Watching the coronavirus spread around the world and especially my home (New York City) over the last month forced me to find ways to stay calm and find joy while stuck in graduate school in the middle of Lincoln, Nebraska. For me, that meant starting to cook and returning to traditional dishes that reminded me of home. I’m Puerto Rican so I particularly missed the taste of rice and beans, pollo guisado and the pastelitos from the bodega across the street from the community center I worked at in Staten Island.
That craving was particularly surprising because, like many Latino families, my sisters and I grew up eating rice and beans everyday. So as a child, I became bored of them, even though my grandmother was an excellent cook. (Even now, I rarely order rice at restaurants, because their versions are never as good as hers.) But, in times of crisis, there’s nothing like the familiar smell of gandules cooking in sofrito right before you pour the rice in the caldero. That’s why—after waking up to another day of bad news and horrific headlines, I go to the kitchen to cook. Food feeds and nurtures our spirits.
What better time to return to classic Latino and Latin American cookbooks and try out new recipes from books I hadn’t read yet? If you’re looking for some joy and inspiration while planning dinner during these difficult times, here are some of our favorites:
Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South by Von Diaz
This is a beautiful cookbook in which Von Diaz combines traditional Puerto Rican recipes with the food traditions she’s learned from living in the South. Anticipating critiques about the authenticity of her food, Diaz preemptively claps back, ”It’s Puerto Rican because I made it.” Coconuts and Collards is a well-written exploration of Puerto Rican identity, displacement and migration. My favorite of the recipes is one of the cookbook’s simplest: collard greens stewed in creamy coconut milk and green onions.
Pro-tip: Try combining it with barbecued chicken. The sweetness of the coconut balances the spicy smokiness of the chicken and makes for an unforgettable meal.
Gran Cocina Latina, The Food of Latin America by Maricel E. Presilla
In Maricel Presilla’s classic, James Beard award-winning cookbook Gran Cocina Latina, Presilla ambitiously presents the reader with recipes from all around Latin America and the Caribbean. Coming from someone who has had the book for two years, there’s an enormous selection of recipes. This time around, I’ve gravitated towards Presilla’s Hot Pepper Pot section—which includes recipes for different adobos, secos, sauces, picantes, sajtas, pipianes and moles. From the Peruvian Picante de Camarones to the Guatemalan Mole de Plátanos, all of these dishes are full of rich and deep flavor and are easily freezable so you can enjoy them later.
Eris’ Green Kitchen by Erisbelia Garriga
Erisbelia Garriga is a Puerto Rican cook from Aguadilla who is also the author of Homestyle Puerto Rican Cooking: Traditional Recipes with a Modern Touch. After facing some health challenges, she decided to write a cookbook of Puerto Rican vegetarian food in an attempt to create healthier versions of the dishes she grew up with and loved. But not to worry; even though these recipes call for less use of oil and salt, the food is still delicious!
“When preparing tostones for the photography session, the photographer said, Ay, Virgen. And I asked what the problem was. He replied, I have eaten almost all of them,” Garriga writes.
I cooked her recipe for arroz con gandules with coconut milk (which added a comforting sweetness to the rice). The coconut milk is rich enough to replace any fat missed from the pork or bacon that is usually incorporated into the plate. (Though I somewhat cheated and made some chuletas on the side). Other eye-catching recipes include those for pasteles de arroz and sopa de leche. For desert, Garriga recommends her avocado tiramisu. She says, “The avocado cream is very delicate and lends a nice creamy flavor.”
Guerilla Tacos by Wesley Avila and Richard Park
Wesley Avila’s humorous stories about his love for food and his childhood shine on the page.
“Julia Luz Alicia Ponce Avila, a.k.a Judy (my mom), worked most of her life at a factory for Avery Labels, an office supply manufacturer in Whittier. She was a hard worker, but when she was off work, she was like Tracy Turnblad’s friend from Hairspray — into deep cuts and good food. And today, I’m just like her,” he writes.
The recipes here are delicious and simple enough for beginner cooks. One of my favorite recipes in this collection is the breakfast burrito with homemade chorizo and potato. It’s good enough to get you out of bed even on the worst of days. I’m also planning on trying the sparerib tacos now that I’m working from home and have the time to wait patiently for the ribs to cook in the oven.
Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture and Identity by Cruz M. Ortíz Cuadra
Although this isn’t a cookbook, it is a wonderfully researched history of Puerto Rican food and opens up an important conversation on how what we eat is deeply connected to who we are. In Eating Puerto Rico, Ortiz Cuadra explores the history of some of Puerto Rico’s most quintessential dishes. In the book, he describes how platanos became an important food staple in Puerto Rican cuisine and goes into how many of our most beloved recipes have strong African roots.
“A food traced back to the West African Yoruba people, fufu was apparently the origin of what in contemporary Puerto Rico is called mofongo, though the latter is made with plantains not yams,” he writes. He also explains that the use of the banana leaf to wrap pasteles can be traced back to African influences. All in all, Ortíz Cuadra’s Eating Puerto Rico is a must-read.