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Daisy

Cucharamama

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Cucharamama aspires to trendiness, I think, which is probably what accounts for its bizarre mixture of South and Central American artifacts, weird lighting, counter seating, wood-burning oven. Decorative overkill, but there's some pretty good food on offer. It is necessary to enter this establishment in a very good mood and immediately consume one of its strong if a tad sweet cocktails, because the service sucks. No one is hostile or anything remotely like it, but everyone we encountered was inept, bumbling, confused, forgetful. A simple matter like escorting us and our drinks from the bar to our table seemed to tax the abilities of the hostess.

 

Fried calamari was not my favorite rendition of this dish. While fried crisply it tasted of oil that was either overheated or slightly past it. An oven-baked mixture of beans, morcilla and pork belly was terrific, though, and although I am not a fan of the traditional Peruvian papas a la huachinanga Cucharamama's version was redeemed by a lighter than usual cheese sauce and delicious crunchy, lightly pickled onions. Pork belly with mussels and paprika-dusted cubes of potatoes was spicy, succulent and much too big a portion as were all entrees. We all ended up taking much of our dinners home. Chicken smeared with an adobo paste and roasted was juicy and crisp-skinned. And I loved my citrus-marinated pork leg with ajillo and pinto beans in a thin, smoky tomato sauce. A side of vanilla-tinged pureed sweet potatoes was jammy-tasting and delicious. No room for dessert. As for wine, we had a Jumilla that was $30 and went down nicely with the aromatically seasoned foods.

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Bergen Record:

 

Upscale South American

 

On the menu, you'll find two pages of tamales, ceviches, empanadas and a host of other "small plate" temptations that ordered separately or together constitute a generous meal. On the menu's back cover is a list of exotic entrees. The restaurant staff, dressed in black with bright, oversized ties, are conscientious and knowledgeable, able to explain to a neophyte like me the wonders of South American food. Although I am not an expert on the authenticity of Latino cuisine, I am an expert on "yummy," and for that, Cucharamama's food rates extremely high.

 

The cooking is vibrant and smart. For instance, the piqueo (appetizer list) included chicharro de pollo novoandino ($8) – Peruvian-style, crunchy, quinoa-crusted chicken fingers served with a vibrant and tangy "Chino-Latino" sauce.

 

One bite and I adored them, proving what I hoped when I first walked through the door: I was in for a magical meal.

 

First impressions don't always count when it comes to restaurants. A place that looks drop-dead gorgeous can have such rank food that glamour and glitz fade to nothing. But at Cucharamama, the warm and welcoming decor is an accurate indication of the wonders to come.

 

Granted, I was a bit confounded when I encountered heavy blankets draping the entry. But when you push them aside, you're welcomed into a room where dinner unfolds against a colorful background of mosaic tiles, ancient artifacts and native paintings. At the heart of the restaurant is el horno – the wood-burning stove -- where chefs cook dishes such as chorizo Argentino con pimientos y cebolla ($9), a scintillating, perfectly seasoned Argentinian sausage, crisped and sweating from the oven, served with slivers of bright red roasted peppers, onions and a vinegary red chimichurri sauce.

 

They also turn out thin-crusted, 6-inch "pizzas" with distinctive toppings – Spanish Serrano ham, manchego cheese, dried cod, red onion and Andean aji Amarillo, a fiery dried chili.

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Delicious meal at Cucharamama last night. Tamal, arepas, short ribs, incredibly cooked octopus. Cocktails sweet, leading to hazy details but overall loved it. Wood burning oven yielded a pizzette with kabocha squash and manchego cheese...

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The WSJ visits for brunch. I'm extraordinarily impressed with the press Dr Presilla's establishments have received. White House catering, two articles in the Wall Street Journal, several mentions in the NY Times, etc.

 

At first, the brunch menu at Cucharamama seems ordinary: eggs, home fries and slab bacon. It's the sauces, though, that give the dishes at this Hoboken restaurant their distinctive, South American flair.

 

The Chilean chicken and beef pot pie is cooked inside a wood-burning oven.

