Getting to Know Cilantro: Herbs and Spices 101

This is the first in a series about herbs and spices. We see them in recipes, but we often don’t know much about them! I originally started this series for a blog I had about ten years ago, but I’m updating it. This time, we’ll be getting to know cilantro. This post contains affiliate links – but not to I Hate Cilantro. They’re on their own.

I know that many people really strongly dislike cilantro. They think it tastes like soap. To those people, I apologize; cilantro is one of my favorite herbs and I eat it like it’s going out of style. It’s likely there will be many recipes posted here, especially as we move into the summer months, that feature its delicious floral citrusy flavor. I encourage you to try it in a few different applications, but if you really just hate it the way I hate oregano, you can find support at I Hate Cilantro.

Cilantro can be a love it or hate it flavor - which side are you on?

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here huffing this lovely bouquet of leaves, getting to know cilantro better. I’ve spent considerable time trying to think of a way to describe the smell and taste of cilantro, but I always come up short. I can see why people think it tastes like soap. Actually, I did, too, when I was younger; I’m not sure what that says about the genetic thing. (We all know anecdata is the best science, right? Note tongue firmly positioned in cheek.) But love it or hate it, cilantro’s got a definite heady sinus-filling aroma. I think it would make an interesting, bright top note in perfume; I’m sure someone’s done it. Cilantro is an umbellifer, like carrots, parsley, and dill. And poison hemlock. Like its cousins, it has a hollow stem and a taproot (picture a carrot when you think of a taproot). The seeds are called coriander — as are the leaves, in other countries — and have a different flavor and different uses which are not within the scope of this article. Ha. I’ll write about it another time, though, because I love it too.

It does look rather like flat or Italian parsley, although the leaves are a bit frillier at the edges, and if the cilantro’s worth eating they can easily be differentiated by smell. Dried cilantro isn’t really worth eating, but it freezes quite well; just chop finely and mix in a tiny bit of vegetable oil, freeze in ice cube trays, then bag and store.  It’s actually really good. If you buy fresh cilantro and need it to keep, the best way is to stick it in a cup of water and put it in the fridge. Like you would with flowers, only, you know, in the fridge.

I like cilantro so much, I offer two recipes. The first, larb, is a delicious Thai meat salad which makes a pretty awesome fast dinner. Like most Thai food (swoon), it has a complex blend of flavors; cilantro plays an important role, but it doesn’t dominate. The second is a recipe for a cilantro-coconut chutney, originally from A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider, modified by me over the past um, thirteen years. I could eat it with a spoon, but it probably is not the recipe to begin with if you’re still on the fence about cilantro.

If you make either one of these recipes, you’ll be getting to know cilantro a little bit better – and hopefully thinking about places where you can use it!

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Getting to Know Cilantro - Thai Larb (Lettuce Wraps)

A fragrant, complex Thai salad with ground pork (or other meat), lime, fish sauce, and cilantro. You can wrap it in lettuce leaves to eat.

Course Appetizer, Salad
Cuisine Thai
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes
Servings 2 as an appetizer

Ingredients

  • 2-4 Tbsp toasted rice powder
  • 1/2 lb ground pork or chicken, turkey, or beef
  • 2 limes
  • 1/4 cup scallion minced, white portion only; or use shallots
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce Three Crabs brand is good
  • 2 tsp dried Korean red pepper or to taste
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves chopped
  • 1 Tbsp Thai basil or mint; chop either one
  • 12 Romaine or other lettuce leaves
  • extra cilantro and Thai basil or mint

Instructions

  1. If you don't have toasted rice powder, see the recipe notes for how to make some. Have it ready ahead of time!

    Do all your chopping and mincing first. You can move the scallions, cilantro, and Thai basil or mint into a medium bowl as you get through them to clear space on your cutting board.

  2. Juice one lime into a medium bowl (all the meat will end up in here). Add the fish sauce, red pepper flakes, scallion (or shallot), cilantro, and optional basil or mint. Taste it! It should have a nice balance of sour, spicy, salty, and rich. Keep in mind that when the meat is added, the flavor will change slightly, but you can make some basic adjustments here.

  3. Heat a skillet over really high heat - think wok-style cooking. You want it really hot. While it's heating, squeeze the juice of the other lime over the pork/meat and stir, to let it marinate for a few minutes. 

    Once the pan is hot, add a few tablespoons of water, and then the meat. It's going to stick at first; that's OK. Keep stirring (a wooden spoon is nice) and be patient. Once the meat begins to release its juices, it will un-stick. Keep stirring until the meat is cooked through; it shouldn't take more than five minutes.

  4. Place the meat and any juices from the pan into the bowl with the dressing. Mix well and add the rice powder. Taste again and adjust as needed. 

  5. Serve warm or cool, with lots of greenery to go with it. I like to use romaine or other leaf lettuce leaves, as well as extra cilantro, mint, and lime wedges on the plate. Spoon some of the meat into a lettuce leaf, add herbs and lime juice, and enjoy!

Recipe Notes

  • You can buy toasted rice powder at most Asian grocers (or even on Amazon, but it'll cost you more), or you can make your own.
    Just put some uncooked rice into an ungreased skillet over medium high heat. Keep it moving constantly by stirring or shaking, and keep going until it's brown and toasty. It will be fragrant and nutty-smelling. 
    Remove it from the heat and let it cool, then place it in a food processor, spice mill, Vitamix, or mortar and pestle, and grind into a fairly fine powder. It will keep, covered, for a few weeks.
  • Traditionally, you would hand-mince the meat by using a knife to cut it into small pieces, but you can substitute ground meat from the store.
  • I prefer Korean dried red pepper to standard "crushed red pepper" for this and many other applications; you can get away with either, though. This is another ingredient to seek out at an Asian grocer.

 

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Cilantro-Coconut Chutney

This is the cilantro-est. It adds an amazing bright, sunny flavor to anything at all. It's great on chicken, fish, pork, and steak, and makes a good salad dressing (you may want to add a little oil). It's also a fresh choice for pasta salad! Adapted from A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider. 

Course Chutneys, Condiments, Sauces

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1/2 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1-2 serrano chiles
  • 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp almonds, toasted optional
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk from a can, not a box
  • 2 Tbsp lime juice about one lime's worth
  • 2 Tbsp shredded coconut, dried unsweetened

Instructions

  1. Wash and dry the cilantro and remove most of the stems, particularly any large ones. You don't have to get them all.

    Cut the serrano chiles in half and remove the seeds. If you like really spicy food, you can leave them! Take the stems off either way, though.

  2. Put the cilantro, cumin, chiles, salt, and almonds (if you're using them) into a food processor. Pulse several times to chop everything up.

  3. Add the coconut milk and lime juice and pulse again until it forms a coherent sauce. It will still be a bit chunky. If you like a smoother sauce, keep going until it's the texture you like!

  4. Scoop into a bowl and stir in the coconut. 

    This will keep in the fridge for a few days.

This post was shared on the Buns In My Oven What’s Cookin’ Wednesday link party:

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