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In Italian, we use the word cantina to refer to what in English is commonly called the cold cellar. Growing up, every Italian family I knew had a cantina. Without question, all of these cantinas could be expected to contain the following: jars of tomatoes, a variety of preserves, barrels of homemade wine, olive oil, and cured homemade meats. I remember once being shocked when a relative said they’d purchased a home that didn’t have a cantina. “But where will they put their jars of tomatoes?” is what my little self wondered.

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When I was given the opportunity to review a copy of Isabel Cruz’s cookbook, Isabel’s Cantina, I was interested in finding out whether this cookbook would offer the same sort of comfy homecooked fare that I usually associate with a cantina.

I was not disappointed.

Prior to receiving this cookbook, I’d never head of Isabel Cruz. Based on her cookbook and her site, I found out that she’s the owner of five restaurants that focus on providing dishes that are heavily influenced by Latin cuisine, as well as a number of other cuisines including Thai and Japanese.

After browsing her site for a bit, I found the following quote: “A Cantina is a warm, neighborhood place where people gather at any hour to talk about their day.”

While it doesn’t exactly equate with what my definition of cantina is, I figured that a book built around food that people could share and enjoy together couldn’t be a bad thing. So with this in mind, I delved into the cookbook.

Isabel’s Cantina is a 224-page cookbook divided into chapters that cover Starters; Salads; Soups; Main Courses; Rice, Beans, and Other Sides; Salsas, Sauces, and Marinades; Desserts; Drinks and Breakfasts. Recipes are neatly laid out and quite easy to follow. A colourful cookbook, Isabel’s Cantina is peppered with some pretty tempting photographs. I don’t cook Latin cuisine at home so I for one was happy to see how easy the recipes were to follow. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding so I headed to the kitchen to put those recipes to the test.

Here’s what I made:

Chicken and Lettuce Wraps in Cilantro Lime Sauce

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I turned to the Starters section first and my eyes brightened as soon as I saw the recipe for Chicken and Lettuce Wraps with Cilantro Lime Sauce. I made this for a Saturday lunch and it was perfect. Sauteed chicken is wrapped in crisp lettuce leaves and then drenched in an incredible Cilantro Lime Sauce. The flavours were bright and crisp and everyone loved it. Not a bad start!

Spanish Potato Salad

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It seems strange to be thinking of potato salad as we approach winter, but I for one could eat potatoes every single day, 365 days a year! This particular salad is more of a warm dish with a wonderful vinaigrette that the potatoes just soak up. It’s quick to make and perfect for any weeknight dinner.

Halibut with Cherry Tomato-Habenero Salsa and Cucumber Cilantro Sauce

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I never thought I liked cilantro until I began testing recipes for this book. As it turns out, my appreciation of the herb is growing. One of the things that I really enjoyed about Isabel’s book is that there is a heavy focus on fish dishes. This particular halibut dish featured the last of our cherry tomatoes. Once again there were a lot of bright, fresh flavours that made the dish disappear very quickly!

Jalapeno Shrimp

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We are a family addicted (and I mean addicted) to spicy food. If it’s not spicy, chances are we’re going to ask you for some pepper. This shrimp was right up our alley. Lots of jalapeno and tomato paired with firm, juicy shrimp. Delicious!

Chicken Diablo

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We haven’t always had a lot of luck grilling chicken. I think the problem is that we’re just so eager to eat it that we end up burning it! Luckily we exercised caution while making this simple chicken dish and it turned out great. It was a snap to put together and the flavour of the spicy, juicy chicken made this one a winner that we’ll make again and again.

Charbroiled Carne Asada Tacos

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All of Isabel’s recipes are introduced with a few words on where the recipe comes from or what inspired the dish. I love that this book introduced me to so many different Latin dishes that I’d never heard of, like carne asada. This dish also made us realize that we just don’t eat skirt steak nearly enough. It was incredible!

Black Beans (with White Rice)

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I love beans, but as I skimmed through the Rice, Beans, and Other Sides section I realized that we don’t eat them nearly enough. There are instructions on how to make a quick version of this dish, but I opted for the version that included soaking dried beans overnight. I think it makes you appreciate the dish more. We ended up with a creamy and highly flavoured pot of beans that were the perfect accompaniment to any number of dishes.

Coconut Flan

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Of course when I first received the book I immediately looked at the Desserts section before I looked at any other part of the book. I wasn’t disappointed. While it’s not a huge section, the offerings were all intriguing. I settled on trying the Coconut Flan first because I adore flan and of course you know that I LOVE coconut! This flan was interesting because it features cream cheese as a component of the recipe. The texture of the final product was slightly different than most flans that I’ve eaten. It was delicious! It was quick and easy and unmolded beautifully, which is always a concern with flan.

Croissant Bread Pudding with Mexican Chocolate and Almonds

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Stop the presses! Of all the recipes I tried this was the hands down winner. It’s a cross between a bread pudding and a really moist cake. I made individual puddings and they were so well received that I’m considering featuring this dessert during the holidays.

I’d hoped to try recipes from the Soups section as well as the Drinks section, but time seems to be the enemy these days. With the holidays approaching, I figured I’d better tell you about this book now.

I was pleasantly surprised by the content of the book and by how easy and delicious the recipes were. I learned quite a bit and I was able to try a few dishes that I’m hoping will become a regular part of my cooking repertoire.

Now to get me to one of Isabel’s Cantinas!

Ciao!

Mexican Chocolate
From Isabel’s Cantina by Isabel Cruz

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Mix the chocolate, the sugar and the cinnamon in a food processor and pusle until it’s finely ground. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You can sprinkle this in warm milk or in desserts for an extra quick. You can also melt it and use it as a dipping sauce!