Garden Notes: Cilantro. Or Culantro. Or Coriander. Or –Coriandrum Sativum

I LOVE cilantro. I love it in any and all forms.
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It is one of the first herbs that I plant. I harvest the seeds from last year’s crop. The cilantro plant produces an abundance of seeds. I usually let them dry in situ before harvesting them and storing them in smallish brown paper bags, on which I write the name and any other relevant information.
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I have no doubt that I tasted much cilantro in Chinese and Indian cooking, but the first time it really stood out, distinctively, was when I ate my very first Mexican Salsa! Mmmn –what a revelation that was!
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That was sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s. I was in Los Angeles for the big ABA Book Fair with my Stone Street Press handmade books and a new book, “Irish Country Cooking” that I had done with Clarkson Potter. My girlfriend of the time worked with the New York Times and she introduced me to her friend Ruth Reichl who at the time was based in Los Angeles and had already carved out quite a reputation for herself in the West Coast world of food.
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The bibliophile in me was quite tickled to learn that Ruth was the daughter of Ernst Reichl, well known as a book-designer, whose most famous book cover was The Big U for the American publication of “Ulysses”.
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We could not have had more of an inside track on “where to eat in LA” and it was Ruth who picked the restaurant, and took us all off to a new Mexican place that she had just discovered. It was huge, sprawling, noisy, and colorful –with much BookFair bonhomie in the air.
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And of course Ruth ordered for the whole party.
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First up, SALSA. I’d never had anything like it. Fresh, juicy, piquant –large, very red, very plump tomatoes, chopped. So good! With fresh tartness of lime juice (good in the beer too). And that hot intense Serrano pepper, just a notch this side of…TOO hot.
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All three tastes were distinctive and identifiable, and all combined to make a wonderful new taste for me.

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And then there was that fourth ingredient. Smoky, perfumed, complex –I still struggle to describe the taste. But of course there is little we can do to really DESCRIBE a taste. The writer depends on the shared experience of the reader: rather than describe it we invoke the experience. We can mention the attributes of the ingredients; we can comment on the culinary expertise.
But cilantro though pronounced is elusive –as I am discovering here.
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I need the reader to say; “I know what you mean.”
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It was the cilantro that made the Salsa, that impressed my tastebuds so much. It was a big part of that especially enjoyable evening in Los Angeles.
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Indeed, I was so impressed with this perfect food –that I have never, ever, grown tired of– that I have made it myself, at home, as often as I possibly can. How many days a year? Much more than half! Much more. 75% of the time? Quite possibly.
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Indeed I could say, with a great deal of truth, that my Garden has grown out of my desire to eat the Very Freshest Salsa known to man. My garden exists to grow tomatoes –and of course, peppers. I have much to learn about peppers –not so much the varieties which I have learned a lot about, and am quite familiar with most stops on that Mild-to-Intensely Hot spectrum.
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Growing Cilantro has proved somewhat elusive. I’ve had great success with it, but this year –for some reason– I have not been completely successful with it. I’m not sure why. Too much rain? Not enough sun? Trouble with the seeds? Trouble with the soil? All these are possible, but I am currently wondering about the last –the soil. The latest batch of seeds that I planted are –finally– doing wonderfully well. And I am watching them more, too, I suppose because of my concern.
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The good cilantro taste is in the leaves, especially, I find, in those very fine leaves, which are almost feathery. And it is in the fresh stalks, especially when they are somewhat darker, with even a tinge of brown to the edges. But it is also very much in the cilantro root, especially in the part where all the stalks join in the root.
The taste is also in that part of the stalk that has begun to flower –mmmn, I can taste it as I write this.
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So –of the four ingredients that I need for my Salsa, I grow three of them at home in the garden. (Last year I ate homegrown tomatoes for sixmonths of the year. This year of course was a slow start because of the rains, but I do expect –as I mentioned in my recent piece about Tomato Arbors– to be eating my tomatoes into December.
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Let us hope. Let us fervently hope.
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I have from time-to-time noticed in those Believe-it-or-Not Seed catalogs that I see every now and again, a miniature Lime tree! That piques my interest. Would a miniature Lime tree grow in Staten Island?
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I suppose I will never know unless I try it.
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It is quite a consolation to know that in the off season for homemade Salsa, one can find more or less acceptable tomato-pepper-cilantro substitutes in the stores, and at relatively reasonable prices.
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Yes, I am familiar with the “THERE’s NOTHING LIKE THE FRESH-PICKED XXX” movement. I think I might have started it back then.
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But life is a matter of accommodations, and purists may have high standards –but will often be disappointed. Whereas we accommodationists are grateful for the best we can do.
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Compared to the terrible deprivations of this world, we do well to remember that we are, in fact, quite blessed. And probably lucky that no one really checks to see if we deserve it.


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