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A summer soap opera

Falling in love with cilantro - in all its forms

by Ari LeVaux

If you are sensitive to the smell and taste of cilantro, you might want to stop reading. You most likely have an extra copy of a gene dubbed Olfactory Receptor 6A2, which codes for a protein that detects molecules called aldehydes, including the ones that give cilantro its soapy smell and flavor. And, unless you grew up in South Asia, Latin America or the Middle East, chances are you were never given an opportunity to appreciate this fragrant herb. Your infrequent encounters with cilantro, usually unexpected, have probably been colossal turnoffs. You might have created a profile at the website and perhaps even posted a haiku there.

But for the rest of us nonhaters, early summer is prime time to enjoy cilantro, in all of its forms: including the sexually mature form.

Cilantro grows so fast it tends to be one of the season’s first leafy herbs to produce. And almost as quickly, it bolts, a process also known as going to seed. When an annual plant bolts, it basically hits puberty, and a lot of physiological and structural changes happen.

When cilantro bolts, the plant becomes adorned with a crown of little white flowers. The stems become woody, and the leaves become narrow and spindly. While most American farmers will abandon the crop at this point, in India the fun is just beginning.

The flowers quickly give way to green seed pods commonly known as coriander. Ground coriander is used in many dishes in Asia, where it is considered at least as valuable as the leaf. In fact, the plant is called coriander in most of English-speaking Asia, while the cilantro phase of its life cycle is often known as “coriander leaf.”

If you happen to be one of the unfortunates who don’t like the leaf, you probably aren’t going to suddenly become enamored of the similar-tasting seeds. But if you are a fan of the soapy aldehydes, then you have a lot of options this time of year.

If – when – cilantro starts to bolt, don’t worry. You might want to plant new seeds, but don’t give up on the ones that are rapidly advancing toward maturity. Instead, those flowers should be watched with the kind of anticipation reserved for a strawberry that will soon ripen. The petals will drop, and the green round fruits that remain are a fleeting treasure of summer. Soon they harden into the brown, woody spice that you are probably familiar with. The green form of the spice tastes like the in-between stage that it is: not quite the leafy herb, nor the hardened pod with seeds rattling around inside. The green pods are crunchy and juicy, and packed with solid flavor.

As they don’t need to be ground, like dried coriander, the ripened cilantro fruits can be scattered with abandon, into salads or sauces, or crushed and blended into dressings.

One of my favorite ways to use cilantro fruit is in a Thai-style green coconut curry. The Thais aren’t known to shy away from the soapy aldehydes, and crushed coriander leaf, as they call it, is an integral part of green curry paste. Thus, scattering a few balls of green coriander into the finished product – or at any stage of cooking – will add depth to the flavor without hijacking it.

So don’t worry when your cilantro starts to bolt. Get excited. Very excited.

There is only one big difference between how you handle a bolted or bolting cilantro plant, and a young one. With a bolting plant, the skinny leaves, flowers and fruit are all edible, but the stems become noticeably woody, so you have to strip them from the branches. Other than that, use the newly morphed anatomical features however you would cilantro.

I’ll end with a recipe for Indian-style “coriander” chutney. The leaf is called for, but the flowers and pods can be added to sumptuous effect. There are many variations on this recipe, and they can include, variously, coconut, tamarind, yogurt, mint and other South Asian ingredients. This one comes from Vikas Khanna’s book Flavors First.

Coriander Chutney

1 large bunch cilantro, washed and chopped

6 scallions, coarsely chopped 

2 hot green chile peppers (such as Serrano or Thai), roughly chopped 

1 teaspoon sugar 

2 tablespoons peeled, chopped fresh ginger 

1 teaspoon ground cumin 

1 teaspoon salt 

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place all ingredients except olive oil in a blender. Blend at medium speed, slowly drizzling in the olive oil, until smooth. Store refrigerated, in an airtight container, for up to three days. 

To this, I would only add that I made it with lime instead of lemon, and that I slowly toasted the cumin seeds in a dry pan before grinding them, which really brings out the flavor. It can also be frozen.

This chutney comes with a bonus to those who are on the fence about cilantro or who wish to try to break free of their aversion. By pulverizing the leaves, enzymes are released that digest the soapy aldehyde compounds, making it more palatable to the cilantro-sensitive types.