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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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There's something about cilantro that just reminds me of summer. Some people love it, some people hate it, some people don't even know what it is. I'm one of those people who love it.

For those of you who don't know what it is, it looks a bit like parsley. It's a rich green, very leafy, and sold in bunches. But where parsley has a very mild flavor, cilantro is much stronger. It's got a citrusy tang that is almost spicy. But it also has such a crisp and green flavor that makes it perfect for summer dishes.

Since it comes in such a large bunch, and since you rarely need more than a few sprigs to flavor a dish, I've often found myself watching it grow limp and icky in the refrigerator. But thanks to a wonderful friend who purchased me a fantastic cookbook called Nobu Now by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, I not only have months worth of food porn to drool over and experiment with, I also have a fantastic recipe which will let me turn that mostly full bunch of cilantro into a sauce that will outlast the fresh cilantro bunch in my crisper drawer.

The prevalence of slimy cilantro in my cripser also sent me looking for a way to keep it fresh and long-lasting. Thanks to a local food-blogger over at Indian Food Rocks I was able to come up with a way to make cilantro and other herbs last longer. Store the cilantro (or other herbs) with the stems in just a few inches of water, cover the green parts loosely with a plastic bag, and place them in the refrigerator. This means that I'll now get more bang for my buck with that 79-cent bundle of cilantro.

Since the weather has broken and cooking is now enjoyable again, I thought I'd make an entire meal centered around the wonderfully inexpensive cilantro. The first dish I decided to try was one given to me by our favorite librarian and fellow GB staff member Alice Maggio. She made this chilled cilantro-rice dish for a barbecue this summer and it was fantastic. I also made a quick avocado and tomato salsa as well as a fantastic cilantro sauce to server over some fresh tomatoes and used it as a condiment to go on a flank steak we grilled. And to round out the meal, I quickly sauteed some shrimp with cilantro and ate those on tortillas as well.

Alice Maggio's Kicking Cilantro Rice
1/3 cup of vegetable oil (olive oil works great)
1/4 cup of lime juice (juice from about 3-4 limes)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of pepper
3 cups cooked long grain rice (yield from 1 c. raw) at room temperature
3/4 cup of chopped red pepper
3/4 cup of chopped green pepper
1/3 cup of thinly sliced green onion
1/4 cup of minced fresh cilantro
Optional: Several dashes of hot sauce

Whisk the oil, lime juice, salt and pepper in a bowl until well blended. Add the remaining ingredients and toss with a spoon so all of the rice is coated with the dressing and all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. If you like things spicy, stir several dashes of tabasco or other hot sauce into the dressing before adding the rice and other ingredients.

Super-Quick Avocado and Tomato Salsa
1 avocado chopped into chunks
2 tomatoes with the seeds removed and chopped
2-3 tablespoons of minced cilantro
1 jalapeno pepper with the seeds removed and minced finely
juice from 1 lime
salt to taste

Combine the chunks of avocado, tomato, cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice in a medium-size bowl. Stir until everything is blended and taste. Add salt if it's necessary. If you prefer a creamier instead of a chunkier salsa, use the back of a large spoon to smash the avocado and tomato into a creamier salsa. Serve with chips, or use as a condiment.

Nobu's Cilantro Sauce (altered)
I know that I'm willing to do a lot more prep work in the kitchen than many of my friends. But even I have my limits. The first step in the original version of the next recipe was to bring salt and water to a boil. Then add some egg whites and egg shells to the water. Skim the foam off several times and what you're left with is a quart of clarified salt water for using in future dishes. Seemed like way too much work for a negligible effect (although if I were eating this dish at his restaurant I would insist that they complete these steps, of course) so I skipped it. I don't think the recipe suffers at all.

1 bunch of cilantro (stalks and all) that has been rinsed to remove dirt the leaves and picked over to remove any brown and slimy leaves
4 tablespoons of water
2 teaspoons of salt
1/4 cup of rice wine vinegar
2/3 cup of grapeseed oil (olive oil would also work, as would safflower oil, but the flavors would be different)
A few fresh heirloom tomatoes

Divide your cilantro into five even bunches. In a blender add the water, salt and one bunch of the cilantro leaves. Add the vinegar and the oil and pulse a few times until you've partly broken down the first bunch. Repeat with each bunch. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides a few times. Once you everything fairly liquid, set your blender to high or "liquify" and let it run for 3-4 minutes. If you have a mostly plastic blender you may need to run it for a minute, let it rest, and repeat so you don't overheat the motor. If you were Nobu's sous chef, you'd run the mix through a fine sieve. But I was perfectly satisfied with the sieve-less results. Slice your tomato in 1/4-inch thick slices and place them on a plate. Use a spoon to drizzle the cilantro sauce over them. Sprinkle with a little salt (sea salt would be perfect) and serve immediately.

