Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cilantro - Love it or leave it

Over the years I have found that people either love the taste of cilantro or hate it.  There rarely seems to be a middle ground.  I have served cilantro pesto several times here at the herb farm and most people love it.  Cilantro pesto contains a few other ingredients that are strongly-flavored... fresh garlic, Parmesan cheese, extra-virgin olive oil... which help temper the pungency of plain cilantro and may make it more palatable to those who don't like it plain. 

I have many customers ask me "why can't I grow cilantro?"  The answer is:  don't try to grow cilantro in the spring, summer, or even early fall.  Cilantro is a cool-weather herb and will bolt and go to seed once temperatures get into the 70's and above.  I only sell cilantro beginning in mid-fall when the temperature is reliably cooler. Cilantro will grow beautifully all winter long, in the ground, and is very cold-hardy.  I never cover mine and it doesn't skip a beat, even when the temperature dips into the teens.  

Sometime around mid-March when the trees bud out and daytime temperatures start to rise cilantro leaves will start to look "lacy" or "ferny", they will grow tall quickly and get small white flowers which will eventually turn to seed; a typical annual plant.  I recently noticed my cilantro plants showing signs of bolting so I needed to get busy, cut them back, and come up with a way to use that wonderful herb.  I cut the leaves and stems from five of my seven plants and got to work making a batch of cilantro pesto.  

Pineywoods Herb Farm Cilantro Pesto

Note:  Ingredient amounts for pesto, whether it be basil, cilantro, or any other herb, is a matter of personal taste.  One "bunch" of cilantro can vary considerably in size so the other ingredients will have to be adjusted depending on the amount of herb material used and on personal taste.  If you love cilantro but are unsure if you like it this much, you may want to substitute some fresh Italian parsley for a portion of the cilantro.  Baby steps.  The ingredient amounts listed below are guidelines and are what I used to make this recipe. Adjust yours accordingly.

5 bunches of cilantro - yielded 7 generous, tightly-packed cups of cleaned leaves & tender stems (since the cilantro will be processed in a food processor tender stems can be included)

Tightly-packed cilantro... a generous 7 cups

I chose to use homemade cotija cheese - 4 ounces.  Cotija is a semi-hard, crumbly, Mexican cheese that I thought would go well.  It did.  Extremely well.   Of course Parmesan cheese can be used, but please... not from a green can.  Use the good stuff.  Cut into small pieces before adding to food processor.

4 small cloves garlic, roughly chopped (or more if you like it extra-garlicky)

About 2/3 cup good, extra-virgin olive oil.  Good olive oil is a must in pesto.

Salt to taste (cheese adds a fair amount of salt so add additional salt sparingly)

Instead of the traditional pine nuts I used about 1/2 cup of toasted pecans, roughly chop before adding to food processor.  Walnuts work well in pesto as well.

Pecans are a great alternative to pine nuts
Add about half of the cilantro and 1/3 cup of the olive oil to the bowl of a food processor and process just a few seconds until cilantro is roughly chopped and the volume is significantly decreased.  Add the remaining cilantro, olive oil, chopped garlic, cotija or Parmesan cheese, nuts, and a small amount of salt.  Process 8-10 seconds or so, then scrape down sides of processor bowl with spatula.  Process a couple of more times for just a few seconds, only until everything is chopped finely.  You don't want to process everything into a puree.  At this point you may want to add a bit more olive oil depending on how "loose" you want your pesto to be.  This is really a matter of personal preference.   A little more salt may be needed as well.

Note the bits of white cheese and pecans in the finished product.  Don't over process!

My finished product yielded almost 4 cups of cilantro pesto.  

Unlike basil pesto which tends to turn dark rather quickly, cilantro pesto stays a vibrant green color.  And it freezes well.  I put about 1/2 cup in small zipper bags, squeeze out the air and put in quart freezer bags.  I can then take out small amounts as needed.  

Cilantro pesto is great over hot pasta and paired with a salad makes for a healthy and satisfying meal.  As an appetizer, spread a bit of goat cheese on a toasted baguette slice then top with a little cilantro pesto.  The marriage of goat cheese and cilantro pesto is marvelous!

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