Selling Cilantro

Selling Cilantro

For a couple of herbs, coriander and cilantro sure do cause a lot of confusion. There's really no need for the fuss because they're just two parts of the same plant: cilantro is the pungent leaf and coriander is the citrusy seed. So if a recipe calls for coriander leaf, it's referring to cilantro. And if it calls for cilantro seed, it needs coriander.

Got it?

Good, because there's one more thing to know: sometimes the plant is also called Chinese parsley.

Well, whatever you call it, coriander/cilantro/Chinese parsley has been used for thousands of years. There are references to it in the Bible, the Talmud, Babylonian clay tablets, not to mention the cookbook of a chef to England's Charles II a few centuries down the line.

Cilantro, by the way, is the Spanish name for the plant part of coriander. Since America's introduction to this herb has pretty much been through the Mexican cuisine sweeping up from the border, that's what we call the herb here. It's called Chinese parsley mostly in Oriental recipes (imagine that), but you'll also sometimes see the plants sold under that name.

Now cilantro evokes some strong feelings--and I don't mean the rumored aphrodisiacal effects touted in one of "The Thousand and One Nights" Arabian tales. It seems people just either love it or hate it. It's easy to see why: the plant has an assertive, fresh, almost musky flavor that has been compared to sage. And, um, soap.

Well, you can't say it's subtle. Keep in mind the name comes from the Greek word (koros) for what the leaves are supposed to smell like: bedbugs. I've never sniffed one of the little devils, so I'm not qualified to judge if that's a compliment.

Not to malign this herb--I like it. Over time, it's really grown on me, and in my garden. In fact, I have sprouts coming up out there right now. You can bet I'll get plenty of use from them, because cilantro is used in Latin American, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, to name just a few.

You can use the leaves with tomatoes, beans, carrots, potatoes, pilafs, pasta salads, baked chicken, roast lamb, grilled meats--even fish and other seafood. The flavor dissipates if cooked too long, so add the leaves at the end of the cooking or to the finished food.

This simple shrimp and pasta dish is a good introduction. It combines cilantro with two of my favorite seasonings, lemon and garlic, to make a tasty pasta topping. It's fast, especially if you have the store steam the shrimp for you--and why not? The service is free and it saves time at home, which is always a bonus in this busy world.

Shrimp with Cilantro and Garlic
1 pound shrimp, cooked and peeled
Juice from one lemon
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro 3
tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
8-10 ounces angel hair pasta

First, toss the cooked, peeled shrimp with the lemon juice and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. When you're ready to prepare the dish, cook the pasta, drain it and set it aside. Meanwhile, melt the butter with the vegetable oil in a heavy skillet (the oil helps keep the butter from scorching) and add the garlic, sautéing it over medium heat until it's tender but not browned. Add the shrimp and lemon juice and stir until the shrimp is heated.

Next, add the cilantro and cook for just a few minutes more until it wilts and the flavor permeates the dish, then toss the shrimp and the sauce with the cooked pasta. Sprinkle with the parmesan and garnish with a sprig or two of cilantro. This recipe is a delicious meal for two with salad and some bread, or add some asparagus on the side and stretch it to feed four.

You can buy cilantro by the bunch, like parsley, in the produce section of the grocery store, but it's easy to grow from seed or garden center plants and in hot climates like mine, spring and fall are the best times to do it. Those in milder regions can sow the seeds every couple of weeks for a summer-long supply. Be sure to only use the young, larger leaves for cooking. When the plant's about to go to seed, the leaves become lacy and thread-like and they're just too strong to eat.

Any spare cilantro can be frozen for future use; just chop the leaves or press them whole into ice-cube trays, add a little water (or tomato juice, if you'll be using them for salsa or other tomato-based dishes) and freeze. When the cubes are solid, transfer them to a plastic freezer bag and prest-o, change-o you have recipe-sized cilantro packages.

Charles' II cook, a fellow called Giles Rose, probably wouldn't have known about this herb if not for the Romans. As they conquered their way north, they brought it with them and put it into full-scale production when they reached Britain. Today, in parts of England you can find it growing wild--living remnants of the Empire's (and I mean the Roman one) extinct hold.

Love it? Hate it? How do YOU feel about cilantro? E-mail me at passioncook(at) and let me know.

About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.

About this Author