Cilantro: The Controversial Herb

When you are a cooking instructor, the last thing you want is for a student to flee your class. It happened to me, but I swear it wasn't my fault. It was the cilantro.

The cooking class featured a Southwest American menu that embraced cilantro. Not 10 minutes into the introduction of the cuisine, one student's eyes began to water and her throat constricted. She admitted she didn't like cilantro, and she believed her reaction was due to her close proximity to the springy bouquets I had placed around my kitchen as edible decoration. She didn't have to ingest it; simply sharing a room with this herb was enough to set off her attack. Apologizing profusely with tears streaming down her face, she clutched her purse and fled my home. There were no other casualties that afternoon, but it did get me thinking about cilantro.

Like politics and religion, cilantro elicits strong opinions. People love it or hate it. For some, it's an acquired taste, thus attracting its share of proselytizing converts, such as myself. Even the name of the plant can be controversial. In the U.S., the leaves are called cilantro, while the seeds are called coriander. In Europe, the leaves are called coriander, while the seeds are also called coriander. To confuse matters further, cilantro leaves are also known as Chinese parsley.

About The Author

Lynda Balslev moved to Paris to study cooking in 1991. She returned to the U.S. 17 years later with a Danish husband, two children and previous addresses in Geneva, London and Copenhagen. During that time, she worked as a freelance food writer, caterer, cooking instructor and food editor for the Danish magazine Sphere. Currently she lives in California's Bay Area, where she writes about food and culinary travel on her blog TasteFood, teaches cooking and is relieved to be speaking English again.

Whatever your culinary or linguistic disposition, this is one herb the world apparently can't live without. Featured in the cuisines of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Asia, cilantro has a culinary history dating back millennia. Its seeds were found in 8,000-year-old caves in Israel. There are ancient Sanskrit and biblical references to coriander. Even King Tut claimed a piece of the cilantro action with seeds scattered in his tomb. Introduced to the Americas by Europeans in the 1600s, the coriander plant is a relative newcomer to this part of the world. It's been growing like the dickens ever since, making up for any lost epochal time while achieving a prominent place in American Southwestern, Mexican and Latin American cuisines.

The entire cilantro plant is edible, including its root. The seeds, known as coriander, are the dried ripe fruit of the plant, frequently used whole for pickling and spicing, or toasted and finely ground into the dried spice also known as coriander. Dried coriander seeds bear no resemblance in flavor to the fresh leaves. Fresh coriander leaves are delicate and lacy, imparting a unique soapy aroma that either attracts or repels, depending on which side of the cilantro fence you sit. Cilantro leaves are best served fresh and used as a final flourish to dishes, because their fragility does not lend well to the heat of cooking.

Cilantro is easy to grow, which helps to explain its abundance. It is a hardy annual herb and a member of the parsley family, related to other lacy-leaved plants such as fennel, dill, chervil and carrots. It bolts quickly in warm temperatures, so it's best grown in the spring or fall. As soon as it flowers, it makes seeds that can be harvested and replanted. With some planning and routine, cilantro can grow all season long.

So, why is this ancient, worldly herb so polarizing? There are theories that nature plays a role: Some people may be genetically predisposed to cilantro intolerance. This can manifest itself in an intense aversion to the aroma and flavor of the leaves, and, in rare cases, a physical reaction similar to my student's. For the rest of us, nurture or environment may be a factor. Chances are that if you were raised in a culture where coriander is a kitchen staple, you are a cilantro lover. If you had little exposure, cilantro might take some getting used to. It's worth the effort. Fueled by culinary curiosity, I have grown to love cilantro. Now, pots of coriander grow year round in my California garden, and I frequently cook with it while happily considering myself a cilantro convert. If King Tut passed into the afterlife accompanied by coriander seeds, then this herb is worthy of our respect.

Carrot Soup With Coriander Seed And Cilantro

The sweetness of the carrot is tempered by the spice of coriander and cayenne, while the strength of the fresh cilantro mellows as it warms in the soup.

Carrot Soup With Coriander Seed And Cilantro i i
Lynda Balslev
Carrot Soup With Coriander Seed And Cilantro
Lynda Balslev

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 pound carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

4 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup cilantro sprigs

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and saute until translucent but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add carrots, ground coriander and cayenne. Saute 1 minute.

Add stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until carrots are very soft, about 45 minutes.

Carefully transfer soup to bowl of food processor or blender. Add cilantro sprigs. Puree until smooth. Return soup to pot. Stir in brown sugar, salt and pepper. Gently warm over medium-low heat.

Serve soup warm garnished with fresh cilantro sprigs.

Black Bean And Corn Salsa With Cilantro

This salsa balances sweetness with spice and acidity while showcasing a confetti of colors. Serve as an appetizer with tortilla chips, with a salad or as an accompaniment to grilled fish, poultry or meat.

