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Aromatic Cilantro Adds a Cooling, Fresh Flavor

Fine Cooking Issue 26
Photo: Scott Phillips
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The sense of smell plays a powerful role in memories, so it’s no wonder that when I chop cilantro, its fragrance transports me back to my mother’s kitchen in Malaysia. There I’d often find my mom surrounded by red chiles, brown spices, and bright green bunches of cilantro.

Memories of cilantro are probably similar for people from Mex­ico, Morocco, India, Thailand, China, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. In fact, cilantro is perhaps the world’s most popular herb. And as these cuisines become more familiar here, the evocative flavor of cilantro—it’s what makes salsa sing—is fast becoming familiar, but no less alluring.

You say Coriander, I say cilantro

Some confusion exists about what to call cilantro. Some people call the green herb, which looks like flat-leaf parsley, fresh or green coriander, or even just coriander. But “coriander” refers to the entire plant—seeds, leaves, flowers, stems, and roots—all of which are edible. Nowadays, the leaves and stems are usually called cilantro, while the seeds, sold whole and powdered, are called coriander. (The two are not interchangeable, so be sure you know what your recipe is calling for.)

Most cuisines use the fresh leaves, whose flavor I’d describe as a lively mingling of pine, lemon, ginger, and pepper. In India, the seeds, with a more citrusy flavor, are used as often as the leaves. The roots, which are more pungent than the leaves, flavor soup stocks and curry pastes in Thailand.

Cilantro rounds out spicy dishes

Some people taste cilantro as soapy, though scientists don’t know if this is due to genetics or to a lack of familiarity. If you don’t like it on your first taste, keep trying it; some people develop a liking for it over time. I also suggest that its strong flavor be evaluated the way it is typically eaten—with other ingredients. Cilantro’s bright green flavor adds a cooling element to spicy dishes, which is why you often find it paired with chiles. It also seems to cut the heavy feeling in some rich dishes, like meat stews or those featuring coconut milk. Cilantro also has a great affinity to other herbs such as mint, parsley, basil, and lemongrass.

Look for bright green, aromatic bunches

Good cilantro should give off an unmistakable fragrance. Slightly bruise one of the leaves and breathe in. If you don’t smell its fragrance immediately, it will likely lack flavor.

Cilantro keeps best with its root ends in water. If the bunch comes with its roots attached, don’t remove the roots until you’re ready to use the leaves. Pop the bunch in a jar of cold water, cover the leaves with a plastic bag, and change the water every few days. You can also wrap the leaves in a slightly damp paper towel and store them in a plastic bag.

Wash sandy cilantro before using. Slice off the roots, swish the stems and leaves in a bowl of water, and dry them. But don’t wash cilantro until you’re ready to use it; the excess moisture can hasten its deterioration.

Chop the leaves with a sharp knife for the least damage. A sharp knife prevents bruising and helps keep the plant’s color bright. Don’t chop the leaves until you’re ready to use them or they’ll lose their flavor and darken.

The flavorful stems are great for stocks. Chop the stems’ tender upper ends with the leaves, but save the tough bottoms to flavor stocks or dishes that will be strained.

Experiment with cilantro

  • Garnish tomato-, carrot-, or coconut-milk-based soups with chopped fresh cilantro.
  • Serve iced tea or freshly squeezed juice with a splash of lime juice and sprigs of cilantro.
  • Make a flavorful dip from chopped tomato, cilantro, cucumber, green chiles, and plain yogurt.
  • Try making pesto using cilantro in place of basil.
  • Rub chicken or fish with chopped cilantro, ginger, and black pepper before grilling.
  • Sprinkle chopped cilantro and chopped cashews or slivered almonds over cooked rice or couscous.
  • Add cilantro to your favorite gazpacho or salsa recipe.

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