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Exploring Cilantro: The "Love It or Hate It" Herb

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Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Cilantro—delicious garnish or soapy-tasting meal ruiner?

Cilantro—delicious garnish or soapy-tasting meal ruiner?

The Truth According to Julia Child

(. . . and ten percent of the rest of us).

Julia Child was never one to mince words, was she? She was a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, author, and the first American to produce and star in a television cooking show. But despite her training and world travel, she never acquired a taste for cilantro. And she’s not alone—some people have strong feelings about it. In fact, there is a website devoted exclusively to the hatred of the herb. Like religion, politics, and spam-in-a-can, there is no easy path to conversion. But there is a real reason for this disagreement; the love of cilantro is more than just an acquired taste.

Never. I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.

— Julia Child (when asked if she would ever eat cilantro)

It's In Your Genes

Cilantro is almost negligible when it comes to calories (just 1 calorie in ¼ cup), and it’s packed with Vitamins A and K and potassium. That is the good news. However, if you are one of those who say that cilantro tastes like soap, don’t blame the cook, your mood, or a lousy childhood. Cilantro also contains aldehyde, a compound used in making perfume and plastics. But not all of us react to aldehydes in the same way. One in ten of us was blessed (or cursed) with the olfactory receptor gene OR6A2—a quirky little code on our DNA that tells our brains that aldehyde = soap.

But That's Not the End of the Controversy

Not only are there the "love it" or "hate it" factions. We can't even seem to agree on the name for this lovely green herb. In the United States, the fresh leaves and stems are "cilantro," and the dried seeds are "coriander." In Europe, both the leaves and seeds are named coriander. Some grocers call the fresh leaves Chinese parsley or Mexican parsley. The mind spins.

Where Did it Begin?

It all began about 8,000 years ago, or so food historians believe. Seeds of cilantro (coriander) have been found in caves in Israel that date to approximately 6,000 B.C. Coriander is even mentioned in the Bible in a verse about the Hebrew people led by Moses from Egypt to the Promised Land (this occurred between 1,450 and 1,500 B.C.E.)

The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.

— Exodus 16:31

Recipes For Those Who Love Cilantro

Be assured that your love encircles the globe. Cilantro is featured in cuisines of Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Below you'll find a few recipes that make delicious use of the controversial herb.

Basic fresh tomato salsa (pico de gallo)

Basic fresh tomato salsa (pico de gallo)

Basic Fresh Tomato Salsa (Pico de Gallo)

This is a fresh, flavorful, not-too-spicy, all-purpose salsa. It's perfect as a dip for vegetables or as a sauce for nachos or tacos. My husband puts it on his eggs, and it can even be used as a simmer sauce for chicken. This recipe makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes (about 5 medium)
  • 2 fresh jalapeño chiles
  • 1/4 cup onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro sprigs (tops only), chopped
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Slice tomatoes in half horizontally. Remove seeds with a small spoon and discard. (This is easy with large roma tomatoes that have just 4 seed-filled sections. Other tomatoes often have many little seed hiding places. For those I hold the tomato half over the sink and use my fingers to push out the seeds).
  2. Cut tomato into small (1/4-inch) dice and place in medium-sized mixing bowl.
  3. Wearing rubber gloves, cut chilies in half, remove seeds and finely mince. Add to tomatoes in bowl. (Please be careful when handling fresh chilies. Don’t rub your eyes, or mouth). When you have finished preparing the chilies, remove and discard the rubber gloves.
  4. Add remaining ingredients to bowl and stir; add salt and pepper to taste. Can be made one hour ahead and kept at room temperature. Cover and refrigerate leftovers, but plan to use within 24 hours.

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Albondigas soup

Albondigas soup

Albondigas Soup

This traditional Mexican meatball soup is a great way to incorporate cilantro into a hot and savory meal.

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ pounds ground turkey
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ cup dry masa
  • 1 egg
  • 2 stalks celery, finely diced
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 bunch cilantro (leaves only)
  • 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 3 quarts (12 cups) chicken stock
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano (leaves, not ground)

Directions

  1. Combine ground turkey, salt, pepper, garlic, chili powder, cumin, masa and egg in large mixing bowl. Form mixture into 1-inch (golf-ball sized) meatballs. Chill for 30 minutes while preparing vegetables.
  2. Heat broth in large pot; simmer vegetables in broth until very soft (about 20 minutes). Gently place chilled meatballs into broth. Simmer for 30 minutes. Garnish soup with oregano.
Moroccan chickpea soup

Moroccan chickpea soup

Moroccan Chickpea Soup

This hearty soup is vegetarian, and I promise that you won't miss the meat. If you don't have (or don't like) orzo you can omit it or use broken angel hair pasta or vermicelli.

Ingredients

  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onion chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 cup carrots cut in matchsticks or coarsly shredded
  • 2 cans (14 oz each) vegetable broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cans (14 oz each) diced tomatoes
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. dried ginger or 1 tsp. fresh minced
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp. dried coriander
  • 1/2 cup orzo pasta
  • 1 can (15 oz.) chickpeas
  • 1 cup cooked lentils
  • 1/4 cup finely minced cilantro leaves

Directions

  1. Sauté onions in olive oil over medium heat in large soup pot until they begin to soften. Add the carrots, broth, water, tomatoes, and herbs and seasonings. Cover the pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Uncover, stir in the orzo. Cook, uncovered until the orzo is tender, about 6-8 minutes.
  3. Rinse and drain the chickpeas. Stir the chickpeas, lentils, and cilantro into the hot soup and continue to cook until heated through.
Peanut sauce

Peanut sauce

Peanut Sauce

This versatile sauce can be used in so many different ways. Consider tossing it on a stir-fry or use it as a dipping sauce for spring rolls.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves and stems
  • 1 can (15 oz.) light coconut milk (not cream of coconut)
  • 1 cup peanut butter (see note below)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 4 teaspoons rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons dark sesame seed oil
  • 1 tablespoon red chili paste
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger paste
  • 2 teaspoons garlic

Directions

  1. Process cilantro and coconut milk in blender until smooth; set aside.
  2. Place remaining ingredients in medium-sized saucepan and heat gently over low heat until peanut butter begins to melt. Whisk in cilantro/coconut milk mixture. Increase heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes to blend flavors and thicken slightly.
  3. Use immediately in stir fry or as a dipping sauce. Or, store in covered container in refrigerator for up to 5 days. The sauce will thicken when chilled, so you might need to add a bit of water to thin to desired consistency.

Recipe Note

You can use creamy or chunky peanut butter for this sauce (obviously chunky will include little bits of peanut). However, don't use a "natural" peanut butter, the kind that you find in health food stores. It will separate, and the last thing you want in your peanut sauce is an oil slick on top.

© 2017 Linda Lum

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