Welcome to book two of our Autumn 2022 season of Cookbook Club! Our theme is Savoring the Diverse Flavors of Latin America. Our first book provided an overview of over twenty different regions. This next book marks our transition to explorations of three individual cuisines.
This leg of our journey begins with The Chilean Kitchen: 75 Seasonal Recipes for Stews, Breads, Salads, Cocktails, Desserts, and More by Pilar Hernandez and Eileen Smith. After the prodigious amount of material we attempted to absorb from Virgilio Martínez’s book, this book felt more like a leisurely swim in a tranquil inlet versus that deep dive into a vast ocean of information.
My aquatic analogies end there. Although Chile has about 2,600 miles of coastline, the recipes in this book (for the most part) come firmly from the land. They represent the home kitchen – specifically, the home kitchens of the central part of the country. The everyday food of people who eat simply and well.
The cuisine of Chile embodies its history from its indigenous people, to the pre-Columbian settlers, Spanish colonization, and more recent immigrant groups. You’ll find hints of flavors and techniques from Germany, Italy, and France, Peru, Venezuela, and Haiti.
Comida chilena is more than criolla – a blend of Spanish and indigenous foods. It is a fluid blend of old and new, history and innovation, geography and seasonality “braided together” to give what the authors call comida chilena (Chilean food).
What it is not is just as important. It is not spicy, complicated, or expensive. And it is not “restaurant food”. In fact, because of Chile’s political history, restaurants were not really part of their culture until after the 1990s. Since then, the country is making up for lost time. But that’s for another story.
”Chilean food traces its roots through our history, from indigenous cultures, pre-Columbian settlements, Spanish colonization, and waves of immigration since then.”
Pilar Hernandez, The Chilean Kitchen
About The Chilean Kitchen
As mentioned earlier, Chile has over 2,600 miles of coastline. North to south, it covers ten distinct climate zones including subtropical, desert, Mediterranean, and even ice cap in Patagonia. This is just one of the reasons the authors (wisely) chose to contain the scope of their coverage to the populace (and popular) central region of the country, around the capital of Santiago where nearly half the country’s population resides.
I’m a big fan of choosing to work within a limited scope, so I applaud the authors decision to work with a narrow focus for their first book. In addition to the choice of geographic location, they also stick with home cooking from the 1980s to present. The constraints work for them, and we are rewarded with a book that is, at once, approachable and informative.
As a chef and adventurous cook and eater, I can still appreciate approachability in a cookbook. A book that takes its reader to a place, provides an insider glimpse of a culture that is new to them, and welcomes them by accentuating commonality without compromising authenticity is doing a service.
In The Chilean Kitchen, the pantry chapter helps the reader understand the Chilean ingredients and offers thoughtful substitutions (and honest notes on those that don’t have equivalents). Though I must say, Thai chiles are definitely not a reasonable substitute for mild to medium heat of ají verde!
The 75 recipes in The Chilean Kitchen each reflect the authors’ objective to take the reader along for meals with family, weekend getaways to the country or a visit to their grandparents. Real food, comfort food, simple ingredients prepared in a way that will surprise you with their unexpected depth.
The time saved skipping extensive urban foraging trips for special ingredients and complicated preparations can then be spent on one of Chiles greatest culinary assets… sobremesa. “Long, after-meal conversations at the dining room table.”
About The Authors
Pilar Hernandez is credited with writing the recipes for The Chilean Kitchen. She grew up in Rancaqua, a small city south of Santiago, “surrounded by fearless home cooks,” and later moved to Houston, Texas in 2003. She writes the award-winning Chilean blog (in Spanish) En Me Cucina Hoy and its sister website (in English) Chilean Food and Garden.
Hernandez is a trained physician who brings a scientific approach to recipe development and testing. Our group can vouch for the benefit that brings to the reader-cook. She is also “notoriously food-trend-averse,” so we feel confident that these recipes are able to stand the test of time.
Eileen Smith is an American who originally trained as a lawyer and worked as a journalist. She moved to Chile in 2004. She learned about Chilean home cooking through her personal journey to recreate the home cooking of her Ashkenazi Jewish childhood in Brooklyn with the foods found in Santiago.
Smith writes about the food, drink, culture, travel, and “things that make us human.” She wrote the text for The Chilean Kitchen. Smith and Hernandez met through social media in the late 2000s. They connected when Smith interviewed Hernandez for an article for NPR. Later, Smith contacted Hernandez to collaborate on what is now The Chilean Kitchen, their love letter to the food and the country that has shaped both of them.
The Cooking Part…
For each cookbook I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. This round I also included some challenges for those who wanted to push their limits a bit.
Notes On What We Cooked
Betarragas Rellenas, or beets layered with chicken salad, may not seem like the most traditional dish to start with, but it’s beautiful, unique, and tasty.
Empanadas de Pino were definitely a popular choice. The filling of ground beef, raisins, olives, and hardboiled egg was hearty and flavorful. The dough was easy to work with and flaky. These freeze well too.
The dobladitas (little folded things) are typically made with leftover empanada dough. They’re a great treat right from the oven slathered with good butter. I’m considering making this as a substitute for crescent rolls at thanksgiving this year.
Carrot frittata, tortilla de zanahoria, was – by far – the crowd favorite. That might be because I raved about it so much. It’s about as easy as it gets and is one of the most versatile dishes in the book. I made it as a side dish for a nice plated dinner, had it with salad for lunch like quiche, and even ate it cold from the fridge as I rushed out to a meeting one morning. It’s that good. Some of us made it our own by adding different sauces to accompany it. My personal favorite, ras el hanout spiced yogurt.
Tallarines con Palta, avocado pesto on pasta, is another game changer. I never thought about making pesto out of avocado, but it is the perfect texture and so much easier to make! The recipe makes much more than I needed, so I used the rest in a few other ways. Including as a substitute of guacamole.
Paila Marina is a seafood soup that is almost addictive. The recipe says it serves 4, but once you taste it, you’ll wish you’d made more.
When I saw the photo for the wine poached pears, Peras con Vino, I could not resist. So simple and not necessarily “Chilean”, but what makes the difference is the choice of wine. Central Chile is also wine country, and Carménère (a bold red wine) is king. And the price per bottle makes it super-friendly for use in cooking and even better for drinking.
And there were so many more dishes we recommend… this book was certainly a group favorite for easy, flavorful weeknight meals (and a few special treats).
I hope you’re enjoying being a part of this season’s cookbook club. Stay tuned for our next book, Colombiana: A Rediscovery of Recipes & Rituals from the Soul of Colombia by Mariana Velásquez. If you’d like to catch up with past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.
As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and all our friends at the 92nd Street Y for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and enrichment.