By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by Lucinda Hutson
She’s sassy, spirited and full of flavor. Some call her names and say she has a split personality. Some adore her while some abhor her. And like any larger-than-life personality, she has the potential to overwhelm, if you let her. Can you guess this herb?
I call her la reina de la cocina—Mexico’s queen of the kitchen—and she adds a fresh, pungent burst of flavor as a seasoning or garnish.
Tucked in a taco, sprinkled over grilled meats and seafood, guacamole or the ubiquitous frijoles and salsa picante, cilantro brings a fiesta to the table!
Possessing a dual nature, cilantro presents both foliage and seeds as culinary gifts prized around the world. While the fresh leaves are commonly referred to as “cilantro,” the small, dried seeds are known as “coriander.” They are not interchangeable—each has a unique flavor and usage—though some recipes call for them to play nicely together.
Some know cilantro as “coriander leaf” or “Chinese parsley,” while Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asians have many other names for this versatile and popular herb. In these ethnic cuisines, cilantro’s bright emerald leaves and strong, distinctive character bring to life otherwise mundane fare. With its subtle cooling effect, cilantro also serves as a foil for taming fiery chiles, garlic, onions and authoritative spices favored in warm-weather countries.
Whip up refreshing cilantro chutney or yogurt raita to accompany spicy Indian curry. Sprinkle zesty cilantro sprigs atop a sea of Thai coconut and shrimp soup. Tuck a palmful inside Vietnamese spring rolls and lettuce wraps, or toss in a flurry of green leaves as the perfect finale for a Chinese stir-fry. Even pesto takes on vida nueva when made with cilantro instead of basil. Try it spiked with serranos, lime zest, pecans and queso Cotija—a dry, crumbly aged Mexican cheese.
Coriander seeds have different qualities to offer. The fresh, unripened, glossy green seeds have an aromatic, herbaceous tang redolent of exotic lime. Sprinkle on deviled eggs, seafood and salads, incorporate into homemade mayonnaise and salad dressings or add a pinch to a gin martini.
The dried seeds, though, are of culinary renown. Their mellow citrus-and-spice essence is highly regarded in pastries and confections. Throw a few teaspoonfuls into soups and stocks, pickling and mulled spice blends, herb vinegars, chutneys and tapenades. Briefly toast seeds on a hot griddle to release flavor, then grind for seasoning curries, sauces and spice blends like chili powder and meat rubs.
Such versatility in one plant! Still, for some, cilantro’s oft-described “soapy” taste can elicit strong reactions. Ogden Nash once said, “Parsley is gharsley.” What would he think of bold cilantro whose botanical name, Coriandrum sativum, derives from the Greek word for a stinky bedbug? Yet coriander scents exquisite French perfumes and flavors some of the world’s finest gin, as well as Bénédictine and Chartreuse—revered liqueurs concocted for centuries in French monasteries.
Fall is the time to plant cilantro—try to avoid our hot spring and summer. Instead, harvest cilantro leaves now. If the plant has already burst into a profusion of edible lacy white blossoms, use them as a pretty garnish for salads and desserts. As seeds form, use some green ones, and let the rest dry to a toasty color before harvesting.
Lucinda's Tips on Cilantro and Coriander
Rinse bunch well, trim bottom of stems and place stems-down in a glass with a few inches of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag and keep in the fridge, refreshing water often. Add fresh cilantro sprigs at the end of cooking to retain flavor, or chop for garnishes right before serving.
Place dried seeds in a tightly sealed jar. Freshly grind only as needed. Toast coriander seeds on a hot griddle to bring out flavor—once seeds become fragrant, remove from heat. Grind coarsely in spice grinder for rubs and marinades, or grind finely for spice blends. Add whole seeds to soups and stocks, mulled spiced cider and wine, pickling spices, fig preserves and fruit chutneys, poached pears and apples, sausages and wild game recipes, apple pie and Texas peach cobbler. Use ground coriander in chili, curry and other spice blends and rubs. Add to gingerbread, cookies, pastries and hot cocoa. Delicious in a beurre blanc butter sauce with citrus for broccoli, asparagus, potatoes and seafood.
Cilantro: Chiles, hot peppers, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, oregano, citrus juice and zest, cumin, onions, avocados, Asian, Indian and Mexican ingredients.
Coriander: Cayenne and other hot chiles, curry, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, black pepper, pink peppercorns, cumin, ginger and citrus zest.