Pungent herb wins favor in salsas, soups and relishes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ten years ago, few Americans had ever heard of or tasted cilantro. Today, progressive cooks can't seem to cook without it. This pungent green herb has been turning up in everything from salsas to salads and stir-fries. Once available only at ethnic markets, it has crept into restaurants and supermarkets.

Cilantro (pronounced see-LAN-tro) may be a relative newcomer to the United States, but it has long been a mainstay of many of the world's great cuisines. The pungent leaf is a cornerstone of Mexican cooking. Also called coriander leaf and Chinese parsley, it is widely used in China, Southeast Asia, India, Portugual and North Africa.

Cilantro has a distinctive taste that people either adore or hate. The flavor hints vaguely at celery and mint, with the faintest wiff of mothballs. The tiniest bite seems to explode with flavor. If the herb tastes soapy to you, you may be one of a small number of people who are allergic to it. The name comes from the Greek word "koris," meaning bedbug -- an allusion to the plant's supposedly buggy smell.

The Greeks notwithstanding, cilantro has enjoyed enduring popularity. The seeds have been found at Bronze Age sites and in the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs. The Hebrews thought highly enough of coriander to liken it to manna. Hippocrates praised its medicinal virtues. And in "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights," it was lauded as an aphrodisiac.

The leaves are only half the story. Coriander seed is also a popular seasoning. The peppercorn-sized seeds are light brown and ridged; their flavor is faintly sweet and aromatic. Coriander seed may remind you of pickles or gingerbread; it is an essential ingredient in both. Many Indian curry recipes start with equal parts coriander seed and cumin. In Thailand, even the roots of this pungent herb are used in soups and sauces.

Cilantro has flat leaves the size and shape of a fingernail, with a fringed leading edge. It is sold by the bunch: Look for bright green leaves, avoiding bunches that are wilted or yellow. To keep cilantro fresh, wrap it loosely in a paper towel. Moisten the towel with cold water and store the bunch in a plastic bag -- left unsealed so the leaves can breathe.

Coriander seed can be bought in sealed jars at the supermarket or in bulk at Indian or Middle Eastern market. Grinding the whole seeds yourself in a spice mill, blender, or with a mortar and pestle will produce a richer flavor.

Add cilantro to a dish at the last minute. Cooking discolors the leaves and deadens the flavor. The stems and roots can be added to spice pastes and marinades.

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Here are five recipes that take advantage of this pungent, fashionable herb.

This simple salsa is served in Mexican restaurants everywhere. To peel tomatoes, cut out the stem end and make an X-shaped cut on the bottom. Immerse the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and rinse under cold water. The skins should slip right off. To seed the tomatoes, cut each in half widthwise. Squeeze

the halves over a bowl to wring out the seeds.

Salsa cruda Serves four.

2 ripe tomatoes

1 small red onion

1 or 2 jalapeno chilies

1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

juice of 1 to 2 limes

salt and fresh black pepper

Peel and seed the tomatoes. Cut into 1/4 -inch dice. Finely chop the red onion. Cut the chili in half and remove the seeds. (If you like a really hot salsa, leave the seeds in.) Mince the chili. Coarsely chop the cilantro.

Gently mix the ingredients in a bowl, adding salt or lime juice to taste. Salsa is best fresh: It is best served within 20 minutes.

Sopa de coentro (cilantro soup) is a specialty of Portugual. The following recipe was adapted from Jean Anderson's "The Food of Portugual" (William Morrow, 1986). It is essential to use fresh cilantro.

Cilantro soup Serves four to six.

2 bunches fresh cilantro

1 onion (1 cup chopped)

2 cloves garlic

2 to 3 leeks (1 cup chopped)

4 tablespoon olive oil

5 cups chicken stock

2 potatoes

salt, fresh black pepper

pinch of cayenne pepper

Coarsely chop the cilantro, discarding the roots and stems. Finely chop the onion and garlic. Trim, wash and finely chop the leeks.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the chopped vegetables and cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, or until tender. Add the chicken stock.

Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and cut into 1/4 inch dice. Add the potatoes and simmer the soup for 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Add salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste. Just before serving, stir in the cilantro.

This dish is a Mexican version of shrimp scampi. The parsley in the Italian dish is replaced by fresh cilantro. If you like your food very spicy, leave the seeds in the chili.

Shrimp with cilantro

Serves four.

1 1/2 pounds shrimp

1 bunch fresh cilantro

1/4 teaspoon coriander seeds

3 scallions

2 cloves garlic

1 jalapeno or 2 serrano chilies (optional)

5 tablespoons butter

juice of 1 lime, or to taste

salt and freshly ground pepper

Peel and devein the shrimp. Stem and coarsely chop the cilantro. Coarsely crush the coriander seeds with a mortar and pestle. Finely chop the scallions and mince the garlic. Seed the chili and mince. (The recipe can be prepared ahead to this stage.)

Just before serving, melt the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the coriander seeds, scallions, garlic and chili, and cook for 1 minute, or until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the shrimp, and cook for 2 minutes, or until it turns white. Do not overcook. Stir in the cilantro, lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once, spooning the pan juices over the shrimp. Rice makes a good accompaniment.

Traditional pesto is made with basil and Romano cheese. I've jazzed up the recipe, using goat cheese and cilantro. Try to use ripe tomatoes -- the sort that squish, not bounce, when you drop them.

Baked tomatoes with cilantro pesto

Serves eight.

8 small ripe tomatoes or 16 plum tomatoes

FOR THE PESTO:

1/3 cup lightly toasted pine nuts

1 or 2 cloves garlic

1 or 2 serrano chilies

1 cup stemmed, coarsely chopped cilantro

1/3 cup soft goat cheese

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus oil for the baking dish

juice of 1 lemon or to taste

salt and fresh black pepper

Make a 1 inch, conical cut to remove the stem end of each tomato. Deeply score the inside of the tomato with the point of a paring knife. Arrange tomatoes in a lightly oiled baking dish. Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Puree the pine nuts, garlic and chili in a food processor. Add the cilantro and goat cheese and blend to a smooth paste. Gradually work in the olive oil, lemon juice and seasonings to taste.

Fill each tomato with pesto. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the sides of the tomatoes feel soft.

Here's an unusual fruit relish to serve with grilled chicken or seafood. It's so good, I've been known to eat it straight with a spoon.

Cilantro melon relish

Serves four to six.

4 cups fresh melon balls (honeydew, cantaloupe and/or watermelon)

1 red bell pepper

1 green bell pepper

2 or 3 jalapeno chilies

1 bunch scallions, green part only

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 bunch cilantro

2 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste

juice of 2 limes, or to taste

salt and fresh black pepper

Halve and seed the melons and remove the flesh with a large melon baller. Drain melon balls in a strainer. Core and seed bell peppers and cut into 1/2 inch dice. Seed and mince the chilies. Finely chop the scallions. Peel and mince ginger. Stem and coarsely chop the cilantro.

Combine ingredients in a bowl and stir in sugar, lime juice and seasonings. Relish tastes best served within 20 minutes of preparation.

Raised in Baltimore, Steven Raichlen is an award-winning syndicated food columnist, cooking teacher and author of "Steven Raichlen's High-Flavor, Low-Fat Cooking" (Camden House Publishing, September 1992).

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