Chef Maricel Presilla
Chef Maricel Presilla

Maricel Presilla

F&W Star Chef » See All F&W Chef Superstars Restaurants and shops: Zafra, Cucharamama, Ultramarinos (Hoboken, NJ) Education: Doctorate in medieval Spanish history, New York University (New York City) What dish are you most known for? At Cucharamama, people love things from the wood-burning oven. We roast tons of things—fish, shrimp, even bananas. At Zafra, people seem to adore our Cuban-style fresh corn tamales, wrapped in a cornhusk and served with a spicy sauce. What’s your favorite cookbook of all time? A 14th-century Catalan cookbook called Libre de Sent Soví. It’s a collection of medieval Spanish recipes that I turn to again and again. With help from that book and others like it, I’ve been able to trace the history of Latin American ingredients and techniques back to Spain. Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned? Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. He started the tapas movement in the US. He was a Peruvian-born chef who owned a restaurant called the Ballroom in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. He had been James Beard’s assistant at his cooking school, and his companion—he traveled the world with Beard. He was also the founding chef of Dean & DeLuca. The Ballroom was the first tapas restaurant in the US. It was also very glamorous—it had a cabaret attached where people like Peggy Lee and Karen Akers would perform. I was doing my dissertation at NYU when I went to visit a mutual friend at the Ballroom kitchen. Felipe saw us and joked, “If you’re going to be here more than 15 minutes, you have to cook something.” So I made flans, and they sold out. Felipe invited me to come in on my days off, and we became close friends. He knew that I could write, so he asked me to help him with some writing. He taught me how to write recipes. He became my best friend. He was like my cooking school. He taught me to focus on flavor above everything else. Intense flavor—to leave nothing bland on the plate. What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? Rice and red kidney beans. It’s called congrí in Cuban. My grandfather’s cook Ines taught me when I was a very small child. I had to stand on a stool to stir. I did the whole thing by myself, so I was really excited when the dish was finished. Everybody applauded and I said, “I did it! I’m a cook!” What’s the hardest cooking skill to learn? How to make rice. I spend a whole chapter on it in my book (Gran Cocina Latina). It’s important to find the right vessel. I prefer the caldero, the Cuban-style or Latin American-style pot. It has the right thickness and shape—wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, to help the water evaporate. The ratio of water to rice is also important, and the temperature, and letting the rice steam for 20 minutes after you stir. Once you’ve mastered that, it’s also important to adjust to your taste. Maybe you like fluffy rice, or more tightly packed. What’s the best bang-for-the-buck food destination? Lima, Peru. The street food is fantastic everywhere, from sandwich shops to the anticuchos (heart kabobs), it’s all there for the taking. It’s also safe. For restaurants, I like Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s Amazonian restaurant Malabar, and Gastón Acurio’s La Mar Cebicheria. What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip? My great-grandmother’s gigantic pestle. It’s made out of guayacán, or guaiacum, a very hard wood. It brought me a lot of problems in the Cuba and Miami airports because they thought it was a weapon. What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? I want them to talk about peppers. I grow hundreds every year. People’s lives would change if they incorporated more Latin American peppers into their cooking. What are your talents besides cooking? I raise pigeons here and at my father’s house in Miami. There, we have Cuban pigeons that are called Palomas, or thief pigeons. They fly out and bring other pigeons into the coop. Here, I have different breeds. Right now they’re mongrels because I rescued a couple of Rock pigeons and then I rescued a couple of heirloom Helmet pigeons, which are usually white except for their heads. And now they’ve mingled, so I have pigeons with helmets and different colored feathers. They’re incredibly beautiful.
Mayan Pepita-Chicken Stew
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This rustic chicken stew is seasoned with a carefully toasted mix of seeds and spices, which are ground into a coarse paste with roasted tomatoes and tomatillos. Stirred into the stew toward the end of the cooking process, the paste both thickens and seasons this warming fall dish.
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Chile-Cacao Spice Mix
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Pequín chiles have a citrusy, smoky flavor and complement the bitter cacao nibs. They’re slightly hotter than cayenne peppers, so use this condiment to season the Mayan Pepita-Chicken Stew to taste.
Zuleta's Rice Torta
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A regular menu item at Hacienda Zuleta, the recipe for this comforting casserole has been in the owner's family for three generations. It is best accompanied with Ají, but Maricel Presilla's grandmother also served it with brown sugar to please the palates of the youngest members of the family. Delicious, Quick Side Dishes
Zafra's Salsa Verde
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In Chile, salsa verde, or green sauce—which gets its vibrant color from cilantro and fresh chiles—is a traditional accompaniment to sea urchins. It also works well with vegetables and chicken and is particularly good with steamed or grilled shrimp.Plus: More Seafood Recipes and Tips
Warm Cauliflower Salad
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In the Andean region of Ecuador, salad often means hearty vegetables cooked with onions, potatoes and cheese. This lighter version—minus the cheese and potatoes—can also be made with broccoli rabe or cabbage. More Terrific Salads
Tangy Corn Salsa
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At Zafra, Maricel Presilla accents her Ecuadoran chowders, as well as grilled chicken and fish, with this crisp salsa. To turn up the heat, add 1 finely chopped fresh chile, such as cayenne or serrano.In 2018, Food & Wine named this recipe one of our 40 best: This salsa is served on top of Shrimp and Corn Chowder for tangy crunch, but it also makes a great dip. Try it on top of chips for an afternoon snack.
