It’s a funny thing, Latin food. If you’re Cuban, you swear your mother’s beans beat any other version found in the Caribbean. And of course, abuelita’s detailed arepas recipe is treasured as a valued inheritance. But although foods throughout Latin culture can be as divergent as the landscapes from which they hail, sometimes the simplest things unite us. Case in point: an easy cabbage salad that’s a table fixture from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua.
Growing up, ensalada de repollo was a staple in my Puerto Rican-Dominican family. A bright and crunchy cabbage salad dressed with bright vinegar and fragrant olive oil, it was a side dish we frequently ate as nutritious part of a balanced weeknight meal (cabbage is loaded with vitamin K and vitamin C: two essential nutrients for maintaining healthy blood vessels, gums, teeth and connective tissue). I always thought it was a dish unique to Puerto Rican cuisine until I saw it featured prominently at a college potluck. It turns out that a Peruvian classmate was a fan of the salad too, although she explained, her family typically ate it alongside Christmas turkey rather than juicy chuletas. Fast forward a few years post-college graduation when sitting down to a meal at a Salvadorean restaurant, I found curtido de repollo stuffed inside the fragrant pupusas I had ordered. This version of the salad was decidedly different from any I’d ever had: the thinly sliced cabbage was marinated in a spicy vinegar, giving it a pickled tang making it more akin to a sauerkraut than the lightly dressed side I ate as a kid. That, I thought, was the magic of Latin culture: no matter how different we may seem or how radically different our Spanish accents may sound, a simple cabbage salad brings us together.
Here’s my version of this popular pan-Latin salad. I use less vinegar than typically used in the Salvadorean style of the slaw; should you wish to create more of a pickled cabbage, just increase the proportion of vinegar (like in this recipe here). And this dish is completely open to interpretation and preference: feel free to use red cabbage rather than green, or use different types of hot peppers in the vinaigrette. Should you wish to make a Nicaraguan version of this salad, add chopped tomatoes like the recipe over at La Cocina de Nathan.
Ensalada de Repollo
1 small head of green cabbage
1 large carrot, peeled
½ large red onion
1 jalapeño pepper
¾ cup white vinegar (apple cider vinegar may also be used)
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup cilantro, finely chopped
1. Using a mandolin or grater attachment of a food processor, finely shred cabbage and carrot. Finely dice the red onion and combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl or plastic container
2. In a blender, add the jalapeño pepper with vinegar, water and salt. Blend on high speed until smooth.
3. Pour jalapeño-vinegar mixture over the vegetables and toss until combined. Refrigerate for at least two hours to allow the salad’s flavors to full develop. Just before serving, add chopped cilantro. Note: you can add more jalapeño peppers to the salad if you prefer a spicier dish. Alternately, you can remove the seeds from the peppers before blending into the vinaigrette for a milder version.