Monday, June 6, 2011

My Love/Hate Relationship with Cilantro

Cilantro is one of those tricky herbs that people either seem to love or hate.  I do both.  When I met my husband, cilantro was not high on the list of flavours I enjoyed.  In fact, I would often ask him to leave out the cilantro in dishes he prepared and let him add it to his own dish at the end.  To me, it smelled and tasted like soap.  Over time, thetaste has grown on me, to the point where sometimes I actually CRAVE dishes with cilantro.  Now, when I'm craving cilantro, the smell and the flavour just remind me of a fresh summer day.  Go figure.

This week has been one of those times when I've craved cilantro.  Check out my menu plan: the soup, carrot and coriander salad, and ceviche all have cilantro as key ingredients, and the turkey chili got some cilantro as garnish as well.


What is cilantro and why is it sometimes called coriander?  In my experience, cilantro is generally the term used to describe the leaves and coriander is used when referring to the seeds.  Every part of the plant can be used, from the leaves to the roots and seeds.  Cilantro looks a lot like parsley, but has a distinctive smell and a fresh taste.  Or a soapy one, depending on who you ask! 
Coriander Leaves as Soup Garnish


What types of dishes are suited to cilantro?  Many cuisines use different parts of the plant to achieve different flavours.  It's a great way to cool down a spicy dish.  Mexican and Latin American cuisine often uses fresh, chopped cilantro leaves as a garnish for soups after cooking or use the leaves to flavour salsas, guacamole or fish dishes.  Often, where parsley can be used, cilantro can be substituted for a different take on a familiar recipe.  Start with half the amount, and add from there. 

In some Asian cuisines, the root of the plant is sometimes used as a part of a soup base to add some depth of flavour, and the leaves are added as garnish.  Indian cuisine uses coriander seeds as a component of curry powder.  In North American and some European traditions coriander seeds are used in pickling, sausages, and to add flavour to chili and soup.  The flavour of coriander seeds is much different from the flavour of cilantro leaves, so if you don't like one, you still might like the other!

Growing, storing and using cilantro: Growing cilantro from seed, especially in a colder climate can be tricky.  It's generally advised to start indoors first, and to never transplant it once in its permanent location.  I've always found buying plants already started works well for me.  Cilantro needs a bright, sunny spot and light soil to thrive.  Unlike some other herbs, cilantro doesn't store well or freeze well, so I usually pick mine right when I want to use it.  During the winter, I buy a bunch from the store and place the stems in a glass of water in the fridge or even on the counter.  The leaves should be nice and green, and if you can find a bunch with the roots still attached they should last even longer.

Coriander seeds:  the seeds can be harvested directly from the plant after flowering, and then dried for use.  If buying, keep stored in an airtight container. Seeds can be used whole or ground depending on the dish.

Why would you bother to try it? Particularly in gluten free cooking, many condiments and sauces are off-limits.  Using herbs such as cilantro to flavour foods is a nutritional, inexpensive way to condiment dishes without adding many calories or fat.  Try using some crushed coriander seeds in a vegetable soup, or add some chopped fresh cilantro leaves instead. Unlike some herbs that tolerate heat well, the flavour of cilantro can be lost if added to hot dishes too early.  It's best to add it closer to the end of cooking or to put some washed, torn leaves in a small bowl on the table to add as a garnish.

Although I've always loved coriander seeds, it took me a while to warm up to the flavour of the fresh leaves.  The flavour can be strong, so I start with a little and more if needed.  My husband would use the whole bunch at a time if  let him!  It's a nice variation on traditional parsley, and can bring a little bit of summer to any meal. 

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