This dish comes from the R¡o de la Plata, an area heavily populated by Italian immigrants. Don't be put off by the multiple steps here; the techniques are simple and the casserole is worth the effort. Delicious, Quick Side Dishes
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Plato paceño, which means "the dish from La Paz," is a street food common throughout Bolivia's capital city. Maricel Presilla also likes to serve it as an accompaniment to grilled beef or pork. Delicious, Quick Side Dishes
Shrimp and Corn Chowder
Rating: Unrated
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The grated plantain in this coastal Ecuadoran soup gives the dish a wonderfully light and creamy body.In 2018, Food & Wine named this recipe one of our 40 best: We took a deep editorial dive into the islands, rain forests, and mountains of Ecuador in a 2001 article, and we asked chef and author Maricel Presilla of Zafra in New Jersey to give our readers the best examples of classic Ecuadoran food. Presilla shared her fantastic recipe for a coastal Ecuadoran shrimp soup made with grated plantain, which gives the soup a wonderfully light and creamy body.
This dish comes from the R¡o de la Plata, an area heavily populated by Italian immigrants. Don't be put off by the multiple steps here; the techniques are simple and the casserole is worth the effort. Delicious, Quick Side Dishes
Plato paceño, which means "the dish from La Paz," is a street food common throughout Bolivia's capital city. Maricel Presilla also likes to serve it as an accompaniment to grilled beef or pork. Delicious, Quick Side Dishes
Shrimp and Corn Chowder
Rating: Unrated
1
The grated plantain in this coastal Ecuadoran soup gives the dish a wonderfully light and creamy body.In 2018, Food & Wine named this recipe one of our 40 best: We took a deep editorial dive into the islands, rain forests, and mountains of Ecuador in a 2001 article, and we asked chef and author Maricel Presilla of Zafra in New Jersey to give our readers the best examples of classic Ecuadoran food. Presilla shared her fantastic recipe for a coastal Ecuadoran shrimp soup made with grated plantain, which gives the soup a wonderfully light and creamy body.
This hearty lunch dish is popular in Buenos Aires.More Brunch Recipes
Rustic Meatball Soup
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Beef soups are common in Paraguay, a country where the cattle outnumber the people.Plus: More Soup Recipes and Tips
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Simple, hearty soups made with protein-rich quinoa and peanuts are a staple of Ecuador's rugged Andean region.Plus: More Soup Recipes and Tips
Intensely perfumed, and with a hint of guava and jasmine, passion fruit juice is a signature ingredient of the American tropics. Its lush flavor is lovely in sauces for pork and grilled or pan-seared fish, shrimp and scallops. Healthy Grilling Recipes
Oven-Fried Potatoes
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In South America, fried potatoes are more than just a side dish; they are an integral part of many main dishes. For the recipes here, they are tossed with stir-fried beef and with the Scrambled Eggs with Chicken and Ham More Delicious, Quick Side Dishes
Orinoco Red Beans and Rice
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This is a great all-purpose side dish for meat, poultry or seafood stews. The fresh, mild, lantern-shaped ají dulce chile peppers used here are widely available at Latin markets, where they are often labeled ají cachucha. (Italian frying peppers can be substituted.) In the Orinoco river valley of Venezuela, chopped ají dulce chiles are frequently sautéed with scallions, leeks and celery to form the flavoring base for a variety of dishes. More Delicious, Quick Side Dishes
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Maricel Presilla, chef and owner of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, New Jersey, has been cooking with pisco, the South American aged grape brandy. "It's wonderfully aromatic, slightly grape-tasting and a tiny bit bitter," she says. Braised dishes like chicken with hot peppers taste great with a little pisco, she's found; so does the luscious, creamy three-milk (tres leches) bread pudding here, flavored with kabocha squash and pisco-soaked prunes. More Bread Pudding Recipes
Hot Chilean Salsa
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This wonderful Chilean salsa is a fine complement to soups, stews and grilled meats. It also makes a quick marinade for chicken, pork or grilled vegetables. Healthy Grilling Recipes
Golden Yuca-and-Coconut Cake
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Known as enyucado in Colombia, this cake is traditionally cooked in a skillet and browned on both sides like a Spanish tortilla; some Colombian cooks like to bake it in the oven. The result is a dense, chewy cake that is cut into wedges and served as a side dish with savory foods or as a dessert.Plus: More Dessert Recipes and Tips
In Ecuador, the most popular version of this delightful seviche-style salad is typically made with conchas negras—black clams—and Seville orange juice. Usually served as a snack, it is often accompanied by popcorn or plantain chips. More Amazing Shrimp Recipes
Ecuadoran Peanut Sauce
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At Zafra, Maricel Presilla likes to spoon this sauce over steamed or boiled new potatoes. It's also good with grilled or poached chicken and shrimp. Quick Chicken Recipes
Chicken Stew with Chile
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Ecuadorans typically make this homey dish with a fermented corn drink called chicha. Although chicha is available at some Latin American markets, a full-flavored beer is an excellent substitute.Ají (made with chiles and tomatoes) is Ecuador's all-purpose condiment. While some versions are smooth purees, this chunky ají is more like a relish. If you would prefer a more fiery ají, include the seeds of the jalapeño.Plus: More Chicken Recipes and Tips