Thursday, November 8, 2007

Isabel's Cantina

Isabel’s Cantina
Author: Isabel Cruz (
Publisher: Clarkson Potter (2007) (

From the small home beginnings of the kitchen of Isabel Cruz, Isabel’s Cantina is one of the rare books that the reader can judge by it’s cover. The bright and bold colours that adorn the otherwise solid black dust jacket are a testament to the equally striking dishes and flavour combinations that lie within the smooth, illustrated pages. This book is not simply a Latin lover’s cookbook, like the title may suggest. Isabel’s Cantina is a testament to, and memoir of (if you will), the history that surrounds the growth and development of Cruz as a person and indeed a chef. Hiding amongst the mosaic patterns that line the pages are foods of the ocean’s edges – Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican are merged with Japanese and Thai influences to form recipes that are truly unique, and that tempt the adventurous palate with each thorough description.

While most of the recipes in Cantina are (unsurprisingly) Latin in origin (Posole with Pork (p. 100), Ropa Vieja (p. 104) and Arroz con Gandules (p. 119) to name a few), the family stories that accompany each entry break the monotony that other similar cookbooks would suffer from. Even if the flavours of Cuba aren’t what is being sought after on a particular day, the lighter influences of traditional Japanese and Thai cooking create stunning and mouth-watering solutions – Steamed Snapper with Tomatoes and Ginger (p.83), Mahi Mahi with a spicy Jalapeno – Ponzu sauce (p.84) and even a decadent Coconut Tofu Sauce served over fresh fruit (p.170) dot the pages of Cruz’ work for refreshing alternatives. Even vegetarians are well looked after, with delicious soups ranging from the hearty Lentil, Red Pepper, Basil and Chipotle (p.62) to the virtuous-sounding Buddha Bowl (p. 63).

If the names and descriptions of the dishes aren’t enough to cause exclamations of Ole! in the reader’s home kitchen, this delightful news from Cruz certainly will: the majority of meals featured in Cantina are not only comforting and delicious, but they are good for you! This revolution in her cuisine came from a fortuitous change of circumstances: her first restaurant catered to the California beach-body crew, and this along with her own desire to live healthfully led to a creative period of experimentation with delicious results fit for every gourmand at the table. She herself writes in the introduction a statement that I have believed in for years: “…if I was creative, there was no reason for the flavour to suffer just because I cut calories of fat” (p. 11).

From the breakfast meal all the way to the final after-dinner drinks and dessert, Isabel’s Cantina will never fail to leave an impression on your heart or in your mouth. Items from local farmer’s markets as well as the international aisles of the supermarket will become staple items in the kitchen and ingredients in meals the home cook would never believe possible to concoct. Be prepared for a multitude of fresh flavours to make their way into the common household, and for the amazement of how simple it is to create a Pacific getaway of your very own!

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