Cilantro, the leaf of the coriander plant, is often used in Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern cooking. In the U.S., despite its versatility, it is a second child living in the shadow of its very popular and highly regarded older brother, basil, an herb that doesn’t need to be reminded to stand in the spotlight. It is often treated with such scorn that I am sure there are people walking around, proudly wearing I Hate Cilantro tee-shirts. Each week when I feel compelled to pick up a bunch at the farmers market, my wife reminds me that we still have some in the refrigerator from the prior week. It isn’t that she doesn’t like cilantro, because she does. She just wants me to use what I buy, which is why I made cilantro pesto with this week’s purchase. More a whim than a recipe, cooking with cilantro can be like playing in a jam session. I follow my hands as they find their way into the heart of the song, blending the cilantro with a few cloves of garlic, swirls of olive oil, salt, and a handful of walnuts. That’s the acoustic version. If you want to go electric, add jalapenos or red pepper flakes, ginger, a few squeezes of lime—whatever it takes to hit the notes you want to reach. I like spreading it on bread, jazzing up a pedestrian grilled cheese sandwich. You can flavor broth while heating soup, mixing it in when the soup is almost done or adding it to individual bowls. When it’s time to switch dance partners, replace your basil version with cilantro pesto—you won’t miss a beat.
If basil provides the melody in a dish, then cilantro is part of the rhythm section. It’s like a good drummer, keeping the beat and maintaining the tempo. Pick a bunch up the next time you’re at the farmers market or grocery store. What song are your hands going to play?