Latin American Chef Stirs it Up

Maricel Presilla, featured in this month's Gourmet magazine, stirs sauces and shares culinary secrets with listeners from her home.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And joining me now is Chef Maricel Presilla. She is profiled in September's Gourmet magazine. She is an author and restaurateur, and also a leading authority on Latin American culture and food. She joins us now from her New York kitchen.

Ms. MARICEL PRESILLA (Chef and Author): Well, hello. Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Well, how did you start cooking?

Ms. PRESILLA: Well, I started cooking out of the need for exercise, believe it or not. I was doing my - I was starting my dissertation, actually, in New York University, and I befriended a (unintelligible) chef who introduced me to Chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, a Peruvian-born chef who owned a wonderful restaurant called The Ballroom in Chelsea. It was the first type of bar in the United States.

And one day, I went to visit her and I met Felipe, who said, well, if you are staying for more than 15 minutes in my kitchen, you have to cook something. So I made flan, and I just loved the way people ate my flan and paid for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PRESILLA: So I said, well, there's something in this exercise that I enjoy. Felipe said, well, if you really like cooking, you can come here once or twice a week and cook with me.

And soon, I was not doing exercise because I, you know, I imagined that being -working in the kitchen, standing up and chopping was better exercise than being in front of a word processor, right? But I started writing recipes for him.

MARTIN: So today, let's talk the sofritos. You're going to make three sofritos. And what is the significance of a sofrito?

Ms. PRESILLA: It's one of those cooking methods that really unify Latin Americans, because all of us have a version of a sofrito. To begin with, it is a medieval Spanish cooking technique that, you know, came to the Americas with the Spaniards. So it's a very simple technique - you know, sofrito comes from frying, from modulated frying.

(Soundbite of frying)

Ms. PRESILLA: So in Spain, you know, before the coming of a tomato and pepper, the sofrito was a very simple cooking sauce made of onions and garlic, perhaps leeks, sauteed in some kind of fat, you know, most probably olive oil or lard or a combination of both. And in the Americas, the sauce became enriched with other ingredients - you know, with tomatoes, with peppers. Every country has a distinct way of preparing a sofrito. And also - actually, they call it by different names.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. PRESILLA: Yes.

MARTIN: So what would make a sofrito from Cuba different from a sofrito from Puerto Rico?

Ms. PRESILLA: Well, the Cuban sofrito is very close to the Spanish sofrito. It's simpler. It's less aromatic. But a basic Cuban sofrito starts with olive oil or lard - most likely olive oil, nowadays. You saute garlic until barely golden, about 40 seconds, then you add chopped onions and chopped peppers to it. Then, if you are doing particular dishes, maybe, you know, an arroz con pollo - rice with chicken - you would add a little cumin, some oregano, and then some sort of tomato. I mean, it could be chopped fresh tomatoes, or more likely, tomato sauce or tomato paste. Then, you know, this has to cook a little bit, and then you add some cooking wine. In Cuba and the Hispanic Caribbean, we are partial to a dry, lightly salted cooking wine that would be vino seco. But you can also add beer to this.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. PRESILLA: And basically, that's, you know, very simple Cuban sofrito. Now if you want to enrich it, you might want to start by browning some bacon in the olive oil, and then you add the other ingredients - or maybe some chorizo. It depends on the use. You know, if you want to cook certain kinds of beans, let's say red beans, you might want to use chorizo.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

MARTIN: And I see you have some company up there. I hear some birdies singing there.

Ms. PRESILLA: Oh, yes, because I have a very tropical home. My birds in the background, I have two Macaws, huge Macaws, and I have an Amazon parrot. And when they know that there is someone - there's something going on in the house that is not normal, they like to, you know, they like to scream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Let their presence be known.

Ms. PRESILLA: Or call me in Spanish. So…

MARTIN: Those are your canaries of the background. Tell me your secrets since we're friends now. What's your secret? What's your secret sofrito?

Ms. PRESILLA: Well, I like, for example, I like a slab bacon very much.

MARTIN: Oh.

Ms. PRESILLA: I love it. I discovered that in 99. I went back to Cuba to visit my family, and I went to the mountains of the northern oriental region - that's where I came from - to a place called Jauco, where my great grandmother was born and where her family still lives. They're cacao farmers there. So I spent a week with them, cooking with them. And I was amazed to see that they use a lot of cilantro, culantro and the aji dulce, and that their sofrito was very, very similar to the Puerto Rican and Dominican sofrito I so much love. And something that I do that is not orthodox is that I like to add a little bit of hot pepper to my sofrito.

It could be, you know, a fresh jalapeno or some cayenne - some ground cayenne -used to add a little bit of more depth. And sometimes I add a Spanish paprika, like Pimenton de la Vera from Spain, which I think adds kind of a whammy to the sofrito - not a lot. In some particular dishes, the paprika, the Pimenton, is required if you're doing, let's say, a white bean soup from Cuba that has Spanish roots, you would add Pimenton.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the sofrito and Latin American cooking.

And I'm joined by chef Maricel Presilla from her kitchen.

For folks who might be a little shy when it comes to peppers and spice, you know, who feel that for whatever reason it doesn't agree with them or they didn't grow up eating it, so they don't feel like they have much tolerance for it, do you have any suggestions for how you can get the flavor but with less of the heat in their sofritos?

