For the Love of Cilantro

Now in Season Spring 2016 Issue

For the Love of Cilantro

By Terese Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

I’ve always thought of cilantro as a love-hate food.

The kind people either want in everything, or equate to Ivory soap. But lately I’m not so sure. On several occasions I’ve witnessed self-proclaimed cilantro-phobes sing the praises of dishes they don’t realize it’s in.

Maybe cilantro is really a love-love food.

It is true, though, that for such a delicate looking thing—picture a pale-green, weakling twin of flat-leaf parsley—cilantro can deliver the culinary equivalent of a mean-spirited Dear John letter. The herb’s bitter and, yes, soapy-tasting side comes out when too much is used or when the plant has gone to flower. And for a small percentage of diners, a genetic trait is the culprit here. But when the leaves are young and widely lobed and the stems slender, cilantro has a citrus-y, lightly peppery flavor that has thrilled the rest of humanity for millennia.

Most likely native to southern Europe and the Middle East, cilantro today has a reach and respect that spans the globe—it’s an essential ingredient in Mexican, Brazilian, Indian, Hmong and many other ethnic cuisines. In nearly all cases, cooks use the leaves fresh or add them to a dish just before serving, since heat shrinks its flavor and changes its character. (So does drying, so don’t do it.)

A cool weather crop, cilantro loves us right back, especially during spring in the North, when we positively lust for green. What’s more, cilantro is a gift that keeps on giving. If you don’t know what I mean here, let a few plants go to seed in your garden this summer, for another crop in early fall. Let some of that go and you’ll be the earliest one on your block serving guacamole next spring.

So how do you love cilantro? One can hardly count the ways—think fish, lamb, chicken, eggs, asparagus, radishes, peas, dairy. Think salads, wraps, pesto. Stirfries, dips. During spring in Wisconsin—cliché alert!— cilantro love is a many-splendored thing.

What's your relationship with cilantro? Share your experience in the comments! 


Curried Lamb with Parsnips and Cilantro

A little cilantro can change things in a big way. With its exotic layering of flavors—earthy lamb, curry spice, herb-y parsnip, sweet pea—this cross-seasonal dish has a lot going on. With a squeeze of lime juice and a scattering of fresh cilantro, the stew both brightens and pulls together.

Frittata with Pea Shoots, Cilantro and Sheep’s Milk Feta

Foods that grow together in the garden go together in the kitchen. Here’s a dish that is delicious proof.

Chermoula Carrots

Chermoula is a randy Moroccan marinade that sparks up fish, poultry, meat, vegetables—in fact, it complements so many foods that I’ve sometimes wondered if the term doesn’t translate as “the sauce that goes with everything.” Parts of the recipe are purposefully vague; in other words, vary it as you like (Moroccans do).

Spring Radish and Cilantro Sauté

Green garlic are the tender, curly shoots that sprout from garlic bulbs in early spring, and it’s in full force at the same time as cool-season cilantro. This is a great side dish with poached, steamed or grilled fish.

Terese Allen has written scores of books and articles about the foodways of Wisconsin, including the award-winning titles "The Flavor of Wisconsin" and "The Flavor of Wisconsin for Kids." She is co-founder and a longtime leader of the Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin (CHEW). If you want to get Terese going, just ask her the best way to fix an old-fashioned, how to hunt for morels, or why fish fries thrive in our state.

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