I’d like to introduce you to two staples that have literally been in my kitchen since the day I was born. Like most people, I learned to cook from my family, and practically every dish that I learned from them contained one or both of these magical ingredients. I get asked every so often what makes Cuban food Cuban. My short answer is always “Mojo and Adobo”.
Mojo, put simply, is a marinade. It has garlic, olive oil, citrus juice, and a jubilee of other herbs and spices. In some cases, it can be made at home from scratch. However, if you take a trip down the ethnic food aisle, you should be able to find it pre-made inside of a bottle. Hell, depending on where you live, you may have several different brands to choose from. Normally, most purists (at least the ones I’m related to) would argue the benefits of homemade over store-bought anything. However, mojo is one of those rare things that even purists will purchase from a store by the cart-full. Open up a bottle and take a whiff—you’ll immediately know why. The blend of citrus juices pack a flavorful punch that even your nostrils can recognize, while the garlic peppers in a savory aroma that speaks to anyone’s inner glutton. My recommendation is that you start my using mojo on a white meat, more specifically chicken or pork. Pour the marinade over your meat and let it soak up for at least a couple of hours, then cook them in your usual preferred way. You’ll immediately notice that mojo adds incredible dimension and flair to meat that’s normally subdued and mild. That said, I’ve seen people successfully use mojo to marinade almost any type of meat to great success. Of course, to truly appreciate mojo at its finest, you’ll have to consume what I consider to be the most traditionally Cuban dish there is, roasted pork shoulder that’s been generously marinated in the stuff. If I was ever on Death Row, that dish would undoubtedly be my last meal. Oh, and you had better believe we slather our Thanksgiving turkey in this shit, always to delicious results.
Adobo, on the other hand, is a dry seasoning that is any contemporary chef’s go-to. It’s a blend of several different types of seasoning: garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, oregano, citrus zest…and who cares what else. It’s delicious, that’s all you need to know. The adobo I’ve been raised on is made by Goya, and can be purchased with or without pepper. It’s a great thing to use if you want your dish to pack a bit of a flavor punch, but don’t want to go for the full mojo effect. Hell, a lot of times, my mom would simply season meat in Adobo and squeeze a lime over it before letting it soak and just sticking it right into a dish. From what I understand, different culinary cultures tend to have go-to seasonings like this. Southerners have seasoned salt. Cajuns have Creole seasoning. We carib-beaners will always reach for this stuff when we’re not sure what else to use. A generous rubbing of this stuff has works wonders on everything from fish, to chicken, to beef, to pork, to pretty much anything you can think of.
Whenever I’m asked whom I look up to the most as a cook, I would undoubtedly say my Grandma Yolanda (or Abuela Yolanda, as I call her). This woman can take anything dead and make it taste phenomenal. She’s gotten me to eat everything from tongue, to liver, to ox tail, to goat, to plenty of other animals that I chose to remain ignorant about. I always joke that she could feed you your own child and it would taste so good that you wouldn’t care. Point is, these are the first two weapons in her arsenal that I made it a point to learn early on. Luckily, I had my mom to help me, who is the kind of person who will take old methodologies and experiment with them in every permutation she can think of. These two women were my first culinary muses, and any time I’m in doubt on how to pursue a certain dish, they are the two people I always try to channel.
If you’re looking for a few ideas to start with, here are a couple suggestions I’ve found that work really well. Mojo of course works great on a pork roast, but it also does wonders for pork chops on the grill (with come apple slices if you’re really adventurous). Mojo is also fantastic for baked chicken. You can marinate them and throw them in the oven by themselves, or you can put the chicken on a bed of veggies and have them bask in their citrusy-garlic glory. Adobo is great for any kind of white fish, if you can’t figure out what else to season it with. Also, if you’re making burritos or fajitas, adobo is also great for seasoning whatever meat you plan on using.
I encourage you to do what abuela, mom, and I like to do. Get your hands on these two Cuban staples and start trying them out. Try out some traditional recipes (we plan on posting some here) or, better yet, experiment with them and see what you come up with.