Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Old Spice

The two rows of cilantro in the garden are still green and fresh into early December. This week, under warm skies, even a burst of growth. Wind swept oak leaves provide a thin layer of mulch.

We use cilantro - the leafy part -- as a garnish, mostly in Indian dishes, but also on pasta sauce and enchiladas (anything with tomato sauce). The seeds of the cilantro plant are known as coriander, and, ground into a brown powder, are a central ingredient in Indian spice mixes (masalas). Fresh cilantro can be used in place of parsley, its relative within the carrot family Apiaceae, or instead of basil (in pesto).

Cilantro arrived in Massachusetts before 1670, by way of the British and the Romans (who carried it around Europe). I assume that the more mild-tasting parsley rose in popularity among our early settlers, bypassing its more aromatic cousin. I don't recall cilantro or coriander ever appearing in a cookbook of New England recipes.

Cilantro, Coviandrum sativum

The leafy cilantro, being a hardy annual, is easy to grow from seed. It takes a while to germinate, so give it time. It is best picked fresh as an aromatic garnish. The round, ridged seeds can be purchased whole and ground into a fresh spice to use in most any bean or dal-based dish. Cilantro and coriander, although from the same plant, have completely different flavors.

The origin of this now widespread spice is thought to be the Mediterranean region. Its use, in food and medicine, dates back thousands of years. Jill Norman's beautiful, The Complete Book of Spices: A practical guide to spices and aromatics, offers a brief history and photos of spices in all their forms, including cilantro, the old spice.

Our main "Indian spices" --
black mustard seeds in the middle,
Clockwise from bottom left --
urad dal, cumin seeds, turmeric,
coriander powder, fennel seed, cumin powder

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