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Substituting Feisty Cilantro for Parsley Adds a Lively Note to a Feast

October 19, 2003|HENRY FENWICK

In the north of England, when I was growing up, ordinary parsley was considered slightly effete, something you resorted to when trying to put on a bit of style, rather like using lace place mats. Cilantro was totally unheard of, and when I first encountered this exotically pungent herb in California in the '60s, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

The name didn't help. Reference books identified cilantro as the leaves of the coriander plant, which seemed to place it firmly in the East with Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisines, but offered little advice for everyday cooking. As coriander seed, the plant was already a staple in my kitchen, since curries are second nature to any Englishman. But despite '70s cookbook descriptions such as an "almost musty odor and taste" and "ill-smelling and tasting," it was the leaf that became a mainstay in my kitchen. Though we frequently associate the herb with Eastern cultures, cilantro, which is also called "Chinese parsley," originates from the southern Mediterranean. Romans used the seeds to flavor bread, and recipes dating back to 16th century Spain feature cilantro, which Spanish ships later brought to the New World. Southwest cooking continues to use the herb prominently. Its distinctive flavor provides an appealing counterpoint to spicy dishes.

Given the herb's roots, I started experimenting by adding cilantro to Mediterranean recipes. Substituting cilantro for parsley in the simple Greek fish dish called plaki--which uses tomatoes, parsley, lemon and garlic as a sauce for white fish such as cod or halibut--adds a surprising kick to an otherwise ordinary recipe. Grilled Tomatoes Provencal come to life with finely chopped cilantro, and the herb's earthiness complements the smoky flavor of grilled eggplant drizzled with olive oil in a Mediterranean salad.

But to really pay homage to an herb you have to give it pride of place in a dish. The breakthrough came with a recipe for cilantro pesto by Chicago chef David Schy in Rosalind Creasy's "Cooking from the Garden," which pairs cilantro with peanuts. Over the years, I've adapted and expanded the list of ingredients, but have maintained Schy's gutsy foundation of peanuts, cilantro and jalapeno, which showcases the brawling, barroom self-confidence of the herb. It's a combination that can hold its own, even in a pub in Northern England on a Saturday night, where they don't stand for anything fancy. This is a recipe I can take home.

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Cilantro and Peanut Pesto

Makes 1 1/2 cups

2 tablespoons softened butter

1/2 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts

1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and deveined

2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3/4 cup peanut oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Puree butter and peanuts in food processor, scraping down sides. Add cilantro, garlic, jalapeno and lime juice and puree. While machine is running, slowly add oil. Add salt, pepper and cheese, if using. Serve over pasta.

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Henry Fenwick last wrote for the magazine about prunes.

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