A bold herb’s growing appeal.
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)
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.
Fresh cilantro leaves and dried coriander seeds are not interchangeable; each has a distinct flavor and is used in its own way. I like the clean, citrusy flavor of freshly ground coriander sprinkled on tossed green salads, tuna salads, and deviled eggs. I use them to season melted garlic butter to drizzle over steamed vegetables and grilled fish.
The seeds are an essential ingredient of pickling spice, curry and chili powders, and other spice medleys. Northern Europeans favor them in pastries and breads. They’re great in apple pies and gingerbread. As a child, I used to eat the small, sugary pastel hard candies from Mexico called colaciones, each containing the surprise of a whole coriander seed inside. Mexican cooks sprinkle the candies over the traditional Lenten capirotada (bread pudding).
Grind dried coriander seeds in a small spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle until the tough outer shell is pulverized. Or grind them together with other spices. I combine 1 tablespoon whole allspice, 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, 3 tablespoons coriander seeds, and 1 whole dried chile de árbol. I sprinkle this blend over meats to be marinated and add it to soups, stews, and stir-fries. I also add freshly ground coriander seeds to cheese balls for an intriguing flavor, and I always add a few teaspoons of whole coriander seeds to my homemade chicken or beef stock.
Early European monks incorporated the perfumy seeds into liqueurs and medicines because of their bittersweet flavor and purported digestive properties; the seeds still flavor gin. Try chewing the seeds to sweeten your breath. In Turkey, the ground seeds are added to strong coffee—some say as an aphrodisiac.
In marketplaces all over Mexico, vendors sell bunches of cilantro throughout the year, but most of it is trucked in from high-altitude regions, where cooler nights prolong the growing season. Cilantro just can’t bear the heat, which is frustrating because the plants usually have already flowered and gone to seed by the time such culinary companions as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, and chiles are ready to be harvested.
Don’t buy cilantro transplants during warm weather; you’ll just end up with stunted plants that quickly go to seed. That was my experience one warm April many years ago when I first planted cilantro. Dismayed by my inability to grow this herb, I relied for the rest of the summer on cilantro from the supermarket. Cilantro just seemed too temperamental.
That fall, however, with the return of cooler weather, I was surprised to see volunteer cilantro plants poking out of the ground in the spot where the purchased plants had stood. Soon, delicate stems with finely scalloped, glossy leaves resembling Italian parsley occupied the area. Harvesting long-stemmed bunches to use in the kitchen just encouraged further growth. A few brief freezes damaged the leaves only slightly; after a few sunny days, the cilantro flourished once again, providing lush growth and continuing harvests for nearly two months. Choosing cultivars such as ‘Jantar’ or ‘Santo’ (also called ‘Slow Bolt’ or ‘Long Standing’) instead of the species is another way of extending leaf production by several weeks.
Warm weather signals cilantro to flower, set seed, and die. Thick purplish flower stalks shoot up about 3 feet, bearing foliage that is more finely divided and fernlike. Umbels of snowy white (or pale lavender) edible flowers delight the bees and add a lacy look to the garden. The shiny green fruits then appear.
Coriander seeds range in diameter from 1/16 to 1/4 inch at their plumpest. When you want to grow plants especially for the seeds, sow the larger ones. The smaller seeds seem to produce leafier plants. The seeds mature about three months after sowing. Harvest them just as they begin to turn brown and spread them out to dry. After removing any bits of stalk, store the seeds in an airtight container.
Here in Texas, I make small sowings of cilantro every few weeks from September through February or March. Gardeners in cooler climates can start sowing seeds in midspring. Because germination is fairly low and slow, and because I know that cilantro doesn’t try to take over my garden, I sow more seed than I think I’ll need. Some gardeners scratch the seed coating or soak the seeds to aid germination.
Sometimes I sow the seeds about 1/2 inch deep in orderly rows, then thin the seedlings to about 12 inches apart, but more often, I simply scatter seeds and let nature take its course. Some plants flourish in my vegetable garden while others thrive among the flowers and herbs in other parts of the yard.
Cilantro appreciates a rich, well-drained humus soil in full sun. I topdress the plants with a light application of compost. Adequate watering is imperative. Established plants require little attention. The foliage does not seem to attract insect pests, but bees and other pollinators readily visit the flowers. I apply fish emulsion and seaweed solution lightly to young and recently harvested plants; heavy applications may produce lush foliage at the expense of flavor.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910-9731; (207) 437-4395. E-mail commercialjohnnyseeds.com. Catalog free. ‘Jantar’, ‘Santo’.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0; (905) 640-6677. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Catalog free. Coriandrum sativum, ‘Chinese’, ‘Long Standing’.
• Seeds of Change, PO Box 15700, Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700; (888) 762-7333. E-mail email@example.com. Catalog free. C. sativum, ‘Slow Bolt’ (‘Santo’).
• The Thyme Garden, 20546 Alsea Hwy., Alsea, OR 97324; (503) 487-8671. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Catalog $2. C. sativum, ‘Chinese’, ‘Slow Bolt’.
Lucinda Hutson is the author of The Herb Garden Cookbook, 2nd edition (Gulf, 1998) and Tequila: Cooking with the Spirit of Mexico (Ten Speed Press, 1996). She lives and gardens in Austin, Texas.
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