Monday, July 13, 2009

Coriander, cilantro, Chinese parsley

A long time ago I was reading a US Tex-Mex cookbook and several recipes said to chop a bunch of the herb, cilantro, and toss it into the pot. Never heard of it, so I went searching for the equivalent. Mind you, this was in the dim, dark Days Before Google (remember them?). In fact it was the days before the Internet (gasp!) and so I went to a library. Good old libraries! I didn't find just the equivalent, I found the exact same herb, except that we here in Australia call it coriander while others know it by the name of Chinese parsley. It's Coriandrum sativum down at the botanic gardens, though.

Here's some growing happily in my wintry garden this afternoon. And that's the strange thing about this herb, which shows up so often in hot and fiery cuisines such as those from Thailand and Mexico. As a plant it hates summer and loves winter.

I never really need to grow much coriander here, as my part of Sydney has a big Vietnamese community and their little corner stores sell it for 80 cents a bunch. However, I do like to have some on hand when I need a little bit, not a whole bunch. The only time I can have coriander on hand like this is during our cooler months. I sow seed around May and the crop lasts nicely until the weather warms up in late October, usually. From November onwards, once our spring warms into our typically very warm to hot summer, it's useless to grow coriander in the garden. In a matter of two or three weeks plants go from leafy and useful to flowery and seedy with spindly leaves. It's what they call 'bolting' to seed. Hot weather does it every time. There are so-called 'slow-bolt' varieties available and I've tried them, and haven't found them any better. So I just grow my coriander from May to October. That's not so bad. I only grow heat-loving basil from September to April here, so I'm not complaining.

Coriander seed itself is a great culinary spice of course, but I find it easiest to buy a 250g bag of seed at one of the several Indian spice centres nearby, and then turn that into a powder as needed. (If you're really keen you should warm the seed in a dry frypan prior to crushing it to a powder. The warming of the seeds must get some kind of essential oils going inside the seed, as it does make a difference to the powder's flavour.) However, in the garden I just grow coriander for the fresh plant itself.

Coriander grows quite easily from seed, although I find germination rates can be a bit iffy, so I sow more seed than I need to. This year I had a better than average germination rate and couldn't fit all the plants into the garden bed (lack of space is my eternal enemy). And so a bit of the overflow went into this pot.

In pots or garden beds, coriander is easy enough to look after. Think of it like you would parsley or basil. Lots of sunshine, monthly liquid feeds, and pick some leaves regularly, even if you don't need them in the kitchen, just to keep the plants a bit more bushy and attractive.

In the kitchen there's one little point that I think is worth making, and it's this: you use every last part of the plant, not just the leaves. I like the stems best for their flavour, and many Asian recipes specifically ask for the plant's roots to be part of the curry paste mixture, as the roots have the strongest flavour of all. To use the stems I usually either chop them finely (about the size of snipped chives) and toss them in the pot or pan, or I just chop them and add them to the blender when making up some kind of curry paste.

Now, a coriander recipe to finish off! Which one? Too many to choose from, really. There's an Indian-style one by Sameen Rushdie which is called Lemon Coriander Chicken, and she uses coriander as a vegetable, adding 3-4 cups (yes, cups) of coriander leaves. Once cooked, the flavour changes from the one you might know as the fresh herb. With the lemon, it's a nice combination.

And there are countless lovely, delicate Vietnamese soups with fresh coriander leaves floating in them, added just before serving. However, with Vietnamese soups I often think of Principal Skinner from the Simpsons, who spent months as a prisoner in a cage on the Mekong during 'Nam being fed nothing but Vietnamese soup, and when he returned to the States he just couldn't get the flavour right. I'm the same (but without the P.O.W. experience). No matter how hard I try, I just can't get the flavour right. So, whenever I feel like a holiday up the Mekong I go for a walk and order a soup from one of the many local Vietnamese places. And so a recipe for Vietnamese soup would be an exercise in futility. I don't have a real one, despite all the books of Vietnamese recipes I own!

Instead, I'll provide one you might not have tried before. It's from my Asian food bible, 'The Complete Asian Cookbook', by Charmaine Solomon. It's for a fresh coriander chutney, a condiment to serve with rice and Indian curries. It's a "whizz all ingredients in a blender" kind of thing, a beautiful, fragrant, glistening green chutney you make on the day you use it, rather than one to keep for any time.

1 cup firmly packed chopped coriander leaves and stems (usually that works out as "one whole bunch, all of it, chopped")
6 spring onions, chopped
2 fresh green chillies, chopped (remove seeds to control the heat, if you like)
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon garam masala (powdered Indian spice blend)
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

If you're a glutton for punishment you could make it in a mortar and pestle, but an electric blender makes it so easy. You'll need to stop the machine and scrape down the sides once or twice, but it should all come out as a wet paste. It's a good idea to make it an hour or two in advance, then put it in its serving bowl, cover with cling film and chill a hour or so in the fridge prior to serving as a side dish with any curries you like, and rice. Dollop it out with a teaspoon.


Michelle said...

Oh I do love coriander/cilantro! I've made a chicken recipe with cups of the stuff - yum. The chutney sounds delicious too. I can never seem to grow enough to use when I need it so I tend to buy it. But I do like to let the plants bloom in the vegetable garden because beneficial insects love the flowers - and then they go lay their eggs in the nasty aphids.

Kyle @ Yumoh said...

Good one! I've despaired of growing coriander since my first attempts bolted at even a hint of summer sun - now I am encouraged to give it another go - I never would have thought of growing it in winter...

re said...

Hi Jamie. Just wanted to say I have become an avid reader of your blog. I have recently moved to a flat in Coogee with a rooftop garden and have started blogging as I buy new plants. Just need to get more confident with lots more text.Keep up the good work!!

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Jessica said...

Hi Jamie! I am new to gardening and recently I got a young coriander plant from Bunnings. Transplanted it to my raised garden bed, and have been wondering why the leaves on my coriander plant have not grown to the shape of what I am accustomed to! They seem to be spindly, and I believe they might be "bolting". I look at your lovely lovely coriander plants and wonder if I can salvage my plant from the nursery.
I would appreciate your suggestions and comments very much! Thank you!