Ms. PRESILLA: First of all, most Latin American sofritos are not hot at all. The kind of pepper that is used for the Cuban sofrito - it's the Cubanelle or Italian frying pepper or the bell pepper. In the Puerto Rican sofrito, the pepper that we use in Puerto Rico - it's the Cubanelle, too. But also, we have a tiny Caribbean pepper that is called aji dulce, which is fantastic. It has an incredible aroma.

Actually, it's a capsicum chinense, which is the botanical family of the habanero pepper, which, as you know, is scorchingly hot. But it doesn't have the heat. It has the aroma. So it's very aromatic. So - but I, you know, in terms of the peppers, I would love for people to understand and get to know this tiny Caribbean pepper called aji dulce. In Cuba, we called it aji cachucha, and we use it for black beans. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, it's an integral part of the sofrito, and that's one basic difference.

MARTIN: So people shouldn't be shy about trying these cuisines out of fear that they're all going to be hot and burn their face off?

Ms. PRESILLA: Well, they are all around them. They're all around them. Puerto Rican and Dominican cooking are not as well known as Cuban. But let me tell you, it's - they're divine. They're divine. And the sofrito has a lot to do with it, with its amazing flavors.

MARTIN: Maricel, are there any cuisine you don't like? Come on.

Ms. PRESILLA: No, I'm - no, I'm pretty critical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm pretty critical. But I do love the cuisines of the Hispanic Caribbean, precisely because they're very similar, but also because they're very distinct. And the cooking sauce has a lot to do with it, because to start a Puerto Rican or a Dominican sofrito, you prepare something called recado or recao.

Basically, what you're doing is you blend together the aji dulce. It's very aromatic, aji dulce, with cilantro, which is an old world herb - very pungent. And with a new world herb that is very similar to it but has broad, serrated leaves, and it's called culantro.

Well, culantro, cilantro aji dulce, a little bit of vinegar, perhaps some tomatoes and some onion and the Cubanelle pepper all go into the blender, and people make this greenish sauce called recao or recado that they keep in their refrigerator. When they're ready to do a sofrito, what they do is that they start by rendering some sole fat back or a slab bacon or chorizo. When those are golden, they add a little bit of the garlic, and then they add a few spoonfuls of the recado, and there are other ingredients according to recipe.

So basically, in order to make a Puerto Rican sofrito, you have to start with a recao or recado, or a Dominican one for that matter. For the Cuban, you don't need to do that. It's a simpler, straightforward. But you see, that combination of cilantro, culantro, aji dulce is amazing.

MARTIN: Maricel, we're down to our last couple of minutes, and I must say I'm very hungry now. I'm very, very, very, very hungry now. But I wanted to ask you, for somebody who doesn't your encyclopedic knowledge and has now had their appetite whetted by you, how would you recommend that they start?

Ms. PRESILLA: Well, I would invite them to my restaurant.

MARTIN: (unintelligible)

Ms. PRESILLA: But I would say that Hispanic Caribbean food - Latin American food is all over the United States. It's in every corner. I advise people to eat as much as they can, to try different restaurants, to buy cookbooks and to talk to neighbors, you know, from Latin America, and to, you know, start learning, you know, the cuisine from real people.

MARTIN: Maricel Presilla is an author, restaurateur, and an expert on Latin American culture and food. She'll be part of Gourmet magazine's profile of Latin American food in September, and she was kind enough to join us from her kitchen where she made us a beautiful sofrito. Maricel, thank you so much.

Ms. PRESILLA: You're welcome. Thank you.

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Featured Recipe from Maricel Presilla:

Maricel Presilla's Basic Cuban Tomato Sofrito

Sofrito Cubano de Tomate Básico

This is a simple Cuban cooking sauce that can be enriched by adding other flavoring ingredients to suit the cook's taste and its final use. If using to season white beans, I like to add a teaspoon of Spanish paprika which not only intensifies the color of the sauce but gives it depth as well as a more Spanish patina. Though the Cuban sofrito is traditionally mild, I often give it a touch of heat by stirring some chopped jalapeño, a bit of Scotch bonnet pepper, or some ground cayenne. Stir into rice and beans dishes, stews, braises, and soups.

Makes about 2 cups

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4-5 ounces smoked slab bacon or Spanish chorizo, cut in 1/4-inch dice

4-6 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed to a paste with mortar and pestle

1 medium yellow (about 9-10 ounces), finely chopped

1 medium green bell pepper (about 7 ounces), seeded, deveined, and finely chopped (about 1 cup), or 3 Italian frying peppers (cubanelle)

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1 cup tomato sauce

1/4 cup dry white wine, cooking wine (vino seco) or beer

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a medium heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the oil at medium heat until it ripples. Add the diced slab bacon or chorizo and sauté until golden brown but still a little soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until light gold, about 40 seconds. Add the onion and sauté, stirring, until it softens and begins to color, about 5 minutes. Add the pepper and bay leaf. Cook stirring for about 3 more minutes. Then add the cumin and oregano and cook, stirring, for a few seconds. Pour in the tomato sauce and wine, and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until it thicken, about 10 minutes. Keep refrigerated in a glass or stainless steel container until ready to use. It will keep well for 3-4 days.

Copyright Maricel E. Presilla

Maricel E. Presilla is a culinary historian specializing in the foods of Slatin America and Spain and the chef and co-owner of Zafra and Cucharamama, two Latin restaurants in Hoboken, NJ.

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