Monday, September 12, 2011


July has been a month of plenty. Plenty of sunshine. Plenty of swimming. Plenty of children, relatives, friends and fireworks. Plenty of berries -- first strawberries, in a season short and sweet, later black raspberries, coaxed by the heat, and now blueberries, bigger than your eye.

And, in the garden, plenty of herbs. Mint reaching to the sky, just the right height for snapping into a glass of sweet tea. Basil, bushy and fragrant in the breeze that breaks the longest heatwave these parts have seen in 15 years. Leggy cilantro, its feathery plumes heavy with coriander seed that bows its head nearly to the ground.

I fell in love with cilantro at an impressionable age, when it wheeled up on the table side guacamole cart at Rosa Mexicano. We lived about an hour out of Manhattan, and on special occasions my parents would dress up and take us into the city: Rosa Mexicano, with its (then to me) exotic, colorful decor, and Mamma Leone's, with its red sauce and strolling minstrels, were two of our favorites for dinner. Lunch was hands down the Automat, with its booths fashioned like old cars and cafeteria-style comfort food.

I was all of 8. The gimmicks worked like a charm. But it was the tastes, so unlike the kid-friendly fare my mother turned out  -- meatloaf, tuna noodle casserole and hot dog soup (don't ask what was in it. It was delicious) that were the real magic.

Cilantro, of course, has been around loads longer than that. I have read that Pliny named it, for a bedbug whose stench resembled that of the bitter green smell of crushed cilantro leaves. Its dried seeds are the coriander, found in the burial tombs of ancient Chinese and Egyptians to insure immortality. Hippocrates used it in his medical concoctions, and it got a reputation in the Thousand and One Arabian Nights as an aphrodisiac. Some recommend it for detox and anti-inflammatory properties.

We can prove little of this, as with most herbal remedies. But all one has to do is compare the before and after of a fish taco complemented with cilantro to make that of little consequence. Cilantro kicks a dish from humdrum to whoohooo in the time it takes to sprinkle it on.

Take, for instance, this curry chicken. Good enough for a luncheon, its sharp yogurt dressing rounded out with cumin and spiked with scallion. But add cilantro, and presto, with a fresh baguette and a cold rose, its a company meal.

Curried Chicken Salad

One whole roasted chicken
bunch scallions
red pepper
one cup Greek yogurt (I use fat free but no matter)
Two tablespoons curry powder
One teaspoon ground cumin
one cup chopped cilantro
one tablespoon coconut vinegar or soy sauce

Shred chicken meat in a bowl and add scallions and red pepper, diced small.

In a small bowl, mix yogurt, spices and vinegar until combined. Toss with chicken mixture and cilantro.


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