The green and lush fragrance of culantro is one of my favorite rainy day smells. In the kitchen garden I kept at my late grandmother’s house in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, I had a vigorous crop and whenever it rained, the drops activated the fragrance, the scent pervaded the house, and I got hungry!
Without culantro (which we call recao), Puerto Rican food just isn’t as vibrant; it can’t taste quite like abuela’s. It is integral to sofrito, the starter to so many recipes, including beans, soups, stews and rice dishes. It is the equivalent of the French mirepoix, that combination of sauteed/roasted onions, carrots and celery that is the base for so many Gallic dishes.
Unfortunately, culantro is not as well known in the U.S. and doesn’t grow super-well in my planting zone, although I have had some small successes over the years (Thanks to Vic Muñoz for her growing tips). So I hit the local Latin supermarket on occasion and buy some pre-cut leaves from Costa Rica. Because once cut, recao loses its potency quickly, I use twice as much as I would if I had just gone out back and snipped some. And because it is sold by quantities much bigger than I need for a single dish, whenever I do buy it, I make enough sofrito to freeze.
The same goes for ají dulce, the non-spicy small pepper that looks like a habanero, but isn’t at all spicy. I buy a bunch at once — along with the recao — and make sofrito to freeze. You have to be careful and taste it before adding it to the sofrito, because sometimes the store makes a mistake and labels the hot ones as sweet ones, or, I’ve been told, ají dulce planted too closely to ají bravo (angry, aggressive) will take on the spiciness. I can actually smell the heat when cutting habaneros (also called scotch bonnets); the volatility is no joke.
The following recipe is for those who have access to these products. If you don’t have a Latin market nearby, investigate the Asian/Indian markets, as they too use these ingredients.