By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
I’m in the “love” column on this one. I remember the first moment I tasted cilantro, also called Mexican parsley, or fresh coriander. It was 1978. I was standing in the kitchen of The Buttercup Bakery. The Buttercup was a fixture on College Avenue and Alcatraz in Berkeley, Calif. I rubbed elbows with some of the great minds of the decade.
The early bigwigs of Apple such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak hung out there. Suze Orman, the renowned financial advisor and TV personality, was a waitress there when I was the pastry chef. What did I know? I was a naive 25-year-old, thankful I had a great job in the restaurant business.
We had a charming young chef from Central America, which country, I can’t remember. But what I DO remember is that taste of his freshly made chicken soup. There were green leaves floating around in there. I was thinking parsley, but no, it was my first time eating cilantro. Where had you been my whole life?! This was such a magical sensory moment for me that I still can recall it vividly 45 years later.
I know that I’ve lost some of my readers now. They are in the “leave it” category. “It tastes like soap!” is a common reaction from cilantro-hating folks. Unfortunately, from 4 to 14 percent of the population has a gene that causes the herb to taste like soap. I always thought they were making this up but it is a real fact.
Cilantro can be traced back to 6000 B.C. in southern Europe. The Romans spread it to western Asia. Eventually cilantro was brought to the New World by the Spaniards in the 1500s. Today, oddly enough, at the site of the herb’s origin, in and around the Mediterranean, it is not used very often.
Cilantro enhances food like few other herbs. It is widely used in Mexican and Latin American cooking. You will also see it in Thai, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern dishes, often paired with mint and/or basil. The plant is a member of the Apiaceae family, as are parsley, carrots, and celery.
Cilantro is added to many dishes at the last minute, as the flavor diminishes quickly when it is heated. Because of its bright citrus taste, it is often found in chutneys, salsas, guacamole, and Asian rice-wrapped spring rolls.
There is confusion over the terms “cilantro” and “coriander.” A little-known fact is that coriander is cilantro seeds dried and ground into a powder. They do not taste anything alike. They cannot be used interchangeably either. If a recipe calls for fresh cilantro, please don’t substitute it with dried coriander. Disaster may ensue. Ground coriander is used in Northern African cuisine as well as in Central and South America.
My husband, Bob, used to grow cilantro back in Michigan for me. It did pretty well. After it grew flowers and then seeds, Bob would pick the coriander seeds. We would air dry them and finely grind them. Or I would toast them and use them whole in various dishes. Here in California, cilantro sometimes has a hard time with extreme heat. It will “go to seed” quickly. That means the cycle of the plant’s growth is coming to an end.
Unfortunately, cilantro is not hardy once you pick it. The leaves are quite soft and wilt easily. They do not freeze well. I have found the best way to store a bunch of cilantro is to put it in a jar of water in the fridge. Cover the top with a plastic bag but don’t tie it down–give it some air. The herb is not expensive, but I hate having to throw it out because it has become slimy. When I buy it, I end up creating a meal around it, usually Tex-Mex or Thai.
Today’s recipe is a basic one that uses lots of cilantro, perfect if you happen to be inundated with it, whether you grow it or buy it. Each batch of Cilantro Pesto uses 2 cups of packed leaves. You can change the whole taste of the pesto by replacing cilantro with basil or any other leafy herb. Stored in a clean container in the fridge, it lasts for weeks.
Cilantro Pesto has many applications. I’m putting it on a grilled flank steak. It can be used for steaks, chops, chicken breasts or fish. You can mix some into yogurt, sour cream or mayonnaise with a squeeze of lemon juice and a shot of hot sauce, in order to make a dip for raw vegetables or chips. It can be spread on sandwiches, added to salsas or guacamole, or anything else you can think of.
Get going! Make Cilantro Pesto and let us know here at The Insider if you’re in the love it or leave it contingent. What interesting uses did you think up for this versatile spread?
Grilled Tex-Mex Steak with Cilantro Pesto
Yield: 5-6 appetizers
1 1l2 lb. trimmed flank steak
1/4 c. olive oil
juice of 2 lg. or 3 med. limes
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. coarse ground black pepper
Combine the marinade ingredients in a shallow non-corrosive casserole. Add the flank steak. Coat on one side; turn over. Cover and refrigerate for 4-6 hours, turning once halfway between start and finish.
Heat the grill to moderately high. Remove meat from the marinade and allow excess to drip back into the casserole. Place the steak crosswise on the grill (horizontally). Season with coarse salt. Grill for about 7-8 minutes. Turn over. Sprinkle with salt. Continue to cook until desired doneness, 130° internal temperature for medium-rare, about 5-6 minutes.
Remove from grill and allow to rest, tented with foil on a cutting board for 10 minutes. Using a sharp knife, cut across the grain at a 30-45° angle. Arrange on a platter. Top with some Cilantro Pesto or pass the pesto separately.
Yield: 1 cup
2 garlic cloves
3 Tbsp. slivered almonds, toasted
2 c. fresh cilantro leaves, packed
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coarse black pepper
1/2 c. olive oil
Put the garlic and almonds into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. You can also use a blender. Grind up the ingredients until fine. Add the cilantro leaves. Continue running the motor until the leaves are chopped fine. Add the Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. Puree.
With the motor running, pour the oil slowly through the feed tube. Store in a clean jar.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.