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Hot Spice Lovers Deserve Cilantro
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
A cup full of fresh cilantro is the herbal key to success when company is coming over for fajitas. As a horticulturist who got his feet wet on the Rio Grande and spent considerable time in the Bad Lands of New Mexico, I know cilantro is the secret to fajitas, salsa or pico de gallo.
Unfortunately, cilantro is not the big ticket item in most Mississippi grocery stores that it was in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex where I used to shop. Because cilantro is to Mexican food what fuel is to the space shuttle, I'm often grounded.
The English name for the plant is coriander, and the entire plant is edible. I get frustrated when herb books leave out this great plant. However, I am even more frustrated when I drive almost an hour to large cities and have to hunt for it.
Because of the popularity of Mexican food, the English word coriander is now being over-shadowed by the Spanish word cilantro. Would you believe that Americans now consume more salsa annually than they do ketchup? And since 1988 the Mexican sauce market has grown at an annual rate of 13 percent.
As a further testimony to the zest cilantro provides, it is also known as Chinese parsley as it is used in a number of oriental dishes.
We grow cilantro for the aromatic foliage to be used in fajitas and salsa. It is also used in Middle East and Asian cuisine. The mildly narcotic seed known as coriander is popular in pickles, liqueurs, curries and dishes like ratatouille. The root is added to curries and the stems to beans and soups. It was considered an Egyptian aphrodisiac, so I try to include it in dishes on a regular basis.
It is easily grown from seeds in well-prepared gardens, so you don't have to search every grocery in five counties. There is no substitute for its flavor. It grows quickly to a usable stage. It is also good as a pot or container plant. Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep in rows 12 to 18 inches apart. You can have plants where you cut the leaves for fresh cilantro or harvest the whole plant when seeds are ripe, as the fruits begin to turn gray brown.
At my house, I like to smoke eight to 10 chicken leg quarters for about three hours or until just barely done. Then I will cut the meat off the bone and into small pieces placing in a foil roasting pan. I include 1 1/2 large bell peppers, one large chopped onion, some chopped jalapenos (more or less, depending on how wimpy the guests are) and 1/2 cup of chopped cilantro.
I then cook it directly over the coals until the vegetables become cooked. Placed on flour tortillas with refried beans, guacamole, cheese and homemade salsa and you have mouth-watering homemade fajitas.
I judge Mexican food restaurants on whether their dishes include cilantro, and I rate grocery stores on how good their produce is. Select fresh tomatoes versus orange-green baseballs, avocados that have been pre-ripened before being presented for sale and whether or not they have fresh cilantro.
Cilantro deserves to be much more popular in Mississippi gardens, grocery stores and restaurants. Maybe I should develop a recipe for using cilantro in some traditional Southern dishes like grits or fried chicken.