Friday, 8 July 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.