Cilantro & coriander

Cilantro image

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)

Cilantro and coriander (Coriandrum sativum) are the same plant–just different parts used at different times–cilantro (herb) and the seeds (coriander–the spice).  I think cilantro (the herb) may be a love-it-or-hate-it flavor.  I like it, and even make a cilantro soup (no kidding).  It’s readily available in most grocery stores, but that large bunch does not keep well once you’ve used that little bit you need for single-serving cooking.  It’s a must-have for salsa, with chili, and Mexican and Asian dishes.

One way to have a continuing supply of cilantro when you want it is to grow your own, but that has its own problems, too.  It likes rich soil, plenty of  even moisture, and sun. Coriander seeds germinate easily. It can be direct sown in the garden or in a container and the foliage cut as you need it. It does best in spring and fall when the weather is cooler (even though it is a tropical plant).  Having a supply all summer (during tomato season) is going to take a bit of effort.

The difficulty with growing cilantro is that it’s not like  perennial herbs or parsley (a biennial) that just lasts all summer. Cilantro is a very quick-growing annual–it’s going to bloom and go to seed (bolt) as soon as it gets hot, perhaps even before it can develop a good crop of foliage, which is what you really want.  If you cut off the flower/seed head you can have the foliage for a bit longer. You can try giving it some shade in the hottest part of the day and perhaps prolong it a bit.

You can do succession planting…a little every two or three weeks depending on how much you use in conjunction with the above suggestions.  If you really love the stuff, then successive planting may help you keep a supply.

There is a benefit of growing your own: you can allow it to go to seed and you have coriander. The seeds, when not dried have some of the flavor of  cilantro and some of the flavor of coriander–so it’s fun to try using them in different ways too.

Frankly, I don’t think that even succession plantings works well  in the hot, humid, North Carolina summers–the small plants can bolt even before there is enough foliage for a single serving of something, and certainly NOT enough for cilantro soup. (This is a potato-based soup that I’ve made hot, but I think I’d like to try it as a cold summer soup too, garnished with some chopped tomatoes….that’s the fun of cooking for one.)

Culantro (Eryngium foetidum)

Another possible solution to get the cilantro flavor is to grow a substitute for it, such as culantro (Eryngium foetidum) sometimes found under the names of saw-tooth herb, or Mexican coriander, among many other names as well.  It is a native of South America and Mexico.  This is an herb which is widely used in Caribbean cooking, and in India, and East Asia as well.  It has the flavor of cilantro–but is a perennial plant (grown as annual in many climates).  The disadvantage of this herb is that the leaves are tough–not at all soft like cilantro leaves.  An advantage is that it’s tolerant of hot, humid climate.  Purportedly, it is increasing in use in industrial herb production as its leaves hold flavor when dried much better than Coriandrum sativum.  I’m trying a pot of it on my deck this summer.  Last summer I tried to germinate seeds and it was a total flop.  I was fortunate enough to find a plant at Stone Brothers & Byrd here in Durham this year so I’m going to try it again.

Vietnamese cilantro (Polygonum odoratum)

There is a second alternative for cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) flavor is  Vietnamese coriander or Polygonum odoratum. I have not been fortunate enough to find this one locally this year–it’s another that I want to explore the possibility of growing for the farmers’ market.  This herb is frequently used in Vietnamese cooking.  It has some “cilantro” flavor so is a possibile substitute.  The big advantage here is that it’s easy to grow.  It likes afternoon shade or even dappled shade all day, but needs to be evenly moist.  It’s fast enough growing that you may need to divide or transplant to a larger pot several times a season.  If it becomes root bound it will quit producing leaves.  It is a tropical plant that will die back at freezing (32 ° F/ 0 ° C).  Not all bad, as it can be kept indoors over the winter in a bright spot.  I had this on the deck last summer and was very pleased with it.  I just did not have enough light to maintain it indoors during the winter.   Now I need to find another plant.

(This image is from Mountain Valley Growers.  For some additional discussion of these herbs you can go to their website.  I’ve ordered from this supplier before and been very pleased with the quality and condition of the plants when they’ve arrived.  They also have some great recipes on that site too. There’s a lot of information on herbs and their use at this website.)

All things considered, I expect that I’ll buy cilantro from the grocery store when I need large quantities for the soup, but for single-serving amounts, I’ll  keep trying succession planting, culantro leaves, and hope to find Vietnamese cilantro locally rather than have to special order it.  (The problem with ordering for herb suppliers is that there is frequently a minimum order which needs to be met…I really don’t need six new herbs on my deck now–but I’m certainly considering it because I’d really like to have this one again.)  I’ll be letting some cilantro go to seed to try more of the green seeds as seasoning, too.

One additional solution to help you through the hot weather is to make “pesto” (leaving out the cheese and nuts) from cilantro leaves and keep it covered with a thin film of oil.  That holds remarkably well in the refrigerator (just like pesto)–about a week.   I’ve not tried freezing this as you can pesto, but I have used a frozen product during the winter.

There frozen cilantro available in the  Dorot (a company in Israel) line of frozen, chopped herbs.  I’ve used their cilantro/coriander during the winter when I need small quantities for things like adding fresh cilantro flavor to chili con carne, and been very pleased with it.  If you go to the Website you can find a store near you that carries the products.  (Image from Dorot.)

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