I wrapped up these two columns months ago, and I’m still thinking about them: it’s only right to post them here so these gorgeous ingredients get the most exposure they can possibly get. Consider this a summer PSA.
*all photos in this post exist because of the vast sea of beauty and talent known as Jennifer Silverberg, who photographs my column for Feast each month. She just made these stunning photographs of Roxanne Gay for an ELLE MAGAZINE article about her new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, and I could. not. be. more proud of her because she’s doing what she loves and getting some amazing work because she’s – yes – amazing.
I try to use fresh ingredients for my column. It’s not always possible – harder at certain times of the year, some of my ingredients only exist in places far-flung and translate to exorbitant shipping costs and/or a very limited time to work with them in. It’s not always necessary, either: some things aren’t “seasonal” but actually do fit well into the season I’m working on, and that’s always a win.
These two beautiful things are examples of both: a fresh ingredient and an available-anytime ingredient, both of which are perfect for lazy summer noshing. Happily, neither of them are hard to find; here we go.
Culantro – do you love cilantro? Do you hate it? Then this herb is for you; hear me out. For the lovers, it’s a spicy, zingy alternative; if cilantro is a slap in the face, culantro is a gut-punch to your palate, and I mean that in the best way. For the haters, the one thing it doesn’t have is what some call “that soapy flavor” – it’s more heat and less flower, which translates into something you may love, despite its ties to cilantro.
It’s vastly more flexible too: it’s equally at home in marinades and pickling mixes as it is chopped into slaws and salads. It’s cool with heat where cilantro tends to melt, but it loves a cold, crisp application as well. Like these tacos, for instance.
So the culantro is used two ways here: in the steak marinade, and then again in the slaw. It’s lovely: spicy and herbal and fresh, and each component takes almost no effort to make. It’s a great summer night meal if you just want to hang on your deck or patio, grill fired up, and eat all the things. I’d pair this one with some fresh watermelon – sprinkled with a little lime zest and salt, naturally – for dessert.
Find it: in any Cuban, Hispanic, or Caribbean market, or in any international market’s produce section. If you live in a fairly diverse area or have a larger hispanic population, it’s a pretty standard thing to come across. Look for it nearer to leafy things than to herbs, and use it within a few days of getting it. Keep it in the fridge wrapped in a damp paper towel.
Mojama – If I had to guess what mojama was, no clues, I would say it was perhaps the Hawaiian word for delight. I would be wrong: it’s actually the name for an air-dried, salt-cured yellowfin tuna loin originating in Spain. In a word? It’s phenomenal. Intense tuna flavor, as one would imagine, with a beautiful sea-saltiness that blooms in your mouth. You can do all sorts of cool things with it, too: you can actually grate it. People, hear me: you can grate gorgeous salty fish flavor onto other things.
Or you can head my route, which is to slice it razor-thin and throw it on toast. Avocado toast, to be precise, because the creamy, rounded flavor of avocado blends so well with mojama. Throw a little olive oil and queso fresco on top, scatter some pepitas over that, and you have a small bite with big flavor and saline kick. Close your eyes, and you’ll swear you were sitting on a sun-drenched patio watching fishing boats dock for the evening from a day out on the Mediterranean sea.
Find it: online, but don’t head to Amazon: the shipping tends to be higher through amazon sellers. Go directly to La Tienda, a fabulous resource for Spanish specialty foods. Perishable items are never cheap to ship, but this is the most affordable option for a high-quality product. Once it’s safely at your house, it’ll keep in your fridge (tightly sealed) for up to 6 months, giving you plenty of time to savor it.
It’s officially summer, and I know somewhere out there, my dear friend Elizabeth is wearing a caftan and sipping something simple yet exotic. A true lover of summer, she’s my hero during the hottest time of the year. I’m currently perched atop an old quilt-turned-picnic blanket enjoying some unseasonable weather: it’s not 105 degrees, the sun doesn’t make my body want to melt, and I don’t even know where the humidity is. In short, it’s a dang miracle. Rest assured, this won’t last, so if you’re here in STL, enjoy this stuff while you can.