Documenting the recipes of Latin America, one Zoom at a time
By Christina Morales
Just as Sandra A. Gutierrez was about to embark on a research trip to the 23 cities throughout Latin America that she planned to cover in her fifth cookbook, the coronavirus pandemic grounded international travel.
It was yet another hurdle for Gutierrez, who had spent four years narrowing down a list of 9,000 recipes to about 500 for “Latinísimo: Home Recipes From the 21 Countries of Latin America,” her encyclopedia-style cookbook, which was released last week in both English and Spanish editions.
Instead of taking the trip, she moved hundreds of preplanned interviews to Zoom and scheduled at least 40 online cooking classes with experts. To perfect sancocho de Domingo, Gutierrez turned to Francisco Castro, a chef in Panama, who taught her how to make the chicken and root vegetable soup, and followed up with dozens of other Panamanian cooks who shared their tips for the dish.
She wanted her book to highlight the home cooking from every country in Latin America, but especially the recipes from nations whose cuisines remain unknown to many Americans. To do so, Gutierrez combed through family recipes rife with measurements like “a little bit of this” and “a little bit of that,” and other idiosyncratic instructions.
She found other dishes from out-of-print cookbooks in libraries, like the one in Cartagena, Colombia, where she dug through old books and talked to other patrons while her husband, Luis Gutierrez, enjoyed a day at the beach. She used her research to uncover commonalities in the recipes she used as references for her own dishes in her book.
“There’s so much more that could’ve been included,” she said, adding that there’s a dearth of modern cookbooks representing Latin American cuisine. “I’m one writer, one author, and none of us can cover the entirety of Latin American food in one book.”
For decades, Gutierrez, who is the author of four other cookbooks including “The New Southern-Latino Table,” has kept a running list of thousands of dishes hoping that one day, she’d be able to use them for a more encyclopedic book.
Born in Philadelphia but raised by her Guatemalan parents in Guatemala City, Gutierrez spent her childhood traveling throughout Central America. For 30 years, she’s lived in Cary, North Carolina, where she worked as the food editor for The Cary News and taught cooking classes.
As she sorted through her recipes for “Latinísimo,” she decided to organize the dishes by ingredient instead of by country to better illustrate the role of exchanges brought on by colonialism and immigrants who moved to the region.
But with modern habits in mind, she prioritized recipes that are weeknight friendly and include ingredients that busy home cooks can easily find in their grocery stores or online. The Spanish edition of “Latinísimo” contains a glossary that aims to tackle regional differences in the language: Leeks, depending on the country, are known as porro, ajoporro, cebolla larga, puerro and puerrito, for example.
Still, there is much about Latin American cuisine that is confined to the home cook’s kitchen, undocumented by cookbooks, said Maricel Presilla, the author of “Gran Cocina Latina,” which won the cookbook of the year award from the James Beard Foundation in 2013.
“There’s a very important generation of cooks that’s disappearing, and there are recipes that are endangered everywhere that need to be saved,” Presilla said.
Arroz con maiz y crema (cheesy rice casserole with corn)
Recipe from Sandra A. Gutierrez
Adapted by Christina Morales
Sandra A. Gutierrez, the author of “Latinísimo: Home Recipes from the 21 Countries of Latin America” (Knopf, 2023), was born in Philadelphia and raised by her Guatemalan parents in their home country. This recipe, a classic from Guatemala City where she lived, has been made since the 1950s, when mayonnaise started gaining popularity in Latin America as it became available in grocery stores. Gutierrez says the dish is typically enjoyed alongside buffet dinners with roast chicken or beef tenderloin. A satisfyingly easy side dish that is rich, cheesy and tangy, this casserole can be prepared and assembled in advance, or easily halved for a smaller crowd. — Christina Morales
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Total time: 50 minutes
Butter, as needed for greasing
6 (lightly packed) cups/800 grams cooked white rice (preferably medium- or long-grain)
2 cups fresh corn kernels (or frozen, thawed)
1 1/2 cups/340 grams sour cream
1 cup/225 grams mayonnaise
1 cup finely grated Cotija, queso seco or Parmesan
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves and tender stems
1/2 cup finely chopped scallions
2 large drained, roasted red bell peppers (about 6 ounces), thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups/115 grams shredded Chihuahua, Monterey Jack or other melting cheese
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
2. In a large bowl, combine the rice, corn, sour cream, mayonnaise, Cotija, parsley, scallions, roasted red pepper, salt and pepper. Spread the mixture into the prepared baking dish, sprinkle with the shredded cheese and bake until bubbly, about 30 minutes.
3. If you’d like additional color on your casserole, broil the casserole a few inches away from your broiler heat source until golden in spots, about 3 minutes. Let cool a few minutes, then serve hot.
Pasta con palta (creamy avocado pesto pasta)
Recipe from Sandra A. Gutierrez
Adapted by Christina Morales
In 2016, Sandra A. Gutierrez began to narrow down a list of 9,000 recipes to about 500 for her encyclopedic Latin American cookbook called “Latinísimo: Home Recipes from the 21 Countries of Latin America” (Knopf, 2023). She wanted to focus on the dishes people made at home for a readership of novice cooks. This easy, weeknight recipe from Chile emulates that spirit with the use of Hass avocados –– the main variety produced in the country –– to make a rich and silky sauce that comes together in a blender as the pasta cooks. For best results, sauce and eat the dish immediately to enjoy its velvety texture. — Christina Morales
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
Fine sea salt
1 pound spaghetti or fettuccine
2 Hass avocados
1/2 cup/2 ounces walnut pieces
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high. Cook the pasta according to package instructions until al dente.
2. While the pasta cooks, halve the avocados, discard the pits and transfer the flesh to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add the walnuts, garlic and oil; process or blend until smooth, scraping the sides as needed. (Patience is key; keep blending until the mixture is fully creamy.)
3. As soon as the pasta is al dente, reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta then transfer to a large bowl. Using tongs or two large forks, toss vigorously with the avocado sauce, 1½ teaspoons salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and ½ cup of the reserved pasta water. If the sauce is too thick, toss with more reserved pasta cooking water until the sauce is creamy and glossy. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then serve immediately.