Know Your Herbs: Cilantro
Cilantro. There's a good chance that in the next few days you’ll probably eat a dish prepared with this flavorful citrusy herb.
Why? Well, Cinco de Mayo is just a few days away, and cilantro has become the go-to herb for most of the Mexican food we eat this country.
Cilantro, which comes from the coriander seed, was first grown in Greece... so it garnished gyros long before it topped those food truck tacos. Cilantro/coriander is considered both an herb and a spice since both its leaves and its seeds are used as a seasoning condiment. It’s one of the world’s most widely used fresh herbs. Think about that. You’ll find it in Indian food, Chinese food, Thai food and Central and South American food. Wow.
But cilantro is definitely an acquired taste. My daughter, Sistie, says it tastes grassy and green. I’ve heard others say it tastes like soap. I know a food scientist who thinks some people are born with a gene that makes them not like it. Maybe that’s why it’s not used as much in Europe and in the Mediterranean. Coriander seeds, however, are popular.
Cilantro is also known for its medicinal powers. When I was in the jungles of Nicaragua, I was once given a cilantro tea to soothe a stomach ailment. Long ago in China, it’s was thought of as an aphrodisiac, (like in that West and South Asian collection of stories, “The Thousand and One Nights,” remember?).
Cilantro is mostly used as a garnish because it loses its flavor if it’s cooked for a long time. If you try to purée cilantro, its vibrant color and flavor quickly fade... unless it’s blended with oil (like in Chimichurri).
The best way to store cilantro is to cut off the lower stems, wash it really well, roll it in a damp paper towel and refrigerate it in a plastic bag. You can also snip off the bottom stems, make a bouquet, immerse it in a glass filled with a little water and cover it with a plastic bag.
Before you’re ready to chop cilantro, make sure it’s thoroughly dry or it will clump together. Gather the leaf ends together in a bunch and, using a sharp knife, thinly slice across the cilantro in one direction. Don’t randomly chop or you’ll bruise the tender leaves and they’ll turn black!
Oh, one other thing. Don’t buy dried cilantro. It’s worthless. That stuff really does taste like grass!
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