," Presilla says. "But they all take advantage of the same staples."
As Presilla prepares for the publication of her book, there is a phrase that keeps coming back to her: "Cocina de autor," she says, "the idea that, in the kitchen, we are authors—recording, writing, adapting and editing along the way. I guess that's what I've become."
Presilla's favorite South American tea is yerba maté, a somewhat sweet and bitter infusion of dried leaves from the Ilex paraguariensis tree (available at Whole Foods; www.wholefoods.com).