Maricel Presilla is one of the world’s most respected experts on chile peppers. Her new book, Peppers of the Americas, is an encyclopedia, cookbook and collection of pepper-obsessed photography all in one book. A native of Cuba, Presilla now lives in New Jersey. Host Francis Lam visited home and kitchen for a lesson in dried pepper pastes – incredibly aromatic flavor boosters used to season just about anything from braises and roasts, to pots of rice. She left us with recipes for Basic Dried Pepper Paste and a completely non-basic dish called Big Tamal Pie Filled with Chicken in Chile Ancho Sauce.
Francis Lam: This kitchen is incredible. Everywhere I look there are beautiful copper pans and pots, and there are artifacts from all over the world. Plus, you have the most incredible macaws in the next room over.
Maricel Presilla: And they're quiet, which is miraculous.
FL: We're here today because we want to talk to you about the things you think anyone who wants to cook like a Latino or Latina cook should know how to make. What are those things?
MP: Latin cooking is very structured. We might seem very casual, but we are structured. There are certain techniques that are absolutely essential to Latin cooking. You'll find them in different countries with different touches, but the foundation is basic. I'm talking about essentially two things. The adobo, which is a marinade. Most Latin cooks like to flavor meats or fish with a combination of ingredients like garlic, maybe citrus juice, and spices before cooking. Most of our food including rice dishes depend on a cooking sauce that we call sofrito. You marinate a piece of meat, and then you braise it in a sofrito because you're getting different levels of flavor.
FL: You said there are many different versions of adobos and sofritos around the Latin world. Talk to us about one of your favorite adobos.
MP: When I get home from the market with a piece of steak – or maybe fish – my instinctive reaction is to grab the mortar and pestle, and crush garlic to a paste together with black peppercorns, salt, and allspice. I'm from Eastern Cuba where there is a tradition of using allspice. Then I add cumin, a bit of oregano, and Seville orange juice. When I don't have Seville orange juice, I go for beautiful orange juice with a bit of lime; sometimes I add the zest of a grapefruit just to approximate the flavor of Seville orange. With that, I marinate everything. This technique basically comes from the Spanish Middle Ages. We hear the word adobo in medieval Spanish text, and if there’s something they did not use, maybe it was the citrus juice; in some cases, they used vinegar. And they didn't use allspice because allspice is from the New World. But they did use black peppercorns.
Maricel Presilla in her kitchen with The Splendid Table contributor Von Diaz and host Francis Lam (Photo: Sally Swift)
FL: Adobo is the first step; it’s the first layer of flavor. You've marinated your meat or fish in that. Talk to us about the sofrito. Can you describe a basic sofrito for us?
MP: I like to make a simple sofrito. I scrape some of the excess adobo from the meat, and I brown the meat. Once it's brown, I put it aside. Then, in my pan, I sauté garlic, usually onions and – according to the recipe – I add different things. I add more cumin, maybe more allspice or oregano, anything that appeals to me in terms of aroma. Then I add tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes, a little wine. If I'm cooking a recipe from coastal Colombia, I might add a little bit of coconut milk.
Then I add the meat. Bring the meat back into the pot. The combination of elements – the fact that the meat already has flavor of its own, the cooking sauce, the juices exuded by the meat mixing with the sofrito and the adobo – that’s what makes great flavor.
FL: That sounds amazing. I think you wanted to talk about a particular Puerto Rican or Dominican sofrito.
MP: The Puerto Rican and Dominican interpretation of all this is fascinating. They start with something they call recaíto, a flavoring base composed of three important ingredients including culantro, which is a broadleaf cilantro, and ají dulce, which is absolutely wonderful.
FL: It's a beautiful green pepper that looks like a pattypan squash.
MP: Exactly. You can buy this in the Hispanic bodegas, and you will always find it together with cilantro and culantro. Puerto Rican cooks put in a blender and make a paste with this.
FL: Culantro, cilantro and ají dulce and pureed together.
MP: Pureed together but, in many cases, they do a more complex type of recaíto. They might have another sweet green pepper; it could be green bell pepper or the cubanelle. They might add some garlic to it. They might add chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce or paste. That’s a complete seasoning paste. They keep in the refrigerator. Something similar to the Puerto Rican version is called sazón in the Dominican Republic, but it's kept in the refrigerator. It's a very precious ingredient.
Francis having a little chat with Maricel's macaws. (Photo: Sally Swift)
FL: So far, we've been talking about fresh ingredients. The adobo is made with fresh ingredients. The sofrito and recaito are made with fresh ingredients, herbs and chiles. You wanted to show us something with dried chiles as well, right?
MP: Absolutely. We discussed the world of fresh peppers in the Hispanic Caribbean, but in Peru, the two most important ingredients for a cooking sauce are dried peppers: ají mirasol, which is a beautiful yellow pepper, and ají panca.
