When we call an edible green plant an herb, we usually mean that we use it in small quantities, for extra flavor in a prepared dish or even just as a decorative garnish. But some herbs, such as parsley, mint, and coriander, can be tasty when eaten in large quantities—as vegetables, really. For a gardener, it’s good to know ways to use such herbs by the armful when you’ve grown far more than you need.
In my garden I’ve nearly always had parsley and mint to spare, but until this year I never had a glut of coriander (or cilantro, if you prefer). In fact, I usually had a hard time growing coriander at all. I’ve learned some reasons for this, mostly the hard way. The seeds are viable only if they have been harvested when fully mature and thoroughly dried in the sun. (For kitchen use, coriander seeds are harvested earlier, when their essential oil content is highest, and dried artificially. So don’t plant seeds from your spice drawer.) The seeds lose most of their viability within three years. They take two weeks to sprout at air temperatures of about 60 degrees F (16 degrees C), and longer in cooler weather; they must stay moist through this period. The seedlings grow most vigorously if the seeds have been baked in the sun for a spell and soaked and chilled for another extended period. Transplanting coriander makes it bolt, fast.*
Doesn’t this sound like a plant that just wants to be left alone? A plant that has synchronized its life cycle to the droughts and deluges and chills that much of our planet endures every year, while resisting the will of gardeners and farmers?
I finally learned to let coriander go it alone, more or less. Last fall I collected ripe seeds from a couple of lone surviving plants and immediately tossed the seeds onto a bare patch of soil in a cold frame. I covered the cold frame for a couple of months in winter, mostly to protect the soil from the pounding rain (though sheltering the seeds from cold might be essential during a severe winter). In March I watched with delight as dozens of little coriander plants emerged. I’d totally forgotten that I’d sown them.
Depending on the variety and your timing, coriander may grow back as many as three times after you cut it. But I’m not counting on having a summer-long supply of cilantro. I only want to make good use of my current glut.
And the best use I know for a glut of coriander is green chutney, the kind served with every meal at most Indian restaurants in the United States. To make this chutney, handfuls of coriander are puréed with a lesser quantity of fresh mint, usually, and sometimes also with green or bulb onions. Liquid is added in the form of water, yogurt, or coconut milk, and the mixture is acidified with lime or lemon juice. Green chiles provide heat. A little ginger is optional; so is toasted cumin. Other ingredients sometimes added include sweet green peppers, spinach, tamarind, garlic, roasted peanuts, and sesame seeds.
Following is a recipe for the chutney as I made it last weekend. Lacking fresh peppers, I used some of my green Hinkelhatz hot sauce. I weighed the herbs because measuring them by the cupful is difficult to do with any precision, but exact measurements aren’t important. You can visualize the amount of coriander I used as two supermarket bunches, and the mint as one little supermarket bunch. Tasting will tell you when you’ve added enough of each ingredient.
3.5 ounces coriander leaves (include petioles but not stems)
1 ounce spearmint leaves
1 ounce garlic chives, chopped
3 quarter-size slices ginger
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon (or more) hot green pepper sauce, or 1 to 2 chopped hot green peppers
2/3 cup coconut milk
½ teaspoon cumin, toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant, and ground in a mortar
In a blender, blend all the ingredients except the cumin to a purée. You’ll have about 1½ cups chutney. Serve it with the cumin sprinkled on top.
The chutney should keep for about a week in the refrigerator, and it should freeze well, too.
My green chutney was an excellent accompaniment to smoked chicken last Saturday evening and to boiled potatoes on Sunday, when the chutney had developed an even better flavor. This green sauce makes a fine dip for pakoras and papadums, and a nutritious spread for sandwiches as well. With the ginger omitted, it will go perfectly in tacos.
With more coriander growing tall in my garden, I think I’ll make another batch of green chutney, this time for the freezer.
*For more detailed information about growing coriander, see Axel Diederichsen’s Coriander: Coriandrum Sativum L.