We are far from spring here in Boston—in fact as I write this, a blizzard named "Nemo" has descended on the city, bringing with it a "state of emergency" due to the 28 inches of snow that's been falling. It's been a while since we've had a big storm like this. Everyone keeps talking about the blizzard of '78, the one my oldest brother Colin was born into. A blizzard baby!
I wonder how many blizzard babies there will be today. I think of my grown-up brother now, with his wife and baby girl living on the opposite side of the planet, in Bangkok, Thailand, where ne'er a blizzard descended, but lots of cilantro grows. For Christmas, Colin gave me this knife, from Thailand, which I used last night to deftly chop up fresh cilantro leaves. I love it. Thank you, brother—I am so glad dad drove mom safely to the hospital in all that snow so she could give birth to you and then later you could move to Thailand and walk down the hot, humid streets to Thai Home Industries to pick out this lovely Christmas present for your little sis.
So i'm in love with a knife. Whatever! It's beautiful and makes me feel more professional than I really am. But the time has come to think about the glorious freshness that coriander brings to the table. Coriander may be one of the few flavorings we use both in leaf and seed form - the only others I can think of are celery and dill. Are there others?
The herb coriander (what we call 'cilantro' here in the U.S., due to the fact that it's a Spanish word popularized here by Mexican cuisine) is used all over the world, but particularly in SE Asian cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese. It is also a popular fresh flavor in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisine. What is a good fresh salsa without cilantro? What about a bowl of Vietnamese pho? Ah, cilantro.
Coriander, cilantro's seed, likewise has international appeal. It has been traced back to ancient times; reference to it can be found in an ancient Greek script called "Linear B" from the late Bronze Age, as "ko-ri-ja-di-na." I love saying these syllables out loud - as though I am wearing a long linen tunic tied at the waist with a bit of twine saying "please, Agamemnon, can you pass the ko-ri-ja-di-na."
Here are my own (unofficial) flavor profiles for the herb and spice:
Cilantro: grassy, tart, fresh lime-zest; for some, soapy, and sock-like. Apparently there is a genetic component to individuals who taste soapiness in cilantro. Who knew!
Coriander: citrusy lemon and orange, earthy, woody, cedar, bright.
Cilantro is best fresh (not dried) and coriander is best when slightly toasted and crushed. I made a bold move and threw out my ground coriander, opting to grind fresh each time like black pepper. The fresh, clean scent of just-crushed coriander could almost be compared to the fragrance of just-fallen snow, that crisp, airy smell with earth somewhere underneath...
I've included here a recipe adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli chef in London. His books Plenty and Jerusalem are both wonderful resources, overflowing with unique and flavorful recipes. I took his recipe for lentil salad with coriander and put it inside roasted acorn squash. The result was DELICIOUS and really fun. I couldn't find the lentils he suggested (called Puy lentils) so I used the red ones in my cupboard. Red, green, brown, whatever you have will work fine!
Acorn Squash stuffed with Coriander Scented Lentils
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's "Puy lentil galettes" in Plenty, Ebury Press 2010 p. 208
For 4 servings
2 acorn squash, cut in half and seeded
2 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
1/4 cup olive oil
For lentil salad:
1 cup lentils
2 bay leaves
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
5 tbsp olive, plus extra to finish
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
3 cups baby spinach
1 cup Greek yogurt
3 tbsp chopped cilantro
3 tbsp chopped parsley
juice of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place your cut acorn squash in a baking dish, rub with olive oil and sprinkle on crushed coriander. Fill pan half-way with water and cover tightly with foil. Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife slides in easily. Once done, cover and set aside.
Cook the lentils in 4 cups boiling water with the bay leaves. Cook time will vary depending on the type of lentil you choose - red cook quite quickly, so be careful to test them as you cook. Once done, drain in a sieve and set aside.
In a small frying pan, dry roast the cumin and corinader seeds for 1-2 minutes. Crush in a mortar and pestle or in a ziplock bag with a rolling pin.
In a bigger frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and fry the onions gently for 6-8 minutes, or until golden and very soft. Add the ground spices and garlic and cook for 2 minutes more. Mix them with the lentils and set aside to cool down. Once cool, mix in the yogurt, spinach, herbs, lemon and remaining olive and season with salt to taste.
Fill acorn squash with lentil salad, garnishing with extra cilantro. Yum.