Beyond the burrito: Cilantro opens a world of flavor possibilities

Whip up great guacamole

Gonza Tacos y Tequila executive chef David Peraza-Arce shares his guacamole-making wisdom with us.
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Gonza Tacos y Tequila executive chef David Peraza-Arce shares his guacamole-making wisdom with us.

Cilantro can open the nostrils – and the palate. All it takes is a global perspective.

(And you thought cilantro was just for burritos and guacamole.)

Grown as a winter herb in California, fresh cilantro is plentiful now in supermarkets, farmers markets or direct from the garden. A relative of carrots and parsley, cilantro tends to go to seed when weather warms. With its flavor and freshness at their peak, this is an opportune time to explore cilantro’s culinary diversity.

This now-ubiquitous herb has multiple identities. Cilantro, coriander and Chinese parsley are all the same plant. Cilantro is Spanish for coriander, the French-derived English name for this herb in any form. The Chinese reference denotes its popularity in Asia. In the U.S., cilantro has come to mean only the green leaves and stems while coriander refers to the dried seed.

Although it’s eaten around the world, cilantro is not for everybody. Many people love cilantro, while others hate its overt flavor and strong scent. Some can’t taste it at all – or think it tastes like soap. (Blame it on genetics.)

Cilantro is best used fresh or added to a dish just before serving. The green leaves greatly lose their intensity – both in flavor and scent – when exposed to heat. (That’s why cilantro is generally found in fresh salsa, but not cooked sauces.) Conversely, coriander seed’s flavor and scent are intensified by heat.

To American cooks, cilantro is most commonly associated with Mexican or Southwestern cuisine, but this herb is an essential seasoning in many other parts of the globe.

That’s no wonder; it’s native to North Africa, southern Europe and southwestern Asia, all regions that have enjoyed cilantro and coriander for centuries.

For example, chermoula – the Moroccan version of pesto – is made with cilantro, parsley, fresh chiles, garlic, olive oil and spices, notably cumin, coriander and cloves. (There are countless variations.) Throughout North Africa, it’s used to marinade meat, fish and chicken. Zhug may be the next Sriracha. This Yemeni hot sauce – popular in Israel – combines cilantro, olive oil, cardamom and hot chilies.

Datassential and other trend trackers peg chermoula and zhug as top food and flavor trends for 2017. In its consumer survey, Datassential estimated that 36 percent of consumers were willing to buy chermoula from a restaurant or supermarket.

McCormick’s annual Flavor Forecast for 2017 also predicts that zhug (or skhug) will be part of a new wave of interest in Middle Eastern seasonings. The National Restaurant Association also foresees a spike on menus in North African flavors – including cilantro and coriander – as consumers demand more bold tastes to explore.

Cilantro shows up in many other cuisines. The fresh leaves are used in chutneys and salads in Chinese and Thai cooking. They’re added by the handful to Indian recipes or used as fresh garnish. The leaves are a common salad ingredient in Russia. Like chermoula, Argentine chimichurri uses both parsley and cilantro (and probably originated in Basque country).

But cilantro’s popularity has truly ancient roots. Some 2,000 years ago, the Greeks grew this herb. Coriander was found in King Tut’s tomb.

British colonists get credit for introducing cilantro to the New World in 1670, but Spanish explorers and missionaries with their Moorish roots are believed to have popularized the use of fresh cilantro throughout the Americas.

Cilantro differs from parsley, its close cousin, in its complexity. Cilantro contains distinct citrus notes, adding a touch of lemon or orange to whatever it flavors. As a mildly bitter herb, it also stimulates digestion and taste buds, intensifying other flavors.

Just as long as it doesn’t taste like soap.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington


Makes about 1 cup

This Moroccan cilantro pesto makes a great sauce or marinade for fish, chicken or beef. It’s tasty on pasta or vegetables, too. Recipe adapted from

3/4 teaspoon coriander seeds

3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 garlic cloves

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 cup (packed) cilantro leaves with tender stems

1 cup (packed) parsley leaves with tender stems

1/2 cup (packed) mint leaves (optional)

Toast coriander and cumin seeds in a dry small skillet, tossing occasionally, until very fragrant, about 2 minutes. Let cool, then lightly crush with a heavy skillet.

Purée toasted seeds, garlic, oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, paprika, salt and red pepper flakes in a blender until spices are ground and mixture is very smooth.

Add cilantro, parsley, and mint (if using); process until well combined but slightly textured.

Note: Store sauce in sealed container in refrigerator. It can be made three days ahead of use.

Green cilantro and cumin chutney

Makes about 1/2 cup

This chutney is not for the faint of heart; its flavors are intense and bold. Spread a thin layer on a thick slice of bread and make a grilled cheese sandwich. Add a tablespoon of the chutney to a cup of cream cheese, whip well and use as a dip or as a spread for fresh sandwiches. Spread it on a flatbread, add toppings and make a spicy grilled pizza.

Make Ahead: The chutney needs to be refrigerated for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days before serving.