Basic Grilled Flank Steak
1 1/2-pound flank steak
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
1 small yellow onion, sliced thin
1/2 green pepper, sliced thin

Rub the olive oil onto the flank steak. Sprinkle with salt and pepper on each side. Let it sit while you either heat up your grill or warm up a skillet over medium-high heat. Once the grill or skillet is hot, place the steak over the center of the direct heat source. Let it cook for about 3-4 minutes on the first side. Flip it over and let it cook for another 3-4 minutes. When you cut into the middle, it should be pink but not bloody. Feel free to cook it longer if it is pinker than desired. Remove it to a plate and cover it so it stays warm. While it sits for 10 minutes, add the oil, onion, and green pepper to your skillet (or place in a make-shift aluminum pan over your grill). Cook until the onion is slightly brown and tender but not burnt and the pepper is soft. Toss everything several times to keep the vegetables from sticking and so they brown evenly. Remove to a bowl and cover. Uncover your flank steak. Look for the grain of the meat and cut across it in thin slices. Letting the steak rest will keep more of the juices in the steak. Cutting it thinly will make a typically cheap cut of meat easier to chew. Serve in a warmed corn or flour tortilla with the onions, peppers, and the salsa or the cilantro sauce. (Makes 2-3 servings.)

Quickly Sauteed Shrimp with Tangy Cilantro Sauce
This dish can also be eaten in tortillas or it can be served over the cilantro rice.

1 pound of shelled shrimp that are either cooked or raw
1/4 cup of minced cilantro (divided in half)
1/4 cup of a sweet, light vinegar (rice wine vinegar, coconut vinegar, anything fruity — apple cider vinegar will even work)
1 teaspoon of soy sauce
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil

Mix the first four ingredients in a large bowl together, keeping half of the cilantro for later. Bring your skillet to medium heat. Add the vegetable oil, then pour half of the contents from your bowl into the skillet. Toss a few times to keep things from sticking. After 4-5 minutes the shrimp shells should be pink and the flesh opaque. Remove them from the pan, put them into a serving bowl and cover it. Add more oil to the pan, add the rest of the shrimp, and cook those for 4-5 minutes or until the shrimp are done. Return the first batch to the skillet and toss a few times if you need to warm them up. Return them to your serving dish and sprinkle the remaining cilantro on top. Serve them with tortillas to make tacos, or serve them over the cilantro rice dish. You can also drizzle the cilantro sauce over the shrimp and eat them by themselves.

And since you'll probably have plenty of leftover cilantro sauce, refrigerate it in a tightly-sealed bowl and it should last four to six weeks in your refrigerator. Spoon some of it over scrambled eggs or a chicken breast, or toss it with peas and broccoli and serve that over pasta. It's also great to marinate tofu in before quickly stir-frying. If you use grapeseed oil, keep in mind that it has a low smoke-point so it will burn at high temperatures. If you're in doubt, use it to garnish food after you've cooked it. It will even jazz up chopped vegetables that you've cooked on the grill.

No matter how you cook it, or even if you don't, cilantro is a taste of summer. It brightens just about anything it touches and is a quick addition to salads, salsas, or rice.

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emyduck / August 14, 2006 10:54 AM

Thanks for the recipes, Cinnamon! We have an abundance of cilantro all summer from a veggie co-op that we do, and now I have other options to use it all up. I might just make the rice tonight!

I also make a corn salad with grilled corn (removed from the husk) chopped tomato, lime juice and cilantro (lots of cilantro!) that is great warm or cold. A perfect summer side dish.

robin.. / August 14, 2006 11:52 AM

my fave thing to do with a bundle of cilantro from the co-op is to make some (vegan) cilantro pesto. I throw the little jar in the freezer and when i need a shock of flavour in a pasta salad, soup, sauce, or other entree, i thaw the jar in hot water briefly to scoop out what i need and then pitch the rest back in the freezer.

proportions are all to taste, but i like toasted walnuts, cilantro, salt, raw garlic, and lots of lime juice. a GREAT summer flavour year round and perfect in mexican, thai, or whatever.

Manisha / August 14, 2006 3:33 PM

Hi Cinnamon, I'm glad my post on making herbs last longer is coming in useful for your readers. I make my cilantro last at least 3 weeks by storing it that way! There are others who prefer to wrap the cilantro bunch a couple of times in paper towels and store it in a ziploc baggie in the fridge. It's never worked for me that way. :-(

If you like spicy foods, try a spicy cilantro chutney. It will last for at least a week. I also recently posted a recipe for a lamb curry that uses a lot of cilantro called marag. It has Middle Eastern origins that were then adapted to Indian tastes.

And, although I am no longer local to Chicago - we moved to sunny Colorado in Nov - I do miss the city soooo much!

winediva / August 14, 2006 4:54 PM

Thanks for the cilantro recipes and storage ideas. I too was overwhelmed by my generous bag of cilantro from my veggie co-op this week. (Maybe we all belong to Angelic Organics?!) Since corn and tomatoes are in now too - a nice corn salad with lime juice, jalepeno, tomato, olive oil, and cilantro is tasty right now too.

hv / August 15, 2006 10:11 AM

You pay way too much for cilantro. Go to your local mexican grocery store. Its usually 3 or 4 bunches to the dollar.

Cinnamon / August 16, 2006 12:35 AM

Glad that this recipe will help use up the plethora of cilantro gracing your co-op boxes. If there are other vegetables you need ideas for, let me know and I'll go scrounging.

hv, I'm all for supporting independent grocery stores, believe me. I probably spend less than $100 a year on food purchased from corporate chains. But the price of cilantro can vary and 80-cents a bunch is about the most I'll pay.

Manisha glad you're enjoying Colorado and thanks for the great tip. The wet paper towels trick never worked for me either.


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