Cilantro, also known as Coriandrum sativum in Latin and as fresh coriander, dhania and Chinese parsley in other parts of the world, is a prime example of what root-to-leaf cooking can amount to in a waste not, want not world. Its roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds are all edible, enjoyably so, as a matter of fact.

An essential flavor in Thai cooking, cilantro root is just what it sounds like, the roots of cilantro plants. While you can’t generally find bunches of cilantro with their roots still attached in the grocery store, they can be found at Asian grocers, from your farmer if you ask nicely (it’s a time-consuming, dirty job to harvest them this way), and from your very own herb garden. Milder than their leafy tops, in both their flavor and their scent, cilantro roots provide delicate herbal notes and moisture to curry pastes, and they help round out the flavor of more pungent ingredients like chilies, garlic and galangal into a coherent whole. Cilantro plants with their roots still attached also last longer in the refrigerator when the roots are either submerged in water or wrapped tightly in a damp cloth.

Christine Burns Rudalevige garnishes a plate of vegetable curry with cilantro leaves. The dish also calls for cilantro seeds and stems. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Moving on up the plant, the stems are actually more flavorful than the leaves. In a test conducted by Cook’s Illustrated magazine, tasters found that while the leaves offered the fresh, sweet, citrusy taste you either love or think tastes like soap, the herb’s overall flavor intensified as eaters traveled down the stem, without ever becoming bitter. The moral of this part of the story is that if a recipe calls for cilantro and a crunchy texture isn’t an issue, use the stems as well as the leaves.

The stems can also be used to impart flavor when they are simmered in Vietnamese chicken broths, Indian tomato sauces and Thai coconut milk-based curries (see recipe). Be sure to tie the stems tightly in a bunch before adding them to the pot, as they go limp and slimy once the heat has extracted their flavor. The flavor of the more delicate leaves dissipates as soon as the leaves hit the heat, so to layer the flavor throughout the dish, it’s best to chop them and stir them into hot dishes just before serving.

String bundles cilantro stems for easy removal before the curry is plated. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

If you find you’ve got too much cilantro on your hands to use before it starts to rot, signaled by yellowing leaves and mushy stems, combine 1 cup of coarsely chopped stems and leaves with 1/4 cup cold water in a blender. Blend to a fine purée and freeze in an ice cube tray. Transfer the frozen cubes to a labeled bag and use within three months whenever a recipe calls for finely chopped cilantro.

When a cilantro plant bolts, which happens in the blink of an eye, it produces tiny, pretty clusters of white or pink flowers that can attract pollinators to your garden. But all flowering cilantro will eventually go to seed. You can collect the coriander seeds by hand and dry them in a paper bag. From there, they can either go into a jar as a spice or back into the ground as seeds, from where the cilantro cycle naturally starts all over again.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

 

A bundle of cilantro stems is popped into vegetable curry. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

QUICK SUMMER VEGETABLE CURRY

The ground coriander added with the onions, the cilantro stems added with the coconut broth, and the chopped cilantro leaves added just before serving gives this quick curry a layered, complex flavor.
Serves 4

2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
1 small white onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
Salt
1 medium eggplant, chopped (about 2 cups)
1 medium zucchini or summer squash, chopped (about 2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon toasted ground coriander
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger (about a 1-inch nub of ginger root)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 red bell peppers, sliced into thin 2-inch long strips (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons Thai red or green curry paste
1 can (14-ounces) lite coconut milk
1½ teaspoons raw or brown sugar
6-8 cilantro stems, tied together with a 8-inch piece of kitchen twine
1½ cups packed, thinly sliced kale (tough ribs removed), preferably the Tuscan/lacinato/dinosaur variety
½ cup fresh or frozen peas
1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce
1 teaspoon lime zest
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
2 cups cooked, hot rice

Heat the oil in a large skillet with deep sides over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until it softens and is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and zucchini or summer squash, coat with fat and cook until they are softened slightly, about 3 minutes. Stir in the ginger, garlic and ground coriander and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the bell peppers and cook until they are just tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the curry paste.
Add the coconut milk, ½ cup water, sugar, and stir to combine. Drop in the bundled cilantro stems. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat as necessary to maintain a gentle simmer.
Add the kale and peas. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the skillet from the heat. Remove the bundle of cilantro stems from the curry. Stir in the tamari and lime zest and juice. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve hot over rice.