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Until recently, I had never heard of huacatay paste. This Peruvian staple condiment is an herb paste made of black mint, a native plant related to the marigold family, with long thin leaves that have jagged edges. This herb is made into a paste with some salt and citric acid as preservatives and is usually bought in jars. It came into my life as an accident. I was looking for aji Amarillo paste and another red pepper paste from Peru for another recipe and Amazon had a set of three jars that included the two I was sourcing plus a jar of huacatay, for less than it would cost me to buy the other two separately. So, I bought the set, and was completely charmed by the bonus jar.

The paste is nothing much to look at. It's a sort of a brownish green not dissimilar to pond algae. But the flavor is surprising. Minty, a bit, but with none of the bracing iciness of true mint, and no risk of leaning in a mouthwash direction. Deeply vegetal, with additional grassy hints of thyme, marjoram and even a slight spinach note, it started to sneak its way into things at my house with regularity. A dollop in a basic vinaigrette was a good gateway, followed by a spoonful in my chimichurri.

Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated

Pretty soon I was adding it to everything from marinades for chicken and pork, to dolloping it into my homemade salsa verdes and pestos, to swirling it into aioli or crème fraiche for sandwiches or chili garnish. I made huacatay butter and smeared it on toasted English muffins, topped with ricotta and a drizzle of spicy honey.

A swirl of huacatay on top of a sweet soup like butternut squash or carrot provides great balance. And adding just enough olive oil to thin it to squeezable consistency can make a funbonus for steamed vegetables. Toss some into steamed rice and add whole pistachios and dried currants for a green rice side dish that sings. Spread a thin layer on pizza dough and top with chunks of fresh mozzarella and thin slices of sopressata for a killer flatbread. A spoonful will amp up your favorite store-bought hummus or green salsa and added to Greek yogurt with some grated onion and cucumber makes a sort of raita/tzatziki topping that works wonders with your favorite kebabs.

The jar will keep in the fridge for a while, so you’ll have plenty of time to experiment. It works pretty much anywhere a mild green herb like parsley can work, and I’ve found is an excellent swap-out for cilantro for myself and other enzyme-challenged cilantro haters.

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