CILANTRO (Coriandrum sativum)

CilantroIn his engaging book, Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, author Scott Cunningham tells us that cilantro, and its seed coriander, have long been used in love sachets and spells. He claims that adding the crushed seeds to warm wine makes an effective “lust potion.”

Cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, is the leaf of the coriander plant. The spice coriander is the seed. The names cilantro and coriander are sometimes interchanged. In England, for example, only the word coriander is used and they are differentiated by referring to the coriander seed or coriander leaf. This can be confusing in recipes as the seed and the leaf have very different flavours, although each will complement the other.

There are those who don’t like the flavour of cilantro and they like to remind everyone that the generic name, Coriandrum sativum, is derived from the Greek word koris, which means “bedbug”, as one is supposed to smell like the other. I can’t vouch for this as I’m fortunate enough to never have smelled a bedbug. I do love the flavour of cilantro however. It enhances wonderfully the taste of soups, stews and salads.

Cilantro is a short-lived annual and a member of the carrot family. It is native to southern Europe and the Caucasus. The herb resembles flat-leafed parsley with green-segmented leaves on stems rising about 20 centimetres from a crown. Leaves may be harvested about one month after germination

Cilantro is best planted as a seed directly into your herb bed as soon as the danger of frost has passed. The roots are long and difficult to transplant. Place seed in drills 1-1½ centimetres deep and 10-20 centimetres apart, although some gardeners prefer close planting to shade the roots and help keep them cool. Cilantro is a difficult herb to grow because it is short lived and needs cool temperatures. This herb will bolt (send up a flower stalk) as soon as the roots get above about 24 degrees Celsius.  This will happen quickly in a small pot in hot sun. Another reason to sow the seeds directly into your herb beds.

Cilantro is best grown in early spring or fall when the weather is cool. With the best conditions Cilantro will last about 8-10 weeks before flowering.  Once it does flower, it will make seeds, which can be harvested as coriander or replanted to grow more cilantro.

Cilantro does not like to compete with weeds so conscientious weeding or mulching is important especially early in the season. Mulching will also help keep the roots cool. It prefers a moderately rich, slightly alkaline, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.

Do not over fertilize cilantro as too much nitrogen reduces the flavour. Good companion plants are caraway, anise and dill. Cilantro, because of its powerful scent, has a reputation of attracting beneficial insects and deterring harmful ones.

Fresh cilantro does not keep well, and looses its flavour when dried. To store fresh cilantro, first pick only the small, young leaves (removing any wilted ones) with the stems, and place them in a jar with water like a bunch of flowers. Cover them with a plastic bag and put it in the refrigerator. Change the water every two days or so, eliminating any wilted leaves in the process. Rinse the leaves before use.

Harvest the coriander seeds as soon as the leaves and flowers have turned brown, but before the seed disperses. Cut the whole plant and hang it to dry upside down in paper bags, shaking occasionally to thresh the seeds. Coriander seeds only partially dried have a bitter taste.

To release the flavour of coriander, first dry roast the seeds in a frying pan over low-medium heat, shaking the pan frequently. Allow to cool, and then crush the seeds with a mortar and pestle (or grind them in a coffee grinder used only for that purpose) just before use.

The unique and powerful flavour of the herb is due to a high number of aldehydes, chemicals produced by the oxidation of alcohol. Aldehydes are used in the production of perfumes and artificial fruit flavours such as strawberry and peach.

The Spanish introduced cilantro to their American colonies and the herb is now very popular in Mexican and South American dishes (the word “cilantro” is Spanish for coriander leaves). This may be partly due to the fact that the herb’s flavour mixes well with corn. The following is an unusual combination of flavours that works. The use of maple syrup as a sweetener adds a nice Canadian touch.

Cilantro Cornbread with Maple Syrup

  • 1¼ cups of unbleached white flour

  • ¾ cup of cornmeal

  • ¼ cup of maple syrup

  • 2 tsp. baking powder

  • ½ tsp. salt

  • 1 cup of milk (or milk substitute such as soy or nut milk)

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil

  • 1 egg, beaten

  • ½ cup of fresh, chopped cilantro

Heat oven to 400ºF. Butter a 20-centimetre square pan. Combine dry ingredients and cilantro. Stir in the beaten egg, milk, oil and maple syrup until just moistened. Pour batter into pan and bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Test with toothpick for doneness.

Here’s a great summer salad recipe:

Chicken Salad with Cilantro & Ginger

  • 1lb. of skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into quarter inch strips

  • ½ cup of soy sauce

  • ¼ cup of oriental sesame oil

  • 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

  • 2 tsp. of grated, fresh ginger

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil

  • ½ tsp. chilli oil

  • 1 head of romaine lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces

  • ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves

  • ½ red onion, sliced thinly

  • 1 large tomato, sliced

  • ¼ cup of sesame seeds, toasted

  • ¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted

Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and ginger. Set about one quarter of this mixture aside and add more oil and vinegar to taste as a dressing for the finished salad. Marinate the chicken in the rest for at least one hour, but preferably overnight, turning the chicken occasionally. Do not use the marinade that has contained the raw chicken as a salad dressing. Sauté the chicken strips in the heated olive and chilli oil until cooked through, but not overcooked. Transfer to a plate and allow to cool.

Combine the lettuce, cilantro, onion and tomato in a large bowl and then arrange on a large platter. Top the salad with the cooked chicken and sprinkle it all with the sesame seeds, almonds and reserved marinade. Serves four.

A good summer vegetarian salad using cilantro is the following:

Mango Rice Salad with Cilantro

  • 1 cup of cooked and cooled long grain brown rice

  • 1 avocado, peeled, stoned and cubed

  • 1 large mango, peeled, stoned and cubed

  • ½ cup of fresh, chopped green onions or chives

  • 4 Tbsp. of fresh squeezed lime juice, or more or less to taste

  • 3 Tbsp. of flax oil, or healthy oil of your choice

  • ¾ cup of fresh, chopped cilantro

Toss all the ingredients together and serve. Non-vegetarians may want to add some sliced cold roasted chicken.

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