Jane McLeod: Cilantro - Love it or hate it


— There probably is no other herb that is more vilified than cilantro (coriander leaves). There even are Web sites devoted to this purpose. If you think you get roughed up in a political discussion defending Democrats or Republicans, just try cilantro.Not interchangeable with coriander but from the same plant (Coriandrum sativum), cilantro refers to the fresh leaves rather than the seeds (coriander) of this herb. There actually may be a scientific rationale for this love-hate relationship with cilantro.

For those who perceive cilantro as muddy, soapy tasting - or worse - it could be because of a genetic enzyme that changes the way cilantro tastes. For the rest of us, the leaves are similar to parsley but with a citrus-like overtone - kind of refreshing.

Part of the umbelliferae family (which includes dill, fennel and parsley), cilantro has the same tall, delicate and feathery appearance. Cilantro leaves (also called Chinese parsley) are the lower leaves of the plant - deep green, finely scalloped and broad, resembling Italian parsley. The upper leaves are very finely cut, almost threadlike and bright green, with the same pungent aroma as the bottom leaves. A big factor that dictates the quality of flavor is how the leaves are harvested. Pick young leaves anytime, but as the summer temperatures climb, the plant quickly will bolt, causing the leaves and stems to become bitter. The production of a long, tall stalk signals the plant's intent to flower. At this point, the finer top leaves dominate the plant, and with the bottom leaves no longer edible, the plant should be left to harvest coriander seeds.

Propagate this herb from seed in a sunny location in rich, light soil. If you are growing it strictly for the leaves, it will help to have light shade in the heat of the day. The plant grows quickly - but by giving it some shade, keeping it pinched back and picking varieties that are slow-bolt and using succession seed planting, you can support a fresh supply of leaves.

If you find you've cut too much for cooking, or you buy a bunch at the store and want to retain the freshness, place the stems in a glass of water, cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for a short time, because it doesn't stay fresh very long. It also doesn't dry well, but you can try freezing clean, dry leaves into ice cube trays, covering with water and sealing the cubes in plastic bags when ready.

Cilantro leaves are delicious as a garnish or incorporated into the spicy dishes of the Middle East, the curries and chutneys of India, Mexican salsa or anything Thai or Chinese. When cooking with cilantro, it should be added at the very end so that the flavor is not lost or distorted. If cilantro doesn't hit your taste buds right, there probably is no amount of good press to convince you to try it again. But if you just think you haven't been having it at its freshest, then try again to see if a whole new world of citrusy tang perks up your tongue.


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