Monday, October 11, 2010

Focus: CILANTRO (Coriandrum Sativum)

Cilantro is a pungent, aromatic and controversial herb. Some people hate it because they say it tastes like soap and smells slightly fetid.  They are not lying and I feel bad for them.  Some people love it.  Especially people who live in Vietnam, India, Mexico, Thailand and China.   Some people - like me - have learned to love it. There is science to back up the cilantro haters.  You can read about it here.

Unless you are one of the folks with a true genetic aversion to cilantro, I encourage you to keep trying. Don't give up too soon.   It is an acquired taste.  I think you will not regret having a cilantro conversion experience.  

Sometimes cilantro is referred to as fresh coriander.  Coriander is the seed of cilantro and is central to much Indian cooking.  Coriander seed has been around for a long time.  It has been found in Egyptian tombs.  Cilantro is a fresh herb with tender and delicate green leaves.  It is only used fresh.  If dried, the highly aromatic fresh leaves lose all their distinctive flavor.

A global herb
Cilantro is often referred to as Chinese, Asian or Mexican parsley.  In Latin American or Caribbean stores it may be called cilantrillo.  It grows wild in Mediterranean Europe and probably originated in Northern Africa or the Middle East.  Even though it is native to the Old World, it is very popular in the New.  It is central to the cuisines of Southeast Asia and Latin America.

According to Diane Kennedy, Mexican cooking guru, both cilantro leaves and coriander seed have been "adopted wholeheartedly into the cuisine of Mexico".  The leaf and tender stems are used in raw and cooked sauces, some green moles and with soup, rice and seafood.

Fresh cilantro is quite delicate and must be stored with care.  Do not wash until ready to use.  In Mexico cilantro is always sold with the roots attached.  If your cilantro still has the roots,  place it in a jar in a few inches of water in the refrigerator and it should keep fairly well for a week or two - depending on how fresh it was when you bought it.

If your bunch of cilantro is sans roots, just wrap the stems in a wet paper towel and place the cilantro in a ventilated plastic bag in the refrigerator.   Make sure the leaves are as dry as possible - wetness will promote spoilage.

You could try freezing cilantro leaves.  Wash and gently dry them thoroughly.  (The leaves are easily bruised.)  Spread them out on a cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.  Place in freezer.  Once leaves are frozen, place in a freezer bag and carefully press out as much air as possible.  Use the leaves directly from the freezer - don't thaw first.

Cilantro in America
I was amused to read Mark Bittman's offhand remark in How to Cook Everything that cilantro "can be found everywhere".  Clearly he has never spent any time in the grocery stores of Fillmore County, Minnesota.  However it is true that cilantro can be found in farmers markets - even in rural Minnesota. That is a sign of cilantro's growing popularity.  And it is definitely widely available in much of this country.  If nothing else,  people who are discovering the joys of making their own salsa are learning to appreciate fresh cilantro.

Cooking with cilantro
It is usually advisable to add cilantro to a dish at the very last minute, because the volatile flavor can be quickly dissipated with heat.  I often add it as a fresh garnish to various noodle or rice or bean dishes and don't cook it at all.  Sometimes if I have a lot on hand I throw a few handfuls of chopped cilantro in a pot of beans right at the end of cooking.

One nice way to use cilantro is chopped with mild onion in equal parts - with maybe a little fresh serrano or jalapeno added for some heat.  You often see this in Mexican restaurants as an all purpose condiment with a wide variety of dishes - tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, burritos, etc.

Since fresh cilantro is so perishable,  I also have a few standby recipes for turning it into a sauce or puree which can either be frozen or will keep in the refrigerator for a week or two.  These sauces are great on the side with Indian curries, grilled meat or fish or even grilled vegetables like summer squash or onions.  You could also try a dollop of cilantro sauce in a bowl of plain tomato or winter squash or even potato soup.  Or add it to some yogurt for instant raita.

Other serving ideas:
Add chopped cilantro to potato salad, pasta salad
Coleslaw- shredded cabbage with lime juice, honey, cilantro, a bit of rice vinegar and chopped peanuts
Toss fresh leaves into green salad (especially with an Asian style sesame vinaigrette)
Add to tomato or tomatillo based salsas or to guacamole
Use in pesto instead of basil
Or try this coleslaw recipe

Cilantro sauce - 2 versions
These sauces are easy to make if you have a food processor - just put all the ingredients together and press the button.  You may have to stop once or twice to push the sauce down the sides to help make the texture more uniform.

To prepare the cilantro, wash well by swishing in a pan of water.  Let the grit sink.  Lift out the herbs.  Pick over to remove any yellow or wilted leaves and tough stems.  Shake or spin or pat dry with a towel.

#1 - this simple sauce should be used soon or frozen
2 cups fresh cilantro,  packed.  (That means pressed down some to remove air spaces.)
1/4 t. salt
1  clove garlic, peeled
1 T vinegar (white wine or rice wine types are nice) or lime or lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
optional addition - fresh chili pepper- about 1 T. chopped

#2 - Long lasting cilantro mint chutney
This recipe is from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.  He says it will last about 2 weeks in the refrigerator.  I just made some so we will see. 

1 ½ cups fresh cilantro and ½ cup fresh mint (both firmly packed)
1-2 hot fresh green chilies or red pepper flakes to taste
2 inches fresh ginger cut into chunks
½ red onion,  quartered
5 cloves peeled garlic
½ c white wine vinegar
½ t salt
Place ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.  Store in a covered glass jar in the refrigerator.
This sauce has personality plus
Green Rice

This recipe is from the Featherstone Farm cookbook.  It is called a "Mexican holiday rice" and was adapted from Aida Gabilando's Mexican Family Cooking (Ballantine Books 1992)

1 small white onion, peeled and quartered
2 poblano chiles, deveined, seeded and quartered
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup fresh cilantro (I assume packed)
2 cups chicken stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup long grain white rice, uncooked
2 T. vegetable oil

Place first four ingredients in a blender with 1 cup of the stock.  Blend, strain and season with salt and pepper. (I don't think I would strain and lose all that good fiber and flavor.)
Rinse and drain the rice. Saute the rice in oil that has been heated in a heavy bottomed pan for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add the blended sauce and the remaining stock.  Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove pot from heat and let sit, covered, for 10 more minutes to finish cooking.


  1. I am one of those people who love cilantro so much that - if it were illegal - I would be pawning my jewelry to buy it on the black market. I will definitely be trying the pesto. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Cilantro is also quite easy to grow in a pot on the porch. That's the only way I can garden, and I was able to nicely supplement my FFV cilantro bundles this year.