Excerpted with permission from The Latin Table: Easy, Flavorful Recipes from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Beyond by Isabel Cruz. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
A self-taught chef with cooking in her blood, Isabel Cruz's greatest joy comes from being with and cooking for her family and friends, who greatly influence her cooking. She is also the author of Isabel’s Cantina, which was included in Food and Wines Best of Volume 8, and named one of the New York Times 25 Notable Cookbooks of the Year. She is also the chef/proprietor of two West Coast restaurants: Coffee Cup Cafe in La Jolla and Isabel’s Cantina in Pacific Beach.
I am obsessed with Latin America: the warmth of the people, the architecture, the music, and especially the food! Latin cuisine is easy to make, tastes amazing, and is healthy—yes, healthy! I haven’t always appreciated it, though.
Growing up in a Puerto Rican family, I remember my mother, my two brothers, and I ganging up on my father because we wanted to eat like our friends and our American neighbors. We wanted TV dinners and the easy, fun packaged foods we saw advertised on TV and overwhelmingly present in the grocery aisles. Back then, one of my mother’s favorite ways to cook included dumping a can of cream of mushroom soup on pork chops and baking it in the oven or pouring a package of sloppy job mix into a pan of ground beef. Our vegetables were out of a can or frozen, too. Of course, it’s okay to use canned or frozen food on occasion (it’s so convenient), but during my childhood, this was an everyday thing—the way people regularly made home-cooked meals. The four of us loved that particular period of our food history; it was our Americana phase.
My dad, however, couldn’t stand it! He made his own food, roasting whole fish or chicken in the oven with garlic, cilantro, and chilies. He’d make steaming rice and pots of beans. Why would we (the new American eaters) want that when we could have mom’s mushroom soup pork chop, or a TV dinner with that little apple pie? He even had a garden, where he grew his own tomatoes and herbs—and this was way before the urban garden thing became trendy.
As much as we loved our Americana fare, the novelty soon wore off. Over time, my mother stopped making packaged food, and my brothers and I started to like what my dad was cooking up. We even grew to love cilantro, despite screaming about it constantly because my father used to put it on everything.
If you haven’t already figured this out, my family loves to eat. I mean, really loves to eat. To this day, every Sunday we get together at my mom’s house and have dinner with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandma. Over the years, the tradition has grown to include new people almost weekly. Sometimes I invite a friend or two, or someone else brings a friend, and it goes on from there. I’m lucky that, as much as we love to eat, most of us love to cook, as well. I took advantage of this to test many of the recipes included in my book, The Latin Table. My eleven-year-old niece even made many of these recipes herself. The food—my recipes—are simple. Latin food is simple!
Just like our beloved rice and beans. I can say with some certainty that if you grew up in a Latino household, you ate rice and beans. Even though the basic ingredients are the same, the variations are endless, and the little differences make every version unique.
This goes for empanadas, tortillas, and even flan, churros, and more. If you have churros in Mexico, they will probably be slightly different then the churros in Portugal, but I am sure every version will be delicious.
Across Latin America, the food and ingredients are similar and so is the warmth and hospitality of the people. They enjoy good food and good drink, and they want to share it with everyone. In Latin communities, it is common for someone you just met to invite you to a home-cooked meal with their family.
My recipes demonstrate the way I cook for myself and my family, but also, most importantly, the way I cook in my restaurants. Growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve enjoyed foods from all over Latin America, and the indelible influences of these cultures—as well as my father’s, mother’s, grandmother’s and aunts’ cooking—is present in each dish. The food is simple, fresh, and healthy, and the recipes are easy to follow. Good food doesn’t have to be complicated!
I hope you’ll appreciate the healthy twist I’ve given the food of my childhood. These days, remarkably, salsa outsells ketchup. Today, Latin food is a part of American culture. I hope you’ll enjoy my recipes as much as I’ve enjoyed the journey of creating and conjuring recipes that blend so much of my childhood and that of my many and varied neighbors.
Good Food, Good Life!
Recipe: Mexican Chocolate Tamales
Makes 24 tamales
Lucy has been making tamales for my restaurants for more than twenty years; her tamales are simply the best. She pays attention to detail and does everything with great care. Lucy has shared her secret to tamale making with me, and now I’ll share it with you: the most important tip to making tamales that are light and airy is to have enough water in the dough. If the dough is too heavy, the tamales will be heavy.
This recipe is for the more adventurous among you. Tamales take a bit of practice, but you’ll get the hang of it. Once you do, chocolate tamales are the way to go. Traditionally, sweet tamales are filled with fruit, but I’ve made the switch to something everyone loves: chocolate.
1 (8-ounce) package dried corn husks
2 cups masa harina
2 sticks butter, softened a bit
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup chocolate ganache + more to plate
¼ cup cocoa powder
¾ cup Mexican Chocolate
Fresh whipped cream, for serving (optional)
Select the biggest corn husks from the package and remove all strands of corn silk. Soak them in hot water until they are soft and pliable, about 30 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the masa, butter, ½ cup water, baking powder, 1 cup of the ganache (the remaining ganache will be used as a garnish), cocoa powder, and Mexican Chocolate. Mix until a soft dough forms (softer than Play-Doh). Add more water if necessary.
Drain the husk and pat dry. Lay a husk in your hand, narrow end toward you, smooth side up. Place 2 tablespoons of the chocolate masa in a log shape about 1 inch from the bottom and 2 inches from the top. Fold the two sides over the end of the tamale.
Stand the tamales in a steamer or a colander and cover with a lid. Steam the tamales over water for about 40 minutes, until the filling no longer sticks to the husk.
Serve the tamales while hot, each topped with a spoonful of ganache and a dollop of whipped cream, if desired.