I’m starting a new section on SoupAddict.com covering some of my favorite ingredients. When I first really got into cooking back in college, I not only had no idea what I was doing in general, but I hadn’t even heard of half of the ingredients called for in recipes.
Cilantro? [mentally pronouncing it "sy-LAN (as in Ann)-tro"]
Saffron? [Picks up tin in store ... looks at price on bottom ... Twenty-five dollars ... for a gram (!!) ... puts down tin ... seeks nearest therapist for the PTSD.]
Scotch Bonnet Pepper? What a cute little darling! [removes stem and shoves pepper in mouth whole ... crunch, munch, chew, swallow ... world goes black for several minutes ... lost time ... hallucinates a do-over, where I reached for the blocky sweet bell peppers instead and the earth was no longer scorched with fire].
So, if I can save just one person from head-scratching confusion in the grocery aisle (or a trip to the ER), I’ll consider it time well-spent. First up, coriander!
Not to be confused with its leafy green parent, coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant. Bright and subtly citrusy, coriander is a versatile spice that livens up everything from soups to stews and curries to vegetables, chicken and fish.
For folks with that thing where cilantro tastes like soap, you needn’t shy away from coriander: their flavors are only distantly similar. (And not the soap part.) The scent of freshly ground coriander lifts winter-weary spirits every single time.
Get Coriander in Your Life
Buying: Ground coriander is readily available in the baking/spice aisle of grocery stores and supermarkets (even Tarjay sells coriander). If possible, purchase whole seeds. They’re not only cheaper — especially when purchased in bulk — but as long as you’re willing to grind your own, the seeds will far outlast the ground form. (I purchased a cheapie coffee grinder that I devote to grinding spices. Tip: once you’ve ground cloves in the grinder, you won’t want your coffee beans going anywhere near that thing.)
You can grow your own! Either sow cilantro seeds directly into the soil, or plant purchased cilantro seedlings in an out-of-the-way, but sunny, place your yard or in a container. (Cilantro grown in containers tends to bolt quickly — i.e., go to seed — so if you’re growing for both seeds and the leafy greens, cilantro will do better in the ground.)
Don’t be too aggressive when harvesting the cilantro greens — make sure you leave a healthy plant. Once the plant flowers, the greens are no longer flavorful, so don’t bother removing them. Small rounds seeds will form at the tips of the flower stalks. At this point, you can leave the plant to its own devices. Over the period of a few weeks, the stalks will dry out and the seeds will turn light brown and form small ridges. This is when they’re ready to pick. (Note earlier, I suggested planting cilantro in an out-of-the-way spot. That’s because the drying stalks are not the most attractive thing. Not hideous, but they’re floppy and awkward.)
To harvest, cut the stalks and, working over a contained surface (like a towel or a shallow box — the seeds are round: they roll and bounce!), pull the seeds off the stalks, removing any stem fragments stuck to the seeds. Rub the seeds lightly in a lightly damp paper towel to remove surface debris and allow to dry.
Tip: Your saved seeds can be used both for grinding and growing more cilantro plants.
Storing: Keep seeds in an air tight container out of direct sunlight. Coriander is most often used in ground form (the seeds are slightly woody in texture). Use an electric grinder or a mortar and pestle to produce small batches of ground coriander. When ground, coriander will stay fresh for a couple of months, but seeds will last up to a year.
Toasting the whole seeds before use really brings out their flavor: It’s true! Heat a dry pan over medium-low heat and add seeds. Stir frequently until the seeds become fragrant, just a few minutes. Remove to a plate to cool before grinding.
Coriander pairs great with other herbs and spices: allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry, fennel, garlic, ginger, mint.
Coriander is a key ingredient in many international cuisines: Asian, Indian, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Morrocan, North African & Southwestern.