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AT THE MARKET CILANTRO

Aroma and Spice : The popular herb spices up soups and salsas. It's in such demand it's being grown year-round in the county.

March 26, 1992|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's no mistaking the zest of cilantro. The herb's unique aroma and strong flavor make it a distinctive element in salsas and in a variety of cuisines, including Mexican, Chinese and Mediterranean.

The leafy, parsley-like plant--grown from the coriander seed--is riding a crest of popularity and Ventura County growers are trying to meet demand with a burgeoning year-round harvest.

"I can remember a time not too long ago when most of it came in from Mexico," said Al Beserra, a Fillmore grower. "Now it's available in big volume and in Ventura County there is a considerable amount being grown."

Beserra, proprietor of the farming enterprise California Watercress, grows about 25 acres of cilantro in the Fillmore-Santa Paula area. "It's a fairly easy plant to grow," Beserra said, "but heat can pose a problem. That's why much of it is grown on the Oxnard Plain where it's cooler."

Once fields have been sown with the tiny coriander seed, harvest time arrives about 60 to 90 days later.

Beserra said the reaping of cilantro, which is sliced by hand at the plant's base, can be quite an odorous event. "If you're anywhere near the field, you can really smell it," he said. "And if you're out in the field, the scent gets in your clothes and will hang on for some time."

Home gardeners with a penchant for the full-bodied taste of cilantro can easily grow their fill, according to Jean Conrad of Moorpark.

Conrad, an avid gardener herself, grows a wide variety of herbs she offers to area restaurants via her Hillside Herbs business.

"March and April is a perfect time to grow it," she said. "When growing it at home, just go to the grocery store and buy a package of coriander seed. Plant a lot of it," she suggested. "Don't worry if it ends up more than you need. The plant produces beautiful, delicate flowers that can be used to decorate around the home," she said. "Once you cut the flowers, put immediately into water. They will last quite a while."

When preparing her garden plot, Conrad employs a wooden plank to which she has fastened a series of two-inch dowels. The dowels are placed eight inches apart and stamped into to the soil, leaving small impressions.

"I drop three or four seeds into each hole and then I like to cover it with vermiculite," she said. The powdered, "exploded" rock substance is good for moisture and air retention, she said. "You can find it in any garden section."

Conrad suggests plenty of water and keeping plants shaded during the heat of summer. The problem, she said, is they can soon turn to seed when hit by a hot spell.

"I first got started on cilantro after having a bowl of albondigas (Mexican meatball) soup," Conrad said. She got hooked. "You can't make soups without cilantro."

If gardening is not an option, your grocer is carrying small bunches of cilantro right now for about 39 cents.

Beserra offered a couple of tips when purchasing cilantro. "Fresh cilantro should be free of any yellowing, which is a sign that the plant was exposed to too much heat," he said. "Choose some that is a dark green color."

Home gardeners beware: "A warm wind will wilt the plant," Conrad said. She suggested rinsing picked cilantro in cool water and placing it in a plastic bag with a moist paper towel. "Put the bag into the fridge and it will perk up soon," she said. "Cilantro lasts pretty well. Once picked, it's good for about a week."

SERVING SUGGESTION / SALSA

What follows is an easy salsa preparation. But salsa can be more than a simple condiment into which you sink corn chips. Try it with fish and chicken. Serve atop sliced roast beef or smoked turkey for a simple appetizer.

1 pound tomatoes, seeded and diced

1/4 cup chopped onions

1/2 jalapeno chile, seeded and finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Salt, pepper

Combine tomatoes, onions, chile, lime juice and cilantro. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 2 cups.

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