Cilantro is a lovely and evanescent thing. It is a major seasoning herb in Thai and Indonesian cuisines, is widely used in China and Southeast Asia, and fills me with wellbeing whenever I eat it. It was a few years, though, before I learned how to make it pay for its garden space.
First, choose your variety carefully. You need a bolt-resistant type that can be bought in ounces, not packets. Don’t plant the seeds sold as spices. Currently my favorite is Calypso. Second, forget rows. Plant it in bunches that you can harvest all at once, and only have as many bunches maturing per week as you will actually use. I like the bunches to be spaced 8-10″ apart each way, and I plant 15-20 seeds in each bunch, all clustered into an area about 2″ in diameter. I plant 4 bunches a week, every week that I remember and have some bed space available, starting well before the last frost because cilantro likes cool weather and stopping as the days heat up. They will not occupy their real estate more than a couple of months, so I plant them in places where big heat-loving crops like tomatoes or zucchini will take over the space. In the picture above, you see the stem of the young tomato which will spread out when the days heat up. You may also note the early lettuce that occupied the tomato’s space over the winter, now serving as a light mulch.
When the plants are 7-8″ high, I harvest the bunch by cutting about two inches above the ground. They are quite clean because the crowded plants hold each other up, and just need a quick rinse before being used in your favorite way. Cut the bunch rather than pulling, because those stems will keep on working.
Leave the cut stems in place. When they show a good amount of new growth,you will notice that the leaves are finely cut and feathery rather than looking like grocery-store cilantro. This new growth doesn’t have the full cilantro flavor by any means, but I still like to throw chopped handfuls into salads and pounded green herb sauces. But what we are really after at this point is not the leaves. When some of your bunches are tall and starting to bolt, pull them for the roots and lower stems. Scrub the roots and thick lower stems well, cut off the finer roots and discard (into the compost, of course) and chop the roots and stems thinly crosswise. This is your supply of cilantro root, which is used extensively in classic Thai cooking, while the leaves aren’t used in authentic curry pastes etc. In fact, make sure that no leaves get into your root, because the flavor is different and not right for this use. Thai cooking aficionados refer to it as the “unobtainable, mythical coriander root,” but it is highly obtainable if you have a garden. Now you can pound your roots and stems in your faithful mortar and pestle to make curry and seasoning pastes, or freeze them in little plastic bags in quantities of about 4 tablespoons. I tend to use mine up during the summer, which is when southeast Asian cuisine tastes best to me.
But don’t pull every bunch. Let some bolt, because you want the green seeds.
These have a flavor in between the leaves and the dried coriander seed and are delicious sprinkled over salads, used as a garnish on grilled meats, or tossed over bulgur or rice dishes.
Now you are finally done with your cilantro plants and can pull them and compost them, unless you want to let some set and dry seeds to use as coriander seed. I don’t dry and save seeds, personally. I can buy seeds easily, and prefer to use my own seeds green, when they are a fresh treat that can’t be bought.
For more on using the roots, check out David Thompson’s huge and highly addictive “Thai Food,” the best Thai cookbook in English in my opinion, although it does assume a scary amount of kitchen time😉