A menu of South American cuisine



March 10, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

What would we do without South America? The continent has given us corn, chocolate, hot peppers, peanuts and potatoes. Amazingly, until the conquistadors invaded South America in the 16th century, these essentials were unknown anywhere else.

Many of the recipes in The South American Table (Harvard Common Press, 2003, $19.95) include these ingredients, which play a key role in the continent's cuisine.

Actually, to call it a single cuisine seems slightly unfair. (Is there such a thing as "North American" or "European" cuisine?) After all, the continent is nearly 5,000 miles long and 3,000 miles wide, and includes a mosaic of cultures, from Afro-Brazilian to Italian-Argentinian.

The book, written by Maria Baez Kijac, a Spanish-Portuguese-Indian native of Ecuador, tries to cover all bases, and offers a variety of dishes from all over the continent.

Most of the 450 recipes in the book have some element of Spanish cooking, and use some indigenous ingredients. But the recipes reflect the amalgam of ethnic groups now inhabiting the continent. Many of the Brazilian offerings, for instance, have an African influence, with sauces based on coconut milk. And several Argentinian dishes show their strong Italian lineage, and almost seem closer to Rome than Buenos Aires.

The book begins with several illuminating chapters that briefly cover the geography and history of the continent and its cooking. Baez Kijac ends with two helpful sources: a chart that translates South American food names into English (canapes, for instance are bocadillos), as well as a list of mail-order retailers who carry South American foodstuffs such as quinoa and dried potatoes.

My sense is that Baez Kijac isn't intimately familiar with all the dishes in the book - not surprising given the large number of recipes. The recipe for chickpea and spinach stew with ham, for example, said the squash would cook in 10 minutes. Instead it wasn't ready for closer to 45. (In any case, the final result was delicious.)

Another recipe I tried, rice with mussels and wine, went exactly according to plan. With moderate effort, I produced a filling, tasty dish that resembled paella. The mixture of paprika and saffron created delicious yellow rice, just like you get in any Latin-influenced restaurant.

One problem: The recipes don't include overall preparation time, which makes it hard to gauge what you're getting into beforehand. And some of the ingredients may be difficult to find - although Baez Kijac often includes easier-to-find substitutes.

Chances are, you won't try every recipe in this book. Even if you wanted to prepare roasted whole guinea pig or crepes filled with calf's brains and mushrooms, you might have a hard time finding all the ingredients. But The South American Table is a great way to introduce yourself to the continent's cuisine.

Arroz con Mejillones a la Walter (Walter's Rice With Mussels)

Serves 4 to 6

one 2-pound package of frozen mussels in the half shell (New Zealand mussels recommended)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup seeded and diced ( 1/4 inch) green bell pepper

1/2 cup seeded and diced ( 1/4 inch) red bell pepper

3 large garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

3 cups boiling water (divided use)

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled

1 1/2 cups converted rice


1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup dry white wine

Tabasco sauce

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves for garnish

Thaw the mussels in the refrigerator a few hours before starting the dish. Remove from the shells and rinse thoroughly to remove any sand. Cut in half crosswise and set aside.

In a heavy 10-inch skillet with a tight cover or a large, heavy casserole, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the bell peppers and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring a few times.

Mix the paprika with 1 cup of the boiling water and add to the skillet. Stir the saffron into 1 cup of boiling water and let it soften for a couple of minutes. Add to the skillet, along with the rice, mussels, 1 teaspoon salt, black pepper and remaining 1 cup boiling water. Stir, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 10 minutes.

Add the wine, season with Tabasco and salt to taste, and continue to cook until the rice has absorbed all the liquid, about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir, cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Serve sprinkled with the parsley.

Per serving (1/6th of dish): 273 calories; 7 grams protein; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 45 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 5 milligrams cholesterol; 437 milligrams sodium

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