I will never forget the moment I discovered cilantro. It was a revelation of sorts...the missing component in my salsa that I had been struggling for weeks to perfect. While I knew that my homemade version was far superior to the stuff that came out of a jar, it still wasn't as good as my favorite Mexican restaurant's. One Sunday afternoon, when I was eating lunch there with my boyfriend, I slowly rolled the spicy tomato and onion laden sauce around my tongue, trying to identify what was lacking from my own recipe. When it came upon that illusive flavor, I finally had my "aha" moment. Was it parsley? No way. Though it looked an awful lot like it, the flavor was worlds apart. This was grassy, tender, and fresh, like a bit of summer on my tongue. The salsa tasted complete, well-rounded, right.
What is this green stuff? I asked the waitress. Cilantro, she replied in her thick Spanish accent. Cilantro? Never heard of it, and certainly had never cooked with it, and neither had my mother. Luckily for me, despite the fact that it was 1992, and cilantro (also called fresh coriander or Chinese parsley) hadn't yet hit the mainstream, we lived in a small farming community with a substantial Mexican migrant worker population, so it was readily available at our supermarkets. I bought armfuls of it, it seemed, and made salsa like it was going out of style, sometimes with more cilantro than tomatoes, I think. I still hadn't been introduced to other cuisines that used this glorious herb, most notably and deliciously those from Thailand, Vietnam and India. But as my experience with ethnic foods broadened after I moved to Los Angeles, so did my recipes, and I began to use cilantro in many other dishes besides salsa.
Along the way, I was surprised to learn that there are people as disgusted with cilantro as I am enamored with it. To them it tastes soapy, bitter and the smell is nauseating. Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) is among them, I realized with disappointment after watching her show one day and gasping in disbelief as she replaced my favorite herb with parsley in a recipe. Parsley, my dear Ina, doesn't even come close to the sweet perfection that is cilantro. But evidently she is not alone. There are hate clubs, devoted to the common loathing of cilantro--this one is filled with letters from people who cannot stand it, there is even a page of haikus. Here is my favorite...
What's that awful taste?
Is this the flavor of death?
No, it's cilantro.
Some are convinced that those who dislike cilantro are genetically predisposed to do so, like people who are sensitive to bitter (or cannot taste it at all), though science has yet to prove it. But for whatever the reason, I think that these folks are seriously missing out...I like to cook with cilantro often, and almost always have some on hand. Tonight, we made the incredible Thai grilled chicken (with those cilantro roots I told you about pureed into a marinade along with garlic, ginger and fish sauce), and cilantro rice to accompany it. The finished dish is gorgeous and verdant because it is tossed with a dressing made from scallions, cilantro, and ginger. It is fresh and bright tasting and the perfect accompaniment to the grilled chicken.
2 C jasmine rice
1/2 C chopped cilantro
2 scallions, chopped
1 T freshly grated ginger
1 t salt
1 T vegetable oil (not extra-virgin olive)
1 clove of garlic, chopped
Boil 3 1/2 C of water in a large sauce pan. Add a big pinch of salt and the rice, stir and return to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes, or until liquid has been absorbed.
Meanwhile, in a blender, combine remaining ingredients with 2 T of water. Pulse until it becomes a fine puree.
After rice is finished cooking, fluff with a fork and carefully stir in the herb puree. Topped with more chopped cilantro as a garnish if desired.