Gulf Coast cooking If you're thinking Mississippi and Alabama, keep going south. I'm talking about Veracruz, a rich, verdant Mexican state, sandwiched between the mountainous highlands and the central Gulf coast. Its cuisine is a magnificent melange, with strong Spanish references olive oil, butter, capers, olives, almonds, raisins, Mediterranean herbs, Moorish spices strong links with Africa and Cuba and, of course, a foundation in the pre-Hispanic cooking and crops basic to all Mexican food. Although it's a favorite destination for Mexican tourists, Veracruz is not on most of our traveling itineraries. So, the complex, vivid, varied dishes in Zarela Mart’ntez's Zarela's Veracruz: Cooking and Culture in Mexico's Tropical Melting Pot offer wonderfully welcome, authentic additions to our knowledge of Mexican cooking and of Mexico itself. Before she gets to the recipes, Zarela introduces the people and landscape of the central coast and clues you in on ingredients, equipment and getting that "extra something" by doing things her way. Then we get a true profusion of fusion: Caldo de Almendra, a smooth, sophisticated almond soup, and Pebre de Pollo, chicken cooked with a combination of capers, olives, raisins and sherry, display their distinct Iberian ancestry; garlicky stir-fried shrimp would be as at home in Cuba as it is here, and the wonders of the Veracruz corn kitchen holds its own with the best. Zarela is passionate about food and Mexico and passes on that passion in every recipe. Regional Mexican cookbooks are relatively new in this country, but with cooks and restaurateurs like Zarela adding savory dimensions to flavor, they're bound to grow in favor. OlŽ, Zarela, this is a top-notch cook's tour. Sybil Pratt has been cooking up this column for more than five years.

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