The miracle of cilantro
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Coriander is the seedpod of the cilantro plant. This is why, in most of the English-speaking world, cilantro is called “coriander leaf,” or simply “coriander.”
While Americans tend to ignore the seedpod in favor of the leaf, elsewhere in the world the reverse is often true. The spice we call coriander typically comes in the form of brown, dry hard balls that are crushed or ground into powder before use. Gardeners, their friends and customers of savvy growers and grocers also have an opportunity to cook with green coriander seeds. After the delicate petals drop from a flower, that flower’s ovary develops into a seedpod, which contains two cilantro seeds. These swollen, green pearls are alive and tender, succulent, and spicy.
The flavor, not surprisingly, is somewhere between cilantro and coriander. If you’re a person that’s hard-wired to hate cilantro—it tastes soapy to some—then green cilantro seeds might not be your thing. The rest of us should feel free to toss them in our food with experimental abandon, and see what happens. The seeds are spicy, and have a distinct aromatic flavor, with less of that citrusy flavor that strikes some as soapy.
Last week I went to the garden to fetch some cilantro for a batch of guacamole. This time of year the cilantro plants, like many leafy plants in my garden, are bolting—a.k.a. going to seed. Generally, when plants that are eaten for their leaves bolt, the leaves become too bitter for most palates. Cilantro leaves don’t actually really change flavor, but they shrink and grow skinny when the plant bolts.
My spindly and sparse cilantro leaves didn’t amount to enough material to flavor my guacamole, but some of the flowers had already morphed into seedpods, so I harvested a small handful of these instead. I beat them in a mortar and pestle with garlic, and stirred the resulting light green paste into mashed avocado, and stirred in chopped onion, salt, pepper, ripe tomato chunks and lime juice. The coriander pods shifted the guacamole flavor a few degrees brighter and more exotic than it would have been with cilantro leaves.
The next evening I continued my green coriander research by making more paste with garlic and smearing it on a piece of salmon, over which I poured soy sauce, and baked. It was splendid, but the salmon seemed to absorb much of the green coriander flavor. Rather than triple the quantity I used on another piece of salmon, as I suspected was necessary, I tried the same size handful with a filet of Alaskan cod, a milder fish. I fried a small handful of green coriander in butter, then added the fish, along with some chopped garlic. When the fish was almost done, I added a squeeze of lime juice and salt. That pretty much nailed it.
There are reports that green coriander goes well in cucumber pickles, as a replacement for dill. I know from personal experience it can find a happy home in soups, chutneys and stir-fries. But perhaps my favorite way of using them is in a garden vegetable-oriented, Thai-style coconut curry. As an added bonus, you can, and should, use the root as well.
Green Curry with Green Coriander
Fresh garden veggies (zucchini, beans, basil, carrots, broccoli, peas, string beans, etc.)
Green coriander seeds
One medium onion, chopped
Three garlic cloves, minced
One can of full-fat coconut milk
Three tablespoons green curry paste (If making it from scratch, use the cilantro root in the paste)
Protein, if you wish, such as slow-fried tofu, or some kind of animal flesh, prepared as appropriate. That cod described above is really good in it.
One lime, cut and ready to squeeze
Fish sauce (optional, stinky, and awesome)
Chicken bullion (optional)
Cilantro root, washed and minced
Your choice of chile (chili) heat
This recipe can be served as a soup or over rice, and can incorporate most any vegetable from your garden that can be stir-fried.
In a pan or wok, heat cooking oil on medium. Add chopped onion and brown it, stirring often. Add vegetables in reverse order of how long it takes them to cook. For example, start with sliced carrots, then wait a few minutes, then zucchini rounds, garlic and sliced cilantro root. A few minutes later, mushrooms, along with your separately cooked proteins. Reserve the fast-cooking veggies for later.
Stir in 2-3 tablespoons of curry paste, an appropriate amount of chile heat and chicken bullion if you feel like cheating a little. Add water, if necessary, to make sure nothing sticks or burns. Pour in a can of coconut milk and stir, and then fill the can halfway with water and swish it around to recover all the coconut milk from the side of the can, and pour it in the curry, and stir again.
Season with soy sauce, fish sauce and lime, and adjust the chile heat. If you want more liquid, add water and then readjust the seasonings. Add your extra-delicate veggies, like broccoli, string beans, peas and basil, in that order. Cook until all the veggies are perfect. Garnish with green onion, and sprinkle green coriander seeds into each bowl at serving time, so they float on top of everything.
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