FL: This looks like the kind of chile you might find in a Latin or Mexican store. These beautiful, lacquered-looking dried chiles.
MP: Yes, absolutely. I'm picky when I buy ají panca because I don't want something that is completely dried and lifeless. I want a little bit of flexibility in the chile; that’s very important.
FL: The color of it's still vibrant. You can still see a lot of shine in the skin.
MP: This is the foundation to cook Latin food from the Hispanic Caribbean down to Peru. The adobe is the first one – the marinade. The recaíto, which is the flavor and base for something we call a sofrito. And the third is the Peruvian version of the sofrito called aderezo; it uses as a dried pepper as a building block.
FL: You’re going to show us how to make that?
MP: Absolutely. Let's go to the kitchen.
Francis and Maricel move into her kitchen.
Maricel Presilla shows Francis and Von her technique for making sofrito.(Photo: Sally Swift)
FL: You have this beautiful bowl of ají panca, but this is a technique you would use for any dried chili?
MP: For any dried chili. That's why this is useful. You can replace ají panca with guajillo or ancho; the technique is always the same. I wash the peppers. People might say that I'm crazy, but I'm not because I've seen what happens to peppers when they're drying on the ground and kept in stores. I do a very quick rinse. You can see that the water might be a little bit dark as it shows the dust. I might leave the peppers to dry on their own. The reason I don't want them to be wet when I seed them is the seeds get stuck to your fingers, and it's messy. To seed them, I simply use scissors. I cut the stem off, and then sort of roll it twice.
FL: You're splitting it open with the scissors.
MP: Just split it open. It’s very simple with ají panca.
FL: Open it up and scrape the seeds out.
MP: If I were to dry roast the peppers, I would butterfly them to press them flat. If I were a Mexican, I would probably do that. I would get a comal or a dry skillet, and I would toast them lightly. But, the Peruvians don't do that. Immediately after they seed the peppers, they either boil them until they are reconstituted – that might take 15 to 20 minutes – or simply soak them. Cover them with water and let them soak for 20 to 30 minutes until they are soft. Once the ají is soft to the touch, drain it and keep some of the water because you're going to need it for the sofrito. This recipe calls for six ají pancas; you need to reserve about a cup.
FL: That water has really nice flavor.
MP: The water has a lot of beautiful flavor. Place your peppers in the blender. I do large batches of this, so it's good to have a powerful blender. [Maricel blends the peppers.] It doesn't take much for this very powerful blender. So, here it is.
While cooking a fresh serving of sofrito, Maricel and Francis tasted one of her previous batches from the fridge. (Photo: Sally Swift)
FL: It has a beautiful brick red color.
MP: It looks like jam, doesn't it?
FL: It totally looks like jam.
MP: This is something I like to keep in my kitchen. Now, get your skillet ready. This is important: I like to heat the skillet first, then add the oil. I really need the oil almost to be sizzling.
FL: You want the oil to be shimmery hot.
MP: Exactly. We start with garlic; cook it for about 20 seconds. Some people don't like to do this because they are scared of burning the garlic. Sometimes they will add the onions first. That’s alright, but I like to cook the garlic first. Then you follow with red onions. Notice that it's very important in regional flavor to use the right onion. In the Hispanic Caribbean, it's mostly the yellow onion. But in Peru or Bolivia, it's red onion. It's more flavorful.
FL: A little sweeter, maybe?
MP: Exactly. When I'm making a sofrito, it's not just a question of stirring the onions and the garlic very lightly, and then add the other ingredients. No, you need to basically caramelize the onions. I might cook this for about 10 minutes until the onions are golden and beautifully sweet because they caramelize.
FL: And you have the onions cut fairly fine.
FL: In 10 minutes, it releases a lot of the juice.
MP: It will. Once you get to that stage, you add your seasoning ingredients. I like cumin, which is very important in Peruvian cooking. Then, I like to add my salt.
Notice there is always an acid element in these cooking sauces. For the Puerto Rican recaíto, vinegar is really important. For the Cuban, the Seville orange, but for the Peruvian, it's red wine vinegar – or it could be chicha, which is fermented pineapple. I just added a drop, like a teaspoon, of the red wine vinegar. Only when all of these elements have been integrated, do I add the ají puree. In this case, it's like half a cup. And then I stir it to blend and cook it down for about five minutes. At this point, I add about a cup of the mixture liquid from boiling the hot peppers. This is flavorful and beautiful, but has to cook down.
FL: Now you're cooking it down until it's this gorgeous deep red brick color. It's smells incredible: toasty, sweet, and fruity. And you use this as your base. You can use a couple of tablespoons to flavor a pot of rice, or use it to flavor a whole chicken stew. But that flavor is going to carry you through many different dishes in a meal.
MP: Absolutely. Now you can cook like a Peruvian.
FL: Thank you so much, Maricel.
MP: Such a pleasure to have you in my kitchen, and “Latin-ize” your style a little bit.
FL: I could use it.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.