Note: This recipe features jaggery, a naturally processed sugar made from the sap of sugar cane or palm trees. It is available at Indian markets.

From Massachusetts food writer Visi R. Tilak

2 cups packed, chopped cilantro leaves (1 3/5 ounces)

1 large jalapeño pepper, coarsely chopped (seeded, if desired, for less heat)

1 1/4 teaspoons cumin seed

1 heaping teaspoon tamarind paste

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon jaggery or dark brown sugar (see note above)

Combine the cilantro, jalapeño, 1/4 teaspoon of the cumin seed, the tamarind paste, salt and jaggery or brown sugar in a food processor or blender; purée until fairly smooth. Transfer to a serving bowl; just before serving, sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon of cumin.

Cumin-cilantro chicken patties

Serves 6

Add this to your list of things to do with leftover rotisserie or roast chicken. The recipe is from Jennifer Perillo, a food blogger (, consulting editor, recipe developer and Brooklyn mom. Here, she used flavors and ingredients introduced to her girls through homemade tacos “to keep a sense of familiarity,” she writes in the book. The patties are easy to assemble and can be cooled, stacked, wrapped and frozen, so make the whole batch or double it. They can be reheated on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven.

Note to cumin haters: I’m not sure why the spice gets top billing here. It’s barely perceptible, so don’t worry. Serve on slider buns or atop a salad.

About 6 1/2 ounces boned, skinned roast chicken

1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves

1 small yellow onion

About 1/2 cup canola or grapeseed oil, for frying

1 large egg

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 cup plain dried bread crumbs

Flaked sea salt or kosher salt, for sprinkling

Finely chop the meat to yield 1 1/2 cups; transfer to a mixing bowl. Finely chop the cilantro and onion (together is OK), adding them to the bowl. Pour the oil into a medium skillet to a depth of about 1/4 inch. Heat over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers.

Meanwhile, line a baking sheet with a few layers of paper towels, then place a wire rack over the paper. Lightly beat the egg, then add it to the bowl, along with the cumin and bread crumbs. Stir until well incorporated. Divide the chicken mixture into 6 equal portions. Shape each one into a 3-inch disk that’s about 1/2 inch thick; the mixture will barely hold together. Add 3 or 4 of them to the skillet (or as many as will fit without crowding the pan); cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until they are browned on the bottom; turn them over and cook for 2 or 3 minutes on the second side until nicely browned.

Transfer to the rack to drain; immediately sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat with the remaining chicken patties. Serve warm.

Jalapeño-lime chicken salad with cilantro dressing

Serves 4

Recipe from Cowgirl Chef Ellise Pierce via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

For the dressing:

2 cups (16 ounces) full-fat Greek yogurt

Large handful of cilantro, stems included

Juice of 1 lime

1 clove garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt to taste

For the chicken:

1 pound chicken tenders

Juice of 1 lime

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 garlic clove, minced

Small handful of cilantro, finely chopped

1 jalapeño, finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1 head of romaine lettuce

2/3 cup pepitas

Make the dressing: Put all of the ingredients in a blender and turn it on high until you have a uniformly smooth, green sauce. I usually do this a day in advance and keep it refrigerated.

Slice chicken tenders into 1 1/2-inch pieces and put in a bowl with lime juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, garlic, cilantro and chopped jalapeño. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to marinate for a couple of hours or overnight.

Bring chicken to room temperature before cooking. Turn oven to broil and grease a baking sheet with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Put chicken pieces on baking sheet, letting whatever bits of the marinade cling stay on the meat. Add salt and pepper. Cook 8 to 10 minutes, or until slightly firm yet slightly springy to the touch. Transfer chicken to a plate, cover with foil and let rest for 5 minutes.

To serve, cut romaine lettuce into thin strips and heap onto individual serving plates (or one large platter for family-style). Add chicken pieces. Drizzle cilantro dressing all over and sprinkle with pepitas just before eating.

Per serving: 394 calories, 16 grams fat, 25 grams carbohydrates, 40 grams protein, 73 milligrams cholesterol, 193 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber, 36 percent of calories from fat.

Pork tamale pie with cilantro cornbread crust

Serves 4 to 6

Recipe from


Cooking spray, for baking dish

Two 14.5-ounce cans stewed tomatoes

1 small onion, chopped

1 poblano pepper, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder, excess fat removed

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Cornbread crust:

1/3 cup yellow cornmeal

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 ounces shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (about 1/2 cup)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup buttermilk

1 large egg

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 2-quart baking dish.

Combine tomatoes, onion, pepper, garlic, chili powder, oregano, cumin and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a bowl; transfer to prepared dish.

Rub pork with sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper; place on top of tomato mixture.

Bake, uncovered, until pork is fork tender, 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Shred pork into bite-size pieces with two forks; stir back into dish with sauce.

Cornbread crust: Combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Stir in cheese, cilantro, buttermilk, egg and butter in a bowl; add to cornmeal mixture and stir just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Spread cornbread crust over pork mixture, leaving a 1-inch border all around. Bake until golden brown and crust is set, 18 to 20 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

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