 

"Everything begins with a cooking sauce," says chef and co-owner Maricel Presilla, who is also a food historian. The sauces typically start with a base of onions and garlic, "and you add different spices according to the region."

 

The Andes are well represented by the flavors at Cucharamama. Diners can choose eggs blanketed in a spicy Andean pepper sauce ($12 with potatoes). The slab bacon ($17) is marinated with Andean peppers, then roasted.

 

"We treat it like pork belly rather than bacon," Ms. Presilla said. The chicken and beef pot pie ($15) is a Chilean dish. Corn lends sweetness to the pie, but merkén—a "Chilean paprika" made from a blend of spices and hot peppers—adds a kick.

 

On a recent frigid Sunday, the Venzuelan hot chocolate ($7), spiced with anise and cinnamon, was a good compromise for dessert.

 

Appetizers, many Peru-inspired, are also available at brunch. The octopus, in a sauce of Alfonso olives and panca peppers, is a Japanese-Peruvian creation and a nod to the culinary influence of Asian migrants to Peru.

—Charlene Lee

 

Cucharamama, 233 Clinton St. in Hoboken, (201) 420-1700, serves brunch on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

 

 

WSJ

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I thought Cucharamama was terrific.

 

In a way, you have to have eaten around South America to appreciate this place. Because the simple fact is, most of the food here is much better prepared than what you'd ordinarily get in these dishes' native countries.

 

Cucharamama is Pan-South American, meaning that it has dishes from many different South American countries that were formerly Spanish colonies. Most of them are somewhat tarted up -- but they aren't fused or anything. It eats like what it is: a food scholar's attempt to present impeccable versions of standard dishes from various parts of the Spanish part of the continent.

 

The cocktails are too-sweet in the South American tradition, but I found them eminently drinkable. I loved drinking lula-and-aguardiente in Bogota, and I loved drinking it in Hoboken. I'll have a Pisco Sour anywhere.

 

In fact, my friend and I decided we'd have a large bunch of appetizers with a series of cocktails each, and then move on to main dishes with some wine.

 

I join Daisy in loving the Jalea de Calamares. There was also a standout Argentine sausage with chimichurri, octopus in olive sauce, and Nobel-worth arepas with salmon roe and creme fraiche.

 

My main dish was a Bolivian beef braise called Saiche. Although braised, it resembles Peruvian lomo saltado. (These dishes were all inspired by the pepper steaks cooked by Chinese immigrants.) It was surprisingly spicy -- much spicier than anything I've ever had in Bolivia. But it was a good spiciness -- especially when balanced by the sweetness of the accompanying (delicious) black beans and rice, made with a good dose of brown sugar. Good stuff.

 

Service isn't so bad if you're aggressive enough.

 

Very much worth a trip to Hoboken.

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On the small plates front, the bleu cheese empanadas are outrageously good.

 

Between Cucharamama, Zafra, and Ultramarinos, owner Maricel Presilla is putting out an extraordinary range of good food in Hoboken.

 

Christopher

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Maricel Presilla, the chef-owner of Hoboken's Cucharamama and one of the nation's leading experts on Latin American cuisine, has won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region after being nominated five times.

 

The category pits chefs in New Jersey against those in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and has been thoroughly dominated by D.C. and Philly chefs. This is the first time a chef from New Jersey has won the award in at least a decade. Previous winners in the category include Iron Chef Jose Garces and D.C. food kingpin Jose Andres, as well as New Jersey's own Craig Shelton back in 2000.

 

"This is a great story for New Jersey, and I'm glad to be it," says the Cuban-born Presilla in a whirlwind phone interview from her Weehawken home. She dedicated the award to her late mentor, the Peruvian chef Felipe Rojas Lombardi, who was also James Beard's longtime assistant, and said she was proud to raise the profile of Latinos in restaurant kitchens.

 

Presilla, who has a much-awaited encyclopedic cookbook on Latin American cuisine coming out later this year, specializes in South American cooking at Cucharamama, an intimate, atmospheric 40-seat bistro with a wood-burning oven several blocks off Hoboken's Washington Street. She also runs Zafra, a more casual Cuban eatery nearby, and Ultramarinos, a Latin American food import store.