Black Bean And Corn Salsa With Cilantro i i
Lynda Balslev
Black Bean And Corn Salsa With Cilantro
Lynda Balslev

Makes about 4 cups

2 cups cooked black beans, or 16-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup frozen corn, thawed, or uncooked corn from the cob

4 green onions, ends trimmed, white and green parts finely sliced

1 small red pepper, stemmed, seeded, diced

1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1/2 cup chopped cilantro sprigs

Combine all the ingredients except the cilantro in a bowl. Toss to combine and taste to adjust seasoning. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours.

Before serving, stir in cilantro.

Couscous Salad With Chopped Vegetables, Mint And Cilantro

Pearl couscous, also known as Israeli couscous, is available in the rice and grains section of supermarkets and specialty stores. Made of baked wheat, its granules are large in size and maintain their individual texture and firmness, which makes it perfect for salads and as a substitute for orzo or rice. Pearl couscous can be toasted before simmering in liquid, which imparts a golden hue and satisfying toasted flavor that holds up against spices and herbs.

Couscous Salad With Chopped Vegetables, Mint And Cilantro
Lynda Balslev

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 cup giant pearl couscous (Israeli couscous)

1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste

3 green onions, ends trimmed, white and green parts finely sliced

1 small red bell pepper, seeded, finely diced

1 small poblano or green pepper, seeded, finely diced

1 serrano pepper, seeded, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes (quartered if large)

1/4 cup chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in skillet. Add couscous and cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until couscous is golden brown, about 3 minutes.

Add chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer until liquid is absorbed and couscous is tender but firm, 10 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer couscous to a large bowl, fluffing with a fork.

Stir in remaining tablespoon olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, cumin and cayenne. Set aside to cool.

Once couscous has cooled, stir in remaining ingredients. Serve at room temperature.

Seared Sea Scallops With Cilantro Gremolata And Pea Puree

Gremolata is extremely versatile. Its simplicity showcases the herb it features, whether it's cilantro, parsley, basil or mint. Serve as a garnish for fish, chicken and meat; toss with pasta and rice; or smear on crostini.

Seared Sea Scallops With Cilantro Gremolata And Pea Puree
Lynda Balslev

Makes 4 main-course servings or 8 appetizer servings

For Gremolata

1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For Pea Puree

4 cups water

3 teaspoons salt, divided

2 cups shelled English peas

1 large garlic clove

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

For Scallops

16 large sea scallops, about 1 1/2 pounds

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

For Cilantro Gremolata

Combine the cilantro, garlic, lemon zest, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside.

Pea Puree

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 2 teaspoons salt and the peas. Cook until peas are tender. Remove from heat and drain peas, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid.

Combine peas, 1/4 cup reserved cooking liquid, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, ginger, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper and cayenne in bowl of food processor and puree until smooth. If too thick, add more cooking liquid to achieve desired consistency. The puree should not be too thin.

Transfer to a bowl. Keep warm.

Sea Scallops

Pat scallops dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle all over with salt and pepper.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add scallops in batches and cook, turning once, until brown on both sides and just cooked through, about 2 minutes per side.

While the scallops are cooking, spoon pea puree on serving plates. Arrange scallops over puree. Sprinkle scallops and puree with gremolata. Drizzle lightly with extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.

Roasted Lemon Cilantro Chicken

Cilantro, lemon and garlic infuse the meat with flavor while it roasts. The paste may be doubled, reserving half to serve as an accompaniment to the chicken. Requires some advance preparation.

Roasted Lemon Cilantro Chicken
Lynda Balslev

Makes 4 to 5 servings

2 large garlic cloves

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro sprigs

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 teaspoons sea salt, divided

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 whole 3- to 4-pound chicken

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the paste, combine garlic, cilantro, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons salt, lemon zest and saffron in a mortar with pestle or bowl of a food processor. Smash or grind to a paste. Stir or pulse in 2 tablespoons olive oil.

Gently slide your fingers between the breast meat and skin and rub the paste all over the meat, carefully reaching the upper thighs without tearing the skin. Rub additional paste inside the cavity. Brush the outside of the skin with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and black pepper. Place on tray or platter, breast-side up and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to 6 hours. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before roasting.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place chicken, breast-side up, in a roasting pan. Roast for 20 minutes. Carefully turn chicken over with tongs. Roast another 20 minutes. Turn chicken over once more, breast-side up. Continue roasting 20 minutes.

Check to see if chicken is done by carefully cutting skin between breast and thigh. If meat is pink, return to oven for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Chicken is cooked when meat is no longer pink, and clear juices run from the thigh when pierced with a knife. Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil and let rest 15 minutes before carving.

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