Friday, July 29, 2011

Exotic Herbs - Chinese Parsley?

Common names of plants and animals can be funny, strange and confusing. Think of the groundhog, woodchuck, or whistlepig - all the same furry brown animal, all not pigs (or chucks).

Chinese parsley is another misnomer - you probably think you've never seen or tasted this herb, but oh, I bet you have. Does this look familiar?

Glossy green, serrated broad leaves - beautiful!
It's Coriandrum sativum - better known in America as cilantro!

I have no idea why this herb would be called Chinese parsley. It only vaguely looks like parsley, and no one would mistake the distinct flavor of cilantro for parsley. Wikipedia tells me that cilantro grows wild over a large region of southern Europe and the Near East - it seems to be certainly not a native of China.

Cilantro is also known as coriander, and the seedpods are often ground into coriander powder. I consider cilantro leaves and coriander seeds to be completely separate flavorings - the leaves are for Mexican and Latin American dishes, and the seeds are for Indian cooking. I'm sure there are plenty of other national cuisines that use cilantro in other ways, and probably a huge number of fusion dishes involving cilantro in either form.

I've had a difficult time growing cilantro - far more failed crops than successes over the past three years. But the successes are pretty fabulous, and with herbs, a little bit goes a LONG way. So even a meager handful of cilantro brings a ton of flavor and can fancy-up a basic dish.

Salsa that tastes like summer!

At a family party this Tuesday, I chopped up the leaves from 8 or so leaves of cilantro and mixed them in with a jar of Wegman's brand salsa. WOW - I was so surprised - the salsa went from run-of-the-mill blah-de-blah-blah to a fresh zinger that just begs for tortilla chips!

I highly recommend this as a quick recipe (a.k.a. a fixer-upper for grocery store food), because there's many times when 100% homemade is just not practical. This is perfect for last-minute get-togethers and hot, hot days of July and August.

Cilantro-fied Salsa
1 16-oz. jar of salsa (from the store or your own pantry)
6-10 stalks of cilantro, washed, stems removed

1) Dump the salsa into your fancy serving dish.
2) Finely chop the cilantro leaves. I like using the chiffonade technique, but another good technique is to use kitchen shears.
3) Mix about half of the cilantro bits into the salsa; taste and add more cilantro until you have the desired flavor. (I recommend this taste-and-add approach because too much cilantro tastes like soap to me - not a successful outcome!)
4) Put the salsa out with some chips, pour yourself a mojito, and kick back to enjoy the summer!

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