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Cilantro: It's Not Just for Salsa Anymore

Cilantro snapshot
by Lori Grossman

If you're familiar with the herb cilantro, it's probably because you make your own salsa. Don't limit yourself, though. Cilantro can be used in lots of other dishes.

Cilantro derives from the aromatic herb coriander (Coriandrum sativum). Cilantro and coriander are often confused, but cilantro usually refers to the leafy plant itself and coriander to the plant's seeds. Cilantro is sometimes called Chinese parsley, as well.

Fresh cilantro – usually stems and leaves by the bunch, but sometimes the whole plant, roots and all -- is available in the produce section of most grocery stores these days. It's widely used in Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking, and we'll be using the leaves in our recipes a bit later. Often, cilantro is combined with chilies and added to salsas, guacamole, and seasoned main dishes.

Coriander, either whole seeds or ground, is also readily available in stores alongside other packaged dried spices. It can be used in sweet as well as savory dishes.

Cilantro/Coriander Facts
Native to Southern Europe and the Middle East, this is one of the most ancient herbs. It's mentioned in the Bible, and its seeds have been found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. Hippocrates mentioned it in 400 BC, and it grew in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In 812, Charlemagne ordered it to be grown on the imperial farms in central Europe. During the Middle Ages, it was used to make love potions, and it's mentioned in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights as an aphrodisiac.

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Buying and Storage Tips
Cilantro is usually purchased in bunches. If you don't plan to use it right away, wrap it in paper towels and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Rinse the leaves just when you're ready to use them and pat dry with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.

Cilantro bunches often contain more fresh cilantro than a recipe calls for, so here are several recipes that take good advantage of its flavor and aroma.

Avocados Stuffed with Marinated Shrimp
This is a variation on the usual ceviche.
  • 1/2 pound small shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 1/2 cup (or more) fresh lime or lemon juice
  • 1 medium tomato, peeled and chopped
  • 1 canned jalapeño chili, rinsed, seeded, and cut in strips
  • 1 pimiento, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/2 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 6 small pitted green olives, halved
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 large, ripe avocado, halved and pitted
  • Lettuce leaves
If small shrimp are not available, you can use larger ones cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Put into a bowl with enough lime or lemon juice to cover, about 1/2 cup. Refrigerate for about 3 hours, or until the shrimp are opaque.

Add the tomato, chili strips, pimiento, cilantro, onion, olives, oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss lightly to mix ingredients. Spoon the shrimp mixture into the avocado halves and serve on plates garnished with lettuce leaves. Makes 2 servings.

Fish with Cilantro
  • 3 pounds fish fillets (you can use red snapper, flounder, striped bass, or any firm white-fleshed fish)
  • Salt
  • Pepper, freshly ground
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3 canned jalapeño chilies, rinsed, seeded, and chopped
  • Cooked white rice
Season the fish with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the lemon juice.

Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet and sauté the onion until it is soft. Lightly film the surface of a shallow ovenproof casserole with oil. Make sure it is large enough to hold the fish fillets without overcrowding (make more than one layer if necessary).

Arrange the fish fillets, with any liquid they may have yielded, in the casserole. Cover with the onion and the oil, and sprinkle with the cilantro and chilies. Drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil.

Bake in a preheated moderate (350°F) oven for 20 minutes, or until the fish has lost its translucent look. Serve with cooked white rice. Makes 6 servings.

Chicken Stew with Almonds
This is a flexible recipe and second cousin to Mexican mole (pronounced mo LAY), a classic sauce for a variety of dishes. You can use just about any poultry, meat, fish, or shellfish in place of the chicken.
  • 3 pound chicken, cut into serving pieces
  • 2 or 3 scallions
  • 2 or 3 large sprigs fresh cilantro
  • 1 carrot, scraped and halved
  • 2 cups chicken stock (approximate)
  • 6 ancho chilies (dried poblanos)
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) almonds, blanched
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano
  • Salt
Put the chicken pieces into a large, heavy casserole or saucepan with the scallions, cilantro, and carrot. Pour in the chicken stock, adding a little more if necessary to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for 45 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.

Lift the chicken pieces out of the stock. Strain and reserve the stock, discarding the solids. Rinse out the casserole and put the chicken pieces back into it.

Shake the seeds out of the anchos and rinse them. Tear them in pieces and put them to soak for 1 hour in about 1/2 cup hot water, turning them from time to time. If they absorb all of the water, add a little more. Reduce the chilies to a paste in a blender or food processor, using a little of the soaking water. Put them into a bowl.

Toast the almonds in a skillet and pulverize them in a nut grinder, blender, or food processor. Shake them through a sieve and add to the chilies, mixing thoroughly.

Heat the oil in a skillet, add the chili and almond mixture, and sauté, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 4 or 5 minutes over moderate heat. Thin with about 2 cups of the reserved chicken stock to make a medium-thick sauce. Stir in the cloves, cinnamon, and oregano, and pour over the chicken pieces in the casserole. Cook at a bare simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes, or until the chicken is heated through and the flavors have blended.

Season to taste with salt. You can serve this with rice, beans, tortillas, guacamole, and a green vegetable, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
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