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Friday, July 8, 2011

The Quest for Fresh Cilantro

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
One of my favorite, late-summer, treats is whipping up a bowl of pico de gallo (PEE-ko de GUY-yoh). I'll eat it on just about anything, especially as a dip with corn chips. It means beak of the rooster (don't ask me why) in Spanish. It's a fresh relish made from minced fresh tomatoes, onion, jalapeno pepper, and cilantro - and best when everything is fresh right out of the garden. Cilantro is a strong-tasting herb. You either love it or hate it, so you can leave it out if you're one of those that can't stand it. But to me, pico really needs those chopped up little bits of green leaves.

My main problem, however, is that cilantro is quick to bolt once our high-desert summer heat gets here. By the time my tomatoes and chiles are ready, the cilantro has long-since gone to seed (but not a total loss - cilantro seeds are better known as coriander, tasty in their own right).

So my on-going quest is to have fresh green cilantro leaves readily available out of my garden throughout the summer. There is a slow-bolt cilantro, so I've been growing that. It's a little better, but really doesn't last more a week or so past regular cilantro out in the garden, if even that.

So my next endeavor was planting my cilantro in a pot up on the deck. It was easier to keep watered (but not too much - cilantro likes it on the dry side), and the deck is shaded later in the afternoon. But individual plants were still pretty quick to bolt when the temperature starts climbing. The leaves are still tasty once cilantro starts sending up a seed stalk, but they shrink to almost nothing. It's too much work for too little yield, then.

My next experiment was really crowding the Slow-Bolt cilantro plants in their pot. With so many growing together, I can harvest a handful of fresh leaves by clipping a different section of the pot with scissors, instead of trying to clip individual branches off one plant. The clipping method removes the seed stalks early too, so the plants keep producing leaves. We had quite a long, cool, start to summer, but the heat finally got here a few weeks ago.

I'm happily surprised that I'm still harvesting lots of fresh cilantro with this method. But the plants finally are trying to bolt, and fresh tomatoes and chiles are still weeks, even months, away. It would be nice, but I really don't think my cilantro pot will make it until then.

Drying the cilantro isn't an option - it just doesn't taste the same. So my experiments are now to figure out how best to preserve that fresh cilantro taste. Most articles say to stand clipped cilantro stalks in a glass of water, cover with a ventilated plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator. I've found that might work for a day or two, but after that the tops wilt and the parts in the water get dark and slimy. I've had better luck washing the fresh cilantro, then getting it as dry as possible - after spinning it, I lay it out in the dish drainer and fluff it 'til dry but not wilted - and then storing it dry in a covered dish in the refrigerator. I can hold fresh cilantro for a week that way. But that's certainly not gonna make it 'til tomato time.

I could make a pesto out of it, whirring the leaves with a drizzle of olive oil into a paste, packing it into a jar with a layer of oil on top, and refrigerating or freezing it. That's my last-ditch option. I'd get the flavor but not the texture of the little bits of fresh leaf in my pico, and it would be way too much oil (although that could work for cooked dishes needing that added cilantro flavor). I don't want to cook the leaves - I want to preserve the fresh taste. Today, I tried drizzling a bowlful of fresh leaves with just a little bit of oil, tossing them until they were all coated, and then freezing them. Instead of turning black, like fresh leaves do when frozen, the oil-coated frozen leaves are still green. Stored in an air-tight bag in the freezer, I'll see how they keep until tomato time, and if/how the taste keeps. I'm thinking it just might work to mince the frozen leaves and stir them into the pico before they thaw. Check back for the results in late August.

17 comments:

Emma said...

You might try growing the cilantro indoors by a window and see if you can keep it happy and non-bolting through the summer. I believe cilantro can be grown inside, so you probably have time to start a pot and see if you can hit the timing right when the peppers and tomatoes are all set. Good luck!

Emma
City Roots, Country Life

owlfan said...

My cilantro self seeds like crazy and when I finally pulled out the old cilantro (after harvesting lots of the coriander), I found several new baby cilantros. While they will bot too, it will be at least a couple of weeks. And here, we are getting tomatoes and peppers. I've had luck with both cilantro and parsley putting it in a cup of water on my counter. It does help if I change the water every couple of days - I can often keep them for a week.

