By Lucinda Hutson
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a gift to any garden, offering ornamental, culinary, medicinal, and aromatic allure. During its three-month growing cycle, this annual herb produces an abundance of pungent, savory emerald foliage, then a profusion of lacy white flower umbels, and finally the flurry of small, round fruits known as coriander seeds, redolent of citrus and spice.
Cilantro has a bad reputation in some quarters. Many warm-weather gardeners find it hard to grow, and some abhor its intensely robust flavor and aroma. In fact, the words “coriander” and Coriandrum both come from the Greek koris, “bedbug”, because of the herb’s supposed similarity in odor to that of the stinky insect.
I think cilantro is simply misunderstood. Here’s my advice to cilantro skeptics: Grow it during the cooler months to delay bolting and produce healthy foliage that’s packed with flavor. When cooking with it, partner cilantro with other strong-flavored ingredients.
• Mango Salsa
• Frijoles a la Charra (Ranch-Style Beans in Tomato Sauce)
• Caldo de Pollo (Chicken Broth)
• Pollo Encilantrado (Shredded Chicken in Cilantro Sauce)
• Sopa de Cilantro (Cilantro Soup)
• Arroz Verde (Green Rice)
The Taste Of Cilantro
Millions of people around the world rely on the fresh zip of cilantro. In fact, it’s one of the most popular herbs in the world. Cilantro’s lively personality makes it an irreplaceable ingredient in Chinese, Indian, Southeast Asian, and Mexican and other Latin American foods. It serves as a foil for the assertive chiles, garlic, onions, other herbs, and spices used in these cuisines.
I must admit that my first experience with cilantro left a bad taste in my mouth. The cook had used too much cilantro in a tomato dish, and it overwhelmed the dish, leaving a disagreeable, soapy aftertaste. Using other strong-willed ingredients in a recipe seems to balance out the flavors. Mexican food is a good example, often teaming cilantro with fiery little serranos or jalapeños, chopped onion, Mexican oregano (much spicier than Greek and Italian oreganos), and fresh lime juice. Used this way, cilantro is fresh, bright, and sassy.
Fresh cilantro adds vibrance as it tempers the fire of piquant red chile sauces made with the smoky chipotle, the chile Colorado, or the incendiary chile de árbol. Throughout Mexico, cilantro reigns supreme as an edible garnish, tucked into warm corn tortillas filled with savory guisados (stews), added to bowls of frijoles, floated in soups, and sprinkled on egg dishes. Cilantro seasons the salsas found on every table.
Always use cilantro fresh, never dried or frozen. In uncooked salsas, it is tossed with the other chopped ingredients; in cooked salsas, it is most often added as a freshly chopped garnish. It’s added to most cooked foods toward the end of cooking to preserve its color, flavor, and texture.
Refrigerate cilantro with its stems standing in a jar of water, loosely covered with a plastic bag. Change the water daily. Rinse and pat the leaves dry before chopping them coarsely with a sharp knife; fine mincing can discolor the leaves and make them soggy. Sprigs may be stored in airtight containers lined with paper toweling.