Market Share — Cilantro: the root of the matter

What’s the most flavourful part of cilantro? The part many people cut off and throw away. Here’s how to use it.

The sort-of secret ingredient? Cilantro.
Photos by Stacey DeWolfe

When it comes to cilantro, there is so much to love: its bright green colour, its earthy, herby flavour, its fragrant aroma and its ability to add a fresh, summery twist to everything that it touches. But there is a downside, too, at least in our house, and it comes to us in a very different form: that greenish-brown bag of slimy muck that you find in the crisper about four days after purchase.

I hate waste. It’s the principle of the thing. And for years I have wondered why vendors feel the need to bundle the cilantro (and other herbs) in such large clumps. Surely I am not the only one who has had this problem. When I am particularly on the ball, I will divide the bundle into smaller portions and bequeath them to friends. But most of the time, though my intentions are good, I simply pull out a few sprigs and toss the rest of it in the fridge to be dealt with another day.

So my plan for this week was to make a series of dishes that would allow me to use all of the cilantro at the same time. I have always loved the “one food, many ways” approach, and thought I could apply it to this delectable herb. I was wrong. In fact, when I actually had the cilantro in front of me, I realized that what makes the inclusion of cilantro so wonderful is the element of surprise, and so to build an entire meal around it is a fool’s game. Instead, I decided to make a simple pesto to toss with pasta for dinner and a broth to be frozen and used for future soups and sauces.

As I alluded to above, cilantro is really best in small doses, but the roots of the plant, which many people probably cut off and throw away, are actually much more subtle in flavour than the leaves.

For the pesto, simply cut the leaves off — as you would normally do — but this time, put the leaves aside and wash the stems and roots in cold water. When they are good and clean, dump them in the old food processor along with eight small cloves of garlic, a large handful of walnuts and a hand-sized chunk of parmesan. Add enough olive oil to ease the coming together of the various parts and season it with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon.

For the broth, simply mince a large onion and cook it over low heat in olive oil. When the onion has softened and begun to caramelize, add the cilantro leaves — after several careful soakings to remove the sand and grit — some spinach (about three times as much as the cilantro), three large garlic cloves and then cover it with water. Let it simmer while you are preparing the rest of the meal, and season with salt, pepper and red chilies to taste. By the time it’s cooled down at the end of the night, you can freeze it as is, or blend it up and spoon it into an ice cube tray. Freeze until you are ready to use — though if you use the ice cube trays, pop them out as soon as they are frozen and store in a plastic bag or container.

To make the dinner, simply put some water on to boil and turn on the broiler. Then chop four scallions, wash four handfuls of spinach, and peel and devein about a dozen large shrimp. When the water is boiling, add your pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, toss the peeled shrimp with olive oil, copious amounts of ground black and red pepper, and a good shake of salt. Lay them in a cast-iron pan (or anything that can withstand the heat of the broiler) and broil them for about two to three minutes per side. Remove and put aside.

While the shrimp are broiling, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a sautée pan and cook the scallions and spinach until they are just cooked through.

When the pasta is done, toss it with the pesto and a little more olive oil, to taste. To serve, put a mound of spinach on the plate and pile the pasta on top. Lay the peppery shrimp around the plate in a decorative fashion. Have some more parmesan and black pepper standing by.

Serves two.

Read more about Stacey’s culinary and other adventures on her website, or follow her on Twitter @staceydewolfe

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