 

James Beard award

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New cookbook:

 

 

Reprinted from "Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America," by Maricel E. Presilla. Copyright 2012 by Maricel E. Presilla. With the permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

 

When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, they carried memories of hearty soups and eternally bubbling cauldrons. An illuminated page of "Las cantigas de Santa María (The Canticles of Holy Mary)," a virtual encyclopedia of thirteenth-century Spanish life and thought, depicts a Castilian woman spinning wool with a hand spindle and distaff while a simmering pot hangs over a fire. I can imagine her preparing a simple vegetable or bean soup flavored with a ham bone or a big soup, a gargantuan mix of legumes, vegetables, and many types of meat.

gran cocina latina REV.jpgW.W. NORTON"Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America" comes out Oct. 1.

 

This big Iberian soup may have gotten its odd name, olla podrida, or rotten pot, from a long simmering process that often brought with it the strong smell of cabbage and turnips. But since in Spain the word podrido also signifies excess, as in being "filthy rich," I prefer to think that the soup was so named because it was rich with everything edible that grew from the earth, flew, crawled, or ran.

 

At lavish medieval banquets, a huge roasted boar was often brought to the aristocratic table with pomp and ceremony, celebrating the victory of the lord as hunter over nature and beast, the size of the roast a sign of his prestige and power for all to see. Yet medieval Spanish documents indicate that a well-filled olla was just as much a sign of conspicuous wealth, because it was dense with layer upon layer of ingredients. Images of soup pots even adorned the coats of arms and tombs of some Spanish nobles.

 

When the Spaniards arrived in the New World in the fifteenth century, they found people who loved one-pot meals as much as they did. In Cuba and Hispaniola, they observed Taíno (Arawak) Indians cooking a big soup called ajiaco in clay pots set over a wood fire. This was a mélange of tubers like yuca, malanga, and sweet potato, vegetables like squash and corn, and the meats of wild animals like the jutía, a small rodent native to Cuba, seasoned with fermented yuca juice, hot pepper, and achiote seeds for color.

 

The Spaniards embraced the Indian ajiaco because it resembled their own olla podrida. Both dishes simmered a long time, their flavors and texture changing as the cook added new ingredients to the pot. As Spanish settlers in the Hispanic Caribbean started bringing cows, pigs, chickens, vegetables like onion and garlic, and seasonings like saffron to the New World, these elements made it into the ajiaco pot.

 

 

Comidas

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Dr Presilla was named a James Beard Award winner for the new cookbook

 

 

At the book, media and journalism awards presented on Friday, “Gran Cocina Latina: the Food of Latin America” by Maricel Presilla (W.W. Norton), was named cookbook of the year.

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She also won IACP Best General cookbook. I'm going to Cucharamama in a couple of days for a Les Dames d'Escoffier event for the book. Looking forward to it with great anticipation, for both savory and chocolate dishes (an earlier book, possibly also an award winner, was on chocolate). She is a very engaging speaker, quite charming and enthusiastic.

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Turns out that all the food was recipes from Gran Cocina Latina. Which is just to say that it wasn't the regular menu stuff.But it was all very good. A couple of them were called "polenta," which one lady at my table kind of sniffed at, because she lives half the year in Italy and is not fond of polenta there. But these were made with fresh corn, and very different (and delicious).

 

The staff could not have been nicer, even as some of us lingered on past the time we were suppose to be out. They were serving regular customers at the outside tables.

 

And now that I know how easy it is to get to, at least on weekdays when it's only three stops on the PATH and a pleasant walk, I may try to get Paul there. I know he'll like it (and he won't be scared by the prices, esp. since PATH is cheaper than NYC subway).

 

It's a hell of a book: 902 pages, full of information. I might even try some of the recipes!

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There's an Italian name for polenta made with fresh corn. Of course I don't know it. (Probably it's something like "Polenta Fresca", and I'm an idiot.) It's quite different from normal polenta -- and very very delicious.

 

ETA -- It's amazing how easy it is to get to Hoboken (and Jersey City, too), right?

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