The Love-It-or-Hate-It Herb

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 25, 2005

"You're not going to put cilantro in that, are you?"

My husband gets nervous just seeing cilantro enter the kitchen. I've tried sneaking it into a pot of chili or a Thai curry, along with other assertive herbs and spices, but he always knows it's there. People often describe cilantro's unique pungency as an "acquired taste," but Eliot will never acquire it. You either love cilantro or you view it a culinary assault weapon.

In the former category you'll find most of the people on this planet. Cilantro is one of the world's most ancient and ubiquitous seasonings. It only started to appear on American tables in the last few decades, along with other flavors of Mexican and Southwestern cooking, then in Thai dishes that seemed to cry out for its presence. It is central to all the cuisines of Southeast Asia, as well as India, the Middle East, Spain, Greece, South America, China -- in fact one of its common names is "Chinese parsley."

Oddly enough, cilantro seed -- known as coriander -- has long been part of our own homey repertoire. It is often the main ingredient in curry powder, where it serves as a thickening agent as well as a seasoning. We are used to finding it in breads, cakes, puddings. Though all parts of the plant (whose botanical name is Coriandrum sativum) have the same distinctive flavor, it is so mellowed in the dried seed form that even Eliot will eat it.

Those of us who love the taste of the fresh leaves look forward to the seasons when we can snip them fresh. I make sure to have them in my garden every year. They keep little of their flavor when dried, so some cooks freeze the foliage, or even grow a plant on the windowsill in wintertime. In China the tough, white, flavorful roots are ground up and made into a pickled condiment for year-round use.

In appearance, the plant resembles parsley, except that the leaves are thinner and more rounded. But if you expect it to grow like parsley, you'll only be frustrated. Cilantro has its own program. Instead of forming hearty clumps that produce all season, it begins to go to seed as soon as the summer days lengthen and warm weather sets in. The foliage turns lacy, almost dill-like, as it sends up a tall seed stalk, topped with large umbrellas of frothy white or mauve-white blossoms. These are beautiful in the garden or as cut flowers and attract favored pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. If you let them remain, they'll form tasty, round green seed pods that can be pickled in vinegar and used just as you would capers -- another way to extend the cilantro season. (Southwestern cook Lucinda Hutson, author of "The Herb Garden Cookbook," adds them to deviled eggs and seafood salads.) Left on the plant they will eventually turn brown and can be harvested for coriander. Simply dry them upside down over a container to catch the seeds as they fall. Because the seeds have husks, most people grind them to a powder with a spice or coffee grinder before using them in cooking. They'll be more savory if you toast them first in a dry pan, then grind them just as needed for each dish.

In spring you can start cilantro ahead, but it is best sown directly, rather thickly, in a sunny, well-drained bed, as soon as you can prepare the soil. Start cutting the foliage when the plants are about six inches tall. It's worth looking for a bolt-resistant variety, such as Santo, but I find that even after it bolts to seed, a single plant will still yield at least a cupful of foliage. Though the basal leaves will have yellowed, the upper ones will be tender and slightly sweet. I keep most of mine going as long as I can, then let them scatter their seeds. Next year one of the most delightful moments in spring weeding will be the discovery of little seedlings. My nose finds them long before my eyes do, as my hands move through the garden.

A serious cilantro addict will make successive sowings every two weeks throughout the summer, then plant a fall crop as well. It is not too late to sow one right now. You might even find some seedlings for sale at a local garden center. In the shortening, cooling days of late summer they will grow vigorously without bolting, and you'll have plenty of leaves for salsas, shrimp and fish marinades, corn relishes, chutneys, guacamole. Frost won't kill the plants, but their flavor will start to weaken, and you'll soon be reaching for the true cool-weather herbs, such as chervil, sage and, of course, parsley.

Meanwhile, gather your cilantro while ye may. If non-aficionados will be present -- and the odds are good -- just chop it and pass it separately in a bowl, for diners to sprinkle or decline. All the more for the rest of us.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company