Lovely Greens said...

Owlfan is right...if you direct sow your Coriander [aka Cilantro] into the ground it will eventually bolt but the seeds it produces will start off your next generation. Alternatively, you can grow it in containers, sowing up a new one every two weeks or so. I've also experimented with slow-bolt and cut-and-come-again coriander but have found the taste to be a bit unusual and not as fragrant. What do you think of it?

WeldrBrat said...

If possible... add lime juice to your Pico. Start with about a Tablespoon, then add according to taste. A bit of sea salt enhances, as well. The additions will just take you to, yet, one more level of Heaven!

Dea-chan said...

The problem is not merely disliking it, there's a genetic thing that has it taste terrible. To me it's soap. To my mother it's bleach. And for those of us with that gene, you can taste a single leaf used as garnish. So just be wary with guests. :P

Jen said...

I have the same problem with cilantro often not being available when I have tomatoes and peppers. I chop up the cilantro (to whatever size pieces you want), press into ice cube trays, and fill with water. Because the leaves are really packed in, there isn't too much water in them. Then I defrost the cilantro, drain out the water, and it's just about as good as fresh.

Jenna said...

If it helps any, I've done as Jen suggest and used the icecube tray trick with good results - but lately I've gone even simpler with freezing herbs. I just chop it all to a fine mush (using a knife - this is one job the food processor is overkill BIG time on) and fill the snack sized freezer bags that than get bagged up with other little bags into a qt freezer bag. The outer bag helps prevent freezer burn (and can be reused over and over again) and I just twist off an inch or so of the frozen herbs and drop them into what I'm cooking. If you add them at the end to something hot, they don't really mushify and you get a very 'fresh' taste. My husband actually even prefers the texture as fresh herbs can be tough and rather straw like. It works for pretty much all herbs - and lets me have fresh jots of flavor when the snow is waist high and green plants are but a dream.

Heather's Blog-o-rama said...

I LOVE cilantro, especially in tacos or in salsa ;) :) I didn't realize that people either love it or hate...I LOVE it ;) :) It could be from growing up in a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood as a kid, not sure...but it sure is tasty stuff :) :) Have a great weekend. Greetings from Oregon, Heather :)

Lindsey said...

Good idea about freezing - I never would have thought to try that!

I think I'm gonna start some indoors, as my lovely chickens got into the pea patch and ate all the young seedlings of dill, cilantro and parsley.

Grrrrrr.

Annodear said...

Pico de gallo got it's name because of the spiciness of the jalapeno ~ it'll *peck* you.

Freezing it sounds like a great idea.

Plumbing said...

I believe that everything that is green is healthy and good for the nature. So i think your blog is also healthy for the mind. Thanks for posting.

AGinPA said...

I know that you can blanch basil and it'll keep its green color when frozen. I wonder if that would work with cilantro.

I planted some cilantro seedlings from the farmers market this year and it went for a long time without bolting. I'll have to ask the farmer what variety they were.

Anonymous said...

I live in the San Fernando Valley and here, too, the cilantro bolts if you blink. I'm resigned to relying on the friendly farmers.
Jenny

Jen said...

Have you ever tried salting your cilantro? I do salted herbs (coarse sea salt and herbs) for many other herbs, and though the texture changes somewhat, the taste is very fresh. (And yes, salty, so you have to use in moderation.) The advantages are the intensity of the taste, which rivals fresh (which sometimes frozen or dried does not), and the fact that this will keep in a jar in your root cellar without any additional energy required for storing (like freezing or refrigeration, for example). Very yummy.

Sadge said...

I love science experiments, Jen. So I'm intrigued by your suggestion. I'm going to look into salting herbs. I won't get the cellar cooled down until September, but would love to store some of my fall clippings down there for winter-time eating.

Anonymous said...

Why not just sow the cilantro later, so that it would be ready when your tomatoes are?

Sadge said...

When I sow my cilantro in mid-summer's heat, it almost immediately bolts - producing a flower stalk with almost no leaves. And it needs the sun, so keeping it in the shade results in weak spindly plants.