From award- winning chef and culinary historian Maricel E. Presilla, Peppers of the Americas is a comprehensive guide to an ingredient beloved the world over. Read on for a full review of this beautiful study of the pepper!
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Truth be told, I never thought much about what brought peppers into my kitchen. I certainly use them often enough though.
Peppers are in all my favorite cuisines – from the scotch bonnet peppers of Caribbean jerk seasoning, to the tiny bird chilies in my favorite Thai curries, to the roasted red peppers or spicy green peperoncini layered on Italian sandwiches. They can be found everywhere, in culinary traditions the world over, in dishes and condiments that have long and treasured heritages that go back generations.
But did you know peppers are not native to most of the world, but were instead cultivated there much later?
Did you know that all of the various species of peppers originated in one place – Latin America – and didn’t travel outside of the region until trade routes were established as late as the 15th century?
Did you know that peppers are technically berries??
I had no idea, but I was delighted to learn these details and more in this incredibly rich work by Maricel E. Presilla.
Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums that Forever Changed Flavor
Maricel E. Presilla’s passion for cultivating and studying peppers is clear in her genuine tone and detailed work. Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums that Forever Changed Flavor is not just a cookbook or an ingredient guide, although it can function as both. The tome features an identification gallery of nearly two-hundred varieties of peppers, some forty recipes, and a variety of tips and tricks on growing and using peppers at home. But the book doesn’t end there. Through rigorous scholarship and years of research, Peppers of the Americas is a comprehensive treatise of the fruit as a species. It chronicles not only the plant’s very anatomy and evolution, but also its immense influence on culinary history the world over.
The quality of the book’s scholarship should be no surprise. Presilla is a PhD-trained culinary historian, specializing in cultural anthropology and the cuisines of Latin America and Spain. She’s also a three-time award winning James Beard winner, accomplished chef, and the co-owner of two Hoboken restaurants, Zafra and Cucharamama. Already the recognized authority on the cocoa bean, Presilla may stand to become the same for the pepper as well with this latest publication.
A Quick Summary
This beautiful book sets an ambitious bar for single-ingredient cookbooks. Peppers of the Americas is broken up into ten specific chapters, but it’s organization can be understood in much simpler terms – botany, history, detailed identification guides, tips for cultivation, and a selection of kitchen tips and recipes.
The chapters on botany offer a break-down of the anatomy and sub-species of capsicum (the genus to which the pepper belongs), as well as the science of capsaicin, the unique ingredient that gives peppers their heat.
An in-depth history of how peppers traveled the world through trade and conquest follows, detailing how they spread not only to Spain with the return of Spanish explorers, but into the homes of Eastern Europe, India, Asia, and Africa to become the ubiquitous presence they are today. As someone with a background in history and culture, I found this section the most engaging. Presilla’s knowledge and keen writing style relays complicated historic movements clearly and brilliantly, all through the lens and movements of the capiscum.
The bulk of the volume is taken up by two photo galleries of fresh and dried pepper varieties. I found this identification guide useful right away. When I stumbled on a basket of mystery hot peppers at my local farm stand, I bought a handful and I sat down with Peppers in the Americas in an attempt to figure out what they might be. I’m not sure how good I am at identifying, but narrowing down the possibilities was certainly fun and informative. I’m sure others with a keener eye for botany than me would have immense success with this tool at their disposal.
After a pair of practical chapters on gardening and preparing the popular ingredient, Peppers of the Americas ends with variety of Latin American recipes that include vinegars, salsas, and main courses with peppers as the star. The restaurant-quality dishes are accompanied with stunning photos, and each includes a detailed head note. While I’ve yet to make any myself, a few that stand out are:
- Puerto Rican Hot Pepper-Spiced Pineapple Vinegar
- Big Tamal Pie Filled with Chicken in Chile Ancho Adobo
- Piquillo Peppers Stuffed with Refried Beans in Chipotle-Vanilla Sauce
- Slab Bacon in Hibiscus Hot Pepper Adobo with Chocolate (I seriously cannot wait to make this!)
Overall Thoughts and Critiques
Presilla’s tone is approachable and informative, and her passion for the humble pepper is contagious. Nevertheless, the contents can be dense and highly scientific. Presilla does not talk down to the reader, and in many cases assumes a certain level of knowledge and education in her in-depth explanations of the subject matter. As a trained historian myself, I found it enjoyable to perform such a deep-dive into the culinary history of a region that’s new to me, but will admit that I had to take my time and put effort into following certain parts due to my own lack of familiarity. It’s clear that Peppers of the Americas is first and foremost a scholarly work and not for the casual reader.
The recipe section is beautifully written and inspiring in concept, but can be a bit intimidating even for an experienced home cook. Due to the nuances in the ingredients, Presilla offers no substitutions or recommendations should a particular pepper be hard to find. Unless your usual shopping routes include a variety of capsicum, casually trying a recipe from this book could be a difficult proposition. Nevertheless, I look forward to trying what recipes I can when the opportunity arises.
Intended Audience: Peppers of the Americas may not be for every home cook, but I’ve learned a lot from this encyclopedic tome. Presilla’s new book is a must-have addition to the libraries of:
- Food nerds (like me!) interested in culinary history and anthropology
- Home gardeners and cooks interested in botany and plant anatomy
- Anyone with a passion for Latin American cooking and culture
If any of those apply to you (or a friend), I recommend picking up a copy. At the very least, you will have a whole new set of impressive, pepper-forward foodie facts to share at your next dinner party!
Further Reading from Maricel E. Presilla:
- Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America (October 1, 2012)
- The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (November 24, 2009)
Disclaimer: I received Peppers of the Americas from Blogging for Books for this review.