KYS: Cilantro, also starring Larb and Chutney

Courtesy of Strata Chalup via flickr

Courtesy of Strata Chalup via flickr

About cilantro: I know that many people really strongly dislike cilantro. They think it tastes like soap. To those people, I apologize; cilantro is one of my favorite herbs and I eat it like it’s going out of style. It’s likely there will be many recipes posted here, especially as we move into the summer months, that feature its delicious floral citrusy flavor. I encourage you to try it in a few different applications, but if you really just hate it the way I hate oregano, you can find support at I Hate Cilantro. Weirdo.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here huffing this lovely bouquet of leaves. I’ve spent several minutes trying to think of a way to describe the smell and taste of cilantro, but I’m coming up short. I can see why people think it tastes like soap (actually, I did, too, when I was younger) — it’s got a definite heady sinus-filling aroma. I would wear it as perfume if my husband didn’t hate it. Cilantro is an umbellifer, like carrots, parsley, and dill. Oh, and poison hemlock. Like its cousins, it has a hollow stem and a taproot (picture a carrot and you have the idea). The seeds are called coriander — as are the leaves, in other countries — and have a different flavor and different uses which are not within the scope of this article. Ha.

It does look rather like flat or Italian parsley, although the leaves are a bit frillier at the edges, and if the cilantro’s worth eating they can easily be differentiated by smell. Dried cilantro isn’t really worth eating, but it freezes quite well; just chop finely and mix in a tiny bit of vegetable oil, freeze in ice cube trays, then bag and store. Or you can buy the Dorot brand pre-frozen in handy cubes at Trader Joe’s. It’s actually really good. If you buy fresh cilantro and need it to keep, the best way is to stick it in a cup of water and put it in the fridge. Like you would with flowers, only, you know, in the fridge.

I like cilantro so much, I offer two recipes this week. The first, larb, is a delicious Thai meat salad which makes a pretty awesome fast dinner. Like most Thai food (swoon), it has a complex blend of flavors; cilantro plays an important role, but it doesn’t dominate. The second is a recipe for a cilantro-coconut chutney, originally from A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider, modified by me over the past five or six years. It really tastes like delicious cilantro and I eat it with a spoon, but it probably is not appropriate if you’re still on the fence.

Larb

  • 1-2T toasted rice powder – see note somewhere below
  • 1/4lb pork (or chicken, or beef, or whatever)
  • 1 lime
  • 2T minced scallions (white part only) or shallots
  • 2T fish sauce (yes, I know it smells like ass; it tastes good, trust me; I like Squid brand)
  • dried red pepper (normally I just use the Korean sort, not so much the stuff you find on the table at Pizza Hut, but that will work in a pinch) to taste
  • a good handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
  • Thai basil or mint, about 1T chopped (optional)

First, we should address a few prep points, because unless you cook Thai food regularly or maybe even ever at all, you probably don’t have toasted rice on hand. You can buy toasted rice powder at many Asian grocery stores, but failing that, you can make your own. It’s about as easy as it sounds; just pitch some dry rice into an ungreased pan on medium high heat and keep it moving constantly until it’s brown and toasty. Don’t burn it! It should smell nutty and yummy. Let it cool and then put it in the food processor or spice mill/coffee grinder and buzz away. Warning: This is LOUD and will freak out your cats. It keeps reasonably well if you store it in a cool, dry place. If you really really don’t feel like acquiring or making this, you can skip it, although it does add a lot to the dish.

Also, about the meat — I prefer pork, but that’s because I prefer pork in any context. You’ll get the best texture if you mince it by hand, with a knife, and this can be a fun way to get out any aggression you have just sitting around. I recommend partially freezing the meat first, to make it easier to chop. Just kind of flail at it with two knives. If you really don’t feel like doing this, it’s OK; you can buy ground meat or grind it yourself, or pitch it in the food processor to chop. Fairly fine is good.

OK. Now we’re ready to go. Get a heavy skillet or pot and crank the heat on it. Think wok-style heat – really hot. Meanwhile, squeeze half of the lime over the meat and stir, to let it marinate for a few minutes while the pan heats. Once it’s hot, put a few tablespoons of water in and then the meat. Important: it will stick at first. Just start to stir with a wooden spoon. After a minute the juices will release from the meat and everything will loosen up. Keep stirring until the meat is cooked through.

Transfer the meat to a bowl and add the fish sauce, hot pepper flakes, cilantro, basil or mint, scallion or shallot, and the juice from the other half of the lime. Put most of the rice powder in as well. Mix! Taste; it should be a nice balance of salty, spicy, sour, and rich. Adjust as needed.

Serve warm or cool, with lots of greenery to go with it. I like romaine lettuce leaves, because they’re crunchy; I also put extra cilantro sprigs and lime wedges on the plate. Sprinkle some of the rice powder on top when you’re ready to eat, for that extra bit of noms. If you’ve had “chicken lettuce wraps” or whatever at a restaurant, these are fairly similar; just put some of the meat on a leaf, top with extras if you want, and go. This recipe should be enough for dinner for two people and can easily be adjusted to accomodate however many you like.

Cilantro-Coconut Chutney

  • one large bunch of cilantro
  • 1/2t ground cumin (best if you toast and grind the seeds, but pre-ground is OK in a pinch)
  • 1-2 serrano chiles, seeded
  • 1/2c unsweetened coconut milk (from a can; use the rest for curry to go with your larb)
  • 2T lime juice (fresh please; that Real Lime stuff is nas-tay)
  • 2-3T shredded coconut (dried, unsweetened is perfect)
  • 2-3T toasted almonds — optional but awesome

This one is really ridiculously easy.  Wash and dry the cilantro and remove any especially tough stems, but you can leave most of the stems on. Put it in the food processor with the cumin, chiles, salt, and almonds (if you’re using them). Note here: If you have cumin seed, and you’re using that, toast about 1t and put the whole seeds in the food processor. They’ll be ground up quite adequately. Pulse a few times until things are chopped up rather on the fine side. Add the lime juice and coconut milk and pulse again until it forms a nice sauce. You can judge the texture for yourself; I like mine to still be a bit coarse, with detectable bits of cilantro and almond, but you can aim for something smoother if you like. Scoop it out into a bowl, stir in the dried coconut, and taste to see if you need to tweak the levels on something. Voila, you’re done! This keeps in the fridge for a few days and goes with… lots of stuff. Samosas; grilled fish or meats; a spoon; use it as a salad dressing or on pasta. Et cetera.

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