"Although I was
probably not yet three years old, I clearly remember
running down the stairs from our apartment to my grandmother's
on the ground floor of her two-family house, barging
into her bedroom and asking her to make me one of her
special breakfasts. Off we went to the kitchen where,
even at that very young age, I soaked in the magic of
what became my favorite room in the house.
"Abuela's kitchen was
an enchanting place. There was never a moment when one
of her meals wasn't taking shape on the stove. Salt
cod soaked in a sink full of water while a pot of beans
bubbled away in rhythm to the pounding of a pestle crushing
a mortar full of garlic. My uncle and his family lived
around the corner from us and joined Abuela for meals
as often as our family did. I have only to close my
eyes to see Abuela's long, beautiful dining room table
dressed in a pretty white cloth and crowded with platters
that held all the makings of a delicious Sunday breakfast.
We came home from Mass to find huge platters of chorizo,
sweet ripe plantains and huevos vestidos de torero,
or "fried eggs dressed like a bullfighter,"
so named for their ruffled golden edges that resemble
the trim on a bullfighter's jacket. Hot loaves of simple
bread rounded out the meal and the smell of café
con leche perfumed the air. Happy conversation
filled the house and my Abuela's beautiful smile lit
the dining room as she watched her family enjoy the
food she prepared with so much love.
"In summer we visited
my maternal grandmother Mama Clotilde in Puerto Rico.
Her house was equally magical to someone like me who
was absorbed in the making and sharing of food. She
grew all her own herbs and beans and raised a flock
of chickens. With a yard full of tall trees laden with
bananas, mangoes and avocadoes—some the size of
a football! Just about everything you needed for breakfast,
lunch or dinner was right outside the back door. Mama
Clotilde's kitchen bustled like Abuela's. She started
the beans very early every morning and by one o'clock
the table was ready for lunch with bowls of fluffy white
rice, red beans with potatoes and delicious fried chicken,
or a beautiful ensalada de bacalao—salt
cod and potatoes dressed with lemon and olive oil.
"In those days I believed
that everyone spoke Spanish, and that everyone ate as
well as I did! As I grew older and interacted with more
and more Latino-Americans, I found this celebration
of life and family through food was indeed an experience
we all held in common. We share strong roots in Europe,
a culture that reflects an African influence, and a
common religion. Nothing reflects these common bonds
as strongly as our food, and no one is more passionate
about that food than me.
"People often ask me where
I learned to cook. As an adult, I attended the French
Culinary Institute in Manhattan to learn classic technique
from trained chefs, but I learned to cook at
my mother's and grandmother's elbows. I am happy for
the experience I gained at FCI, but those days I spent
in family kitchens gave me an invaluable grounding in
the kind of food that comes from the heart. I think
it's amusing that while attending FCI—a bastion
of traditional French cooking—the traditional
Puerto Rican food I prepared daily for lunch were such
a hit. Before long my chef-instructors made it a point
to stop by my station everyday around lunchtime to see
what surprises—pasteles, mariscada
en salsa verde or Paella a la Valenciana—I
had concocted that day. These foods sing to me, and
they seduced chefs and fellow students alike.
the fastest growing minority group in the United States
and our numbers are predicted to increase by 35 % within
the next few years. Still, the rest of America has only
scratched the surface of our regional cuisines. (Much
the same thing happens with other cuisines in this country.
"French Cuisine" once meant coq au vin
or "pate" before Americans began traveling
to France and French chefs started arriving on our shores
in droves.) Almost anyone can tell you what paella
or chorizo are, but words like yautia,
malanga or morcilla are bound to draw
blank expressions. But the days when "Spanish"
food meant tacos and refried beans are numbered.
"In fact, as people become
more intimate with the cuisines of Spain, Latin America
and the Islands, the term "Spanish Food" just
won't cut it any more. I am writing this book largely
to share these wonderful dishes with your, but also
in part to clear up confusion some of you, like my childhood
friend Rosanne, may have. After running into Roe recently,
I invited her to my home for dinner, so we could catch
up on old times. When I asked what she would like to
eat, she was quick to reply, "Spanish food!"
I made a beautiful Spanish meal for her that I was sure
would knock her socks off: mejillones rellenos (stuffed
mussels), pollo con higos (chickens braised
with figs), and saffron rice. She looked at me, puzzled,
and said, "I thought we were having Spanish food.
You know, rice and beans and pork chops, like your mom
used to make!"
Much of the allure for people
discovering our cuisines is in what we Latinos consider
our "soul food"—the simple, satisfying
dishes that my friend remembered from all those years
ago. This book is loaded with those treasures, and not
just from Puerto Rico and Spain, but from Cuba, Santo
Domingo, and Central and South America. Every country
has its and it is my distinct pleasure to bring these
dishes to you, and show you the diversity in the cuisines
of all these countries. I see evidence of a growing
fascination with Latin Cuisine everywhere. It is no
longer necessary for me to travel to la marketa
on Essex Street on the lower east side of Manhattan,
or the larger market on 125th Street in el Barrio, as
I did when I was a young girl. Like Latino culture and
music, Latin food has exploded into the mainstream.
You can walk into any modern supermarket and find many
of the foods of my childhood. I believe you will have
no problem locating the ingredients you need to cook
from this book, but I offer substitutions whenever possible,
just in case.
"We Latino-Americans are
a passionate people. We are passionate about our music,
our dance, our heritage and, most certainly, about our
cuisine. At the drop of an empanada we can
wax poetic about its enticing aromas, bright palette
of color and vast array of textures. Until we meet and
I can cook a meal for you, I invite you to enjoy this
collection of memories and recipes. Pick a recipe or
two that sound particularly good to you and prepare
them the next time–hopefully soon–that you
are together with your family and friends."