"Healthy Latin Cooking," Steven Raichlen

Pros: Some great recipes; well-organized
Cons: Some audience issues; lack of consistent quality
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

First published 6/4/2002

Steven Raichlen’s “Healthy Latin Cooking: 200 Sizzling Recipes from Mexico, Cuba, Caribbean, Brazil, and Beyond” is a very mixed bag of recipes.

First you must understand that when he uses the term “healthy,” he simply means that these recipes are healthiER than the original versions. If you’re looking for recipes that a dieter would consider healthy, then you’re probably in the wrong place. (For instance, if you’re calculating points Weight Watchers-style, you might find some of these recipes a little frightening.)

Second, and more importantly in my opinion, you must also understand that Mr. Raichlen hasn’t done such a consistent job of maintaining the delicious flavors of these dishes in making them healthy. I firmly believe it’s possible to make dishes much healthier while maintaining great flavor – I’m a picky cook when it comes to having wonderful, flavorful food, and yet I’ve lost 35 pounds based on the principle that low-fat doesn’t have to mean boring. This book, however, fails to deliver on its delicious promises in some cases.

The opening materials

This book looks great from the moment you open it up. There’s “a culinary tour of Latin America,” “health and history of Latin American cooking,” “secrets of Healthy Latin cooking,” “guide to low-fat foods,” and even a “glossary of ingredients and equipment,” as well as “the Latin marketplace.”

However, as soon as you look at the details you begin to see small problems. Check out that glossary for a moment. You’ll find descriptions of ingredients and hints on where to find them (“Available fresh in some Hispanic communities, they are more often found frozen at Hispanic and Asian markets”). Unfortunately there’s no hint about how the ingredients might be packaged (awfully helpful when you’re in a rather foreign store). Sure, a small niggle, but there are larger ones.

For instance, we look at some of the more exotic ingredients, both in the glossary and in the recipes. There are often no suggestions for substitution in case you can’t find something. Let’s take epazote, for instance: “There is no substitute.” This isn’t exactly true. What he’s trying to say is that there is no direct substitute – nothing that can provide exactly the same qualities and flavors. However, often what a cook wants when she can’t get her hands on something isn’t necessarily an exact substitute – it’s just something that will make the dish taste good. Mr. Raichlen could have easily taken a moment to say, “in most dishes, you can achieve a decent flavor by substituting herb X.” Or he could have done something in individual recipes, saying, “6 sprigs fresh or dried epazote, or 1/2 teaspoon dried X.” Sure, it won’t taste the same. But at least it’ll be edible. (I’f you’re thinking, “hey, wait a minute, the taste just won’t be authentic then,” you’re right–but take a glance at my section on audience considerations, below.)

Then let’s look at the glossary entry for cilantro. “Some people hate cilantro. If you perceive a soapy flavor in the herb, you may be mildly allergic to it.” Really? I’d always understood it to be a genetic thing, not an allergy. That is, isn’t it, why cilantro tends to be used as the classic example of genetics in high school science classes, right? Anyway, even here Raichlen falls down on the job. Despite mentioning that cilantro is inedible to some, he doesn’t even bother to mention a substitute (rather a large oversight given cilantro’s pervasive presence in Latin cooking!). Personally, I find that parsley substitutes just fine (my husband has the afore-mentioned soapy taste issue).

At least a two-page list of mail-order sources is provided, and a small handful of them include web page addresses.

A Word on Audience Considerations

I know, strictly speaking Raichlen’s right – if you want to muck with Latin cooking, you really do need to find these things. However, there’s a reason why I feel the way I do about this ingredient issue.

Part of the problem is audience. If the author is writing for people who have all of the means and ability to do traditional Latin cooking, then he is absolutely right to simply go with tradition and tell the rest of us to be damned. However, that isn’t what he’s doing. He has lists of resources and chapters of information clearly aimed at people who know nothing about Latin cooking. Some of his recipes do not appear to be entirely traditional to begin with.

Cookbooks on ethnic foods seem to come in several varieties:

  • Books aimed at people who have a clue, have what they need, and are ready to do everything in the traditional way.
  • Books meant to be showpieces for tourists. They’re meant more to be read than actually used – you’re meant to appreciate the tradition, not make use of it at home.
  • Books aimed at bringing new people to a new experience. In this type of book (which is what Raichlen seems to be aiming for) you should find interesting information, lists of resources, and recipes – here’s the catch – that, while being largely traditional, are made to be more accessible to the cook who is taking her first look around the tradition. Which means that they give a few ideas for substitutions, simplify complicated older methods using newer techniques, and so on. In the case of substitutions, this is particularly necessary for fresh ingredients, which often can’t be obtained through mail-order and thus will be unavailable in many areas.

This is all meant to make the experience less daunting for someone who is interested, but isn’t sure they want to put lots of time and effort into something they aren’t even all that familiar with. Raichlen did all of this except for helping out with a few well-placed substitutions – which wouldn’t have taken him much work to include. An author needs to be consistent about the audience that his book addresses.

The Recipes

The recipes look pretty good, I must admit – Mexican corn soup, plantain soup, mushroom and squash-blossom soup, Yucatan chicken-lime soup… The Mexican corn soup is good but not great, flavorful but not amazingly so. The Yucatan chicken-lime soup is one of the few stand-out recipes in this cookbook, providing quite the delicious flavor punch and interesting texture combination (you float lightly toasted tortilla strips in the soup, and you include shredded chicken breast). The smoky chicken-tomato soup is reasonably good, but not great – and that, I think, best characterizes the majority of this cookbook.

The Bolivian corn pudding is just kind of there – okay, not good, not bad. The Creole Steak is quite good – spicy and flavorful, although the sauce is better (wonderfully sweet) if you make it with bell pepper instead of onion.

You’ll find recipes from Honduran fish soup to Chilles rellenos with corn, Hominy and pork stew, Pork and pineapple soft tacos, Chicken in green pumpkin seed sauce, Pickled onion relish, and Coconut eggnog. There are plenty of recipes overall.

Details

The recipes are fairly clear and easy-to-read. The prevalence of possibly hard-to-find ingredients is a bit high; you’ll need to find a good online ethnic grocer if you don’t have a Hispanic market nearby. While lists of ingredients are often rather long, the directions tend to be rather short – I’d say that the majority of recipes are of middling complexity overall.

The author does do a good job of noting some of the faster recipes (with a little “Pronto!” notation on the side), although the use of it sometimes seems a little inconsistent (there seemed to me to be recipes that were just as short that didn’t have the notation). There are small groups of nice color photos here and there; there are some cute wood-cut pictures that are actually with the recipes. There’s a good index at the end.

I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that this is a bad cookbook. For instance, I haven’t yet noted any errors in the recipes, and that’s obviously a good thing! It just doesn’t consistently deliver impressive recipes, and the word “healthy” in the title can be a bit misleading. I also find the lack of suggestions for substitution a bit annoying, particularly in obvious problem cases like the cilantro, given that this seems to be meant as an introduction to the cuisine.

If you have easy access to the ingredients in this cookbook, don’t have to worry about substitution, and aren’t on a diet, then consider this cookbook a 4 to 4.5.


MEXICAN PEPPERS

Posted in Cooking, Reviews

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