Saturday, June 15, 2024

Cilantro: once an exotic herb, now a kitchen essential

Ahhh, cilantro: You either love it or hate it. I’m of the first camp, and cannot for the life of me understand how anyone doesn’t like it. What can I say?

Back in the United States, fresh cilantro was exotic, unusual and fairly hard to come by, at least where I was in Northern California. It was an herb bought for a specific dish, kind of like a destination restaurant. There was no reason to have it unless you knew what you were going to use it for.

Needless to say, I don’t think like that anymore. Fresh, fragrant cilantro is as much a staple in my fridge as onions or garlic. I always have some on hand. I put it in salads, soups, Basmati rice, guacamole (of course), omelets and frittatas, burritos, stir-fries, salsas, smoothies and sometimes a sprig or two in a tuna sandwich.

In many cases, you can substitute it for fresh basil, like in pesto. I kind of use it everywhere, in everything. Apparently, I’m not alone, as cilantro, in all its forms, figures prominently in Mexican, South American and Indian cuisines.

Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, and that’s why the seeds are called – you guessed it – coriander seeds. They have a very different flavor than the leaves, more savory and earthy, and in some recipes they’re sautéed in hot oil before being added to bean soups or East Indian dahls.

Fresh cilantro: the author is among those who love it.
Fresh cilantro: the author is among those who love it.

Fresh cilantro, coriander seeds and ground coriander are not interchangeable; recipes will call for one or the other.

Growing coriander isn’t difficult, and the pretty herb does well in pots as long as they’re kept out of too much sun or heat, which will cause them to bolt. Eventually feathery little white flowers will appear, and if you leave them be, they’ll develop seeds which you can harvest and dry. You’ll have fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves first, and then you’ll get some seeds. What’s not to love?

Cilantro Lime Quinoa

  • 1 cup dry quinoa
  • 1½ cups water
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves
  • 2 limones, zest and juice
  • 1-2 Tbsp. olive, coconut or avocado oil
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Using a mesh strainer, rinse and drain quinoa. In a dry, preheated cast iron or nonstick skillet, lightly toast quinoa for a few minutes, stirring gently, to remove any excess water. Next add all the water, set burner to high, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for about 12 minutes or until quinoa is fluffy and liquid is absorbed. Add chopped cilantro, lime juice, zest and oil. Season with salt and pepper. Serve atop a green salad, in a burrito or alone.

Garlic Cilantro Shrimp

  • 1 lb. large shrimp, peeled & deveined with tails left on
  • 1 lime + extra wedges for serving
  • Salt & pepper
  • 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp. minced garlic, about 6 cloves
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, chopped

Season shrimp with salt and pepper. If desired, zest the lime and set aside. Cut zested lime in half to use in the sauce. Add 1 Tbsp. butter to a wide skillet. Heat over medium heat, then add garlic. Stir and cook about 1 minute. Add shrimp in single layer and cook until they start to turn pink, about 1 minute. Stir in scallions and lime zest, if using. Continue to cook 1-2 minutes more, stirring, until shrimp are firm and opaque throughout. Remove from heat. Add cilantro, lime juice and remaining 2 Tbsp. butter. Stir gently till butter melts and ingredients combine to make sauce. Season as needed with salt & pepper. Serve immediately atop rice or pasta.

Asian Ginger-Soy Dressing

Use as a marinade or sauce for salmon or other fish, shrimp or chicken, or as a salad dressing.

  • 5 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
  • 1/3 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • ¼ cup tamari soy sauce (low-salt if possible)
  • 1 oz. fresh ginger, cut into ¼-inch pieces
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1½ tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 small jalapeno or serrano pepper, seeds & veins removed

Blend all ingredients in blender or food processor until finely chopped. Store in refrigerator for up to two days. Makes 1-1/2 cups. – More Recipes from A Kitchen Garden, Renee Shepherd

Chicken and cilantro sauce.
Chicken and cilantro sauce.

Bill the Oyster Man’s Cilantro Vinaigrette

So simple – and so delicious!

  • 1 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup green onions, chopped
  • 1/3 cup cilantro
  • 1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 jalapenos, seeds & veins removed

Pour ½ cup vinegar into blender or food processor with all other ingredients and blend till finely minced. Add remaining vinegar. Store in refrigerator. Serve over chilled fresh oysters.

Easy Cilantro Sauce

This versatile sauce can be used with chicken, fish, shrimp or veggies, in pasta or add a dollop to almost any soup. How much cilantro depends on your personal taste; buy 2 big handfuls or bunches and go from there.

  • About 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, packed loosely, stems removed
  • 4-6 cloves fresh garlic
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • Optional: ½-1 jalapeno or serrano pepper, seeded & deveined / 2 Tbsp. feta cheese

In a food processor, pulse cilantro, garlic and lime juice until pureed. Add olive oil and salt; pulse until smooth. Add jalapenos and/or feta, if using; pulse again. Sauce will keep refrigerated for about 3 days.

Janet Blaser of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, has been a writer, editor and storyteller her entire life and feels fortunate to write about great food, amazing places, fascinating people and unique events. Her work has appeared in numerous travel and expat publications as well as newspapers and magazines. Her first book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, is available on Amazon. Contact Janet or read her blog at

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