Posts Tagged ‘raising Asian herbs’

Nose-to-tail Cilantro

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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.
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But don’t pull every bunch. Let some bolt, because you want the green seeds.
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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 timeūüėČ

The Greens of Spring: herb extravaganzas

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As much as I love cooked greens and good traditional green salads, I like to find other ways to enjoy spring greens. Herbs are concentrated little packets of flaror, fragrance, and antioxidants, and will amply repay the time you spend growing them. Right now I’m interested in the multifaceted cuisine of Indonesia, and find their lavish use of herbs very appealing. A pile of chopped cilantro, rau ram, mint, and Thai basil is one of the most appealing “salads” you can imagine, and strewn across this simple dish, it adds freshness and complexity. There is still time to plant some interesting Asian herbs in your yard, and the mint, Thai basil, rau ram, and cilantro are easy to grow. You can order rau ram plants (click “More on Asian herbs” below for a source)or you can buy a bunch of it at Ta Lin or your own favorite Asian grocery and root some sprigs. Clich at the end of this post for more info on growing Asian herbs. Or, you can find all these ingredients at Ta Lin in Albuquerque. Those of us who left a few small onions in the ground last year are harvesting big, beautiful green onions right now, and this is a good place to use them.

For two¬†very large¬†servings or four small ones, you’ll need:

  • 3 large or 6 small green onions, white parts finely chopped and green parts cut in 1/4″ lengths.
  • one bunch cilantro, leaves pulled off stems
  • 10-12 sprigs each of mint, rau ram, and Thai basil, well washed and all leaves pulled off the stems
  • 1 betel leaf (can be omitted)cut in very fine shreds
  • 2 sprigs of¬†murraya leaves (sold at Ta Lin as “curry leaves”)with the leaflets pulled off the stem and shredded very finely
  • 1″ X 2″ piece ginger, peeled and chopped to matchhead-sized pieces
  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled
  • 1/2 pound fresh thin egg noodles, soaked in hot water until softened, about 10 minutes
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk.
  • 1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar or white sugar
  • 1 tablespook sambal oelek, or more to taste.
  • Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce handy by the stove.
  • corn oil as needed for stir-frying
  • 1 lime, quartered

Have everything prepared as described, because this dish takes about ten minutes to cook, and you won’t have time for any prep while cooking. Be aware that you are going to use half the ginger, sambal, ¬†and green onions for the shrimp and half for the noodles.

Heat your largest wok . Keep the heat very high while cooking. When very hot, pour in a glug of corn oil (I’d guess that a “glug” is about 2 tablespoons) and immediately throw in half the chopped ginger. Stir around in the hot oil until very fragrant, about a minute. Throw in half the chopped white parts of the green onions and stir-fry for another minute. Add the shrimp and drizzle fish sauce over them. Probably about a tablespoon is needed. As they sizzle, add a tablespoon of sambal oelek. Cook the shrimp another 1-2 minutes, stirring once to distribute the sambal. If you kept the heat high enough, they’ll be nearly done. Throw in half the green onions, stir in well for about half a minute, and dump the shrimp into a bowl. Set aside, covered, to keep hot. Now wipe out the wok very quickly with a rag or paper towel, return it promptly to the heat, and add another glug of oil. Put in the rest of the ginger and the shredded betel leaf and curry leaves, fry a minute, and put in the rest of the white parts of onion. Cook another minute, then add a tablespoon of sambal oelek, a tablespoon of sugar, and the coconut milk. Boil hard for one minute, drizzling in some fish sauce. Taste quickly for seasoning: it should be fairly salty, since this is the seasoning for the noodles. Now put the drained noodles in the wok with the remaining chopped green onion tops. Stri-fry¬† over high heat for about 5 minutes. Using a heatproof spatula, keep turning the noodles, drizzling on some¬† fish sauce if needed. Keep a fork handy and keep tasting the noodles to make sure that you don’t add too much fish sauce; a tablespoon or a little less is about right. When they are very hot throughout and the seasoning is well distributed, toss in half the cilantro leaves and turn out onto plates (2 plates for a one-dish meal, four plates if part of a larger meal.) Quickly finger-mix the cilantro into the mint, rau ram, and Thai basil leaves, and divide the herb salad among the plates, covering the noodles. Now distribute the shrimp among the plates, topping the herbs. Serve immediately, with lime quarters for squeezing over the top. The herbs offer an array of different sensations as you eat, since they are not chopped finely, which would amalgamate the flavors.

Incidentally, please consider buying Alaska prawns when you want shrimp, or one of the other environmentally sound choices on the Seafood Watch list.

Click here for more on Asian herbs and noodles