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Leafy Cilantro, Spicy-Sweet Coriander – An Herb and a Spice in One Plant

Fine Cooking Issue 58
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Although the curiously pungent flavor of fresh cilantro can take some getting used to, once the taste is acquired, it can become a craving. There’s a reason this herb is so widely used around the world in Asian, Latin American, and Indian cuisines—it has the magical effect of brightening other flavors, cutting through richness, and cooling spicy heat when combined with other flavors in hundreds of ways.

But even if you’re convinced that fresh cilantro will never be your favorite, don’t turn the page. This herb has a softer, friendlier side that’s plenty easy to like—coriander, the mature seeds of Coriandrum sativum, the same plant that yields those tender stems and fringed leaves we call cilantro. Coriander seed has a warm, spicy-sweet scent and flavor, and if you grow cilantro in your garden, you can harvest coriander seed as a bonus when the plants go to seed (see Growing cilantro, below). You can even harvest the roots, as they’re used to flavor soups and spice pastes in Thai cooking.

Flavoring with coriander seed

Coriander seed goes well with starchy-foods, with summer and winter squash and many root vegetables, in curries, and in baked goods. To bring out the fragrance in coriander, toast the seeds. Put them in a dry heavy skillet and set over medium heat for a few minutes until they become fragrant. Grind them in a mortar or in a spice grinder and

  • stir into mashed potatoes;
  • sprinkle on winter squash before roasting;
  • combine with honey and butter when glazing carrots;
  • mix with orange zest into pound cake batter or into scone or biscuit dough;
  • add to a marinade for chicken with fresh cilantro, garlic, lemon, and olive oil.

Flavoring with cilantro

Cilantro pairs well with garlic, lemon, lime, chiles, and onions, and with other herbs like basil and mint. Depending on how fresh it is and on how it was grown, the strength of its flavor will vary. Taste a few leaves— if they’re very mild, use more. Cilantro’s flavor fades when heated. The stems pack a lot of flavor, so when I chop cilantro, I mince the tender stems and leaves together. For garnishing, I like to use whole leaves or the flowers. Here are a few ways to get to know cilantro:

Toss a Middle Eastern bread salad of lightly toasted pita bread pieces, diced tomato, cucumber, sweet pepper, and onion. Add a couple of tablespoons each of minced cilantro, basil, and mint, and season with an olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette.

Make a garlicky green mayonnaise, a great spread for a tomato or grilled chicken sandwich. In a mortar or a mini food processor, grind a clove of garlic and a handful of cilantro leaves (or a mix of cilantro and basil) to a paste. Stir in a few tablespoons good-quality mayonnaise and a dash of hot sauce.

Stir up a refreshing yogurt sauce with chopped cilantro, minced onion or scallion, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. Serve with grilled vegetables.

Mix a batch of cilantro butter—it’s delicious melted over hot-off-the-grill chicken, swordfish, steak, or lamb. Stir 1/3 cup chopped cilantro, 1 tsp. grated lemon zest, and 1/4 tsp. sea or kosher salt into 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter.

Growing cilantro

Cilantro frustrates many gardeners because they try to grow it in high summer, but this herb bolts at the first sign of heat. The trick is to stop fighting the calendar and let the herb grow when it likes. In spring after the last frost, sow an entire packet of seeds in a patch in your garden, or set out several pots of purchased plants (each pot should have numerous little plants). Keep the plants well irrigated and harvest leaves and stems as you want. As the plants start to flower, let them be. When the seeds have matured and turned brown, harvest some but not all of them. After summer heat moderates, seedlings will sprout around the dried stalks. Harvest from these new plants all fall and leave them in the ground over winter. As soon as winter is over, they’ll start putting on growth fast. Scatter more seed elsewhere in the garden to keep yourself in cilantro as long as possible.

Cilantro in flower.Cary Hazlegrove

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