Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

The culinary spell of cilantro

For Days of the Dead commemorations, which coincide with the Christian feasts of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, Nov. 1 and 2, Mexican tradition calls for favorite foods of the deceased to be displayed on homemade altars for the spirits who have returned to earth. Aromatically assertive, cilantro, the fresh leaves of the coriander plant, is an herb that, even when unseen, makes its presence strongly felt. What better accent, then, for the dishes set out in honor of the dearly departed? Especially since this staple of Mexican cooking has crossed over as well — and right into the American culinary consciousness.

It’s gone from being a specialty to almost a commodity now. There’s a big cross-cultural demand for it,” said Rick Van Vranken, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County in Mays Landing.

“About three or four years ago, it went mainstream,” agreed Ron Binaghi, Jr., of Stokes Farm in Old Tappan. He grows the (aptly named for this time of year) Santo variety of cilantro for sale at his farm and in New York City greenmarkets. “I think we’ll have it for three more weeks, right until Thanksgiving. It doesn’t like a big freeze, but it doesn’t mind a frost.” When Elizabeth Espinosa opened Casa Maya, a Mexican restaurant in Meyersville, 22 years ago, “people either loved it or they hated it,” she said. “Now everyone seems to ask for it. We use cilantro in a lot of dishes as an ingredient and a garnish. The color is nice, but we use it for the taste.” At Casa Maya’s two locations — Espinosa opened a second in High Bridge three years ago — the chefs go through a case or two of cilantro a week.

The desire to cook Mexican style has sparked interest among home gardeners for the herb as well, said Louise Hyde of Well-Sweep Farm in Port Murray, who sells two varieties of coriander plants, as well as culantro, another herb often used like cilantro in Latin American cooking.

On a grander scale, commercial herb farmers have embraced cilantro because it’s easy to cultivate, making the Garden State a significant supplier of it in season. “It’s an alternative that fits quite well because it grows so much like parsley, and we always grew a lot of parsley,” said Van Vranken.

Marolda Farms in Vineland, for example, added cilantro to its crop list about 10 years ago and now harvests about 50 acres’ worth a year. “It’s (like) parsley with a pungent, peppery flavor,” said Sherry Marolda, who has taken to using the herb in sauces she makes for chicken, fish, and pork. “I think it’s here to stay.”

Popular in contemporary Chinese, Indian, Arab and Latin American cooking, the leaves of the coriander plant “have one of the longest recorded histories of any herb,” according to “The Food Encyclopedia” by Jacques L. Rolland and Carol Sherman (Robert Rose, 2006). “From the land of the Pharaohs, in all probability, the herb came into use by the ancient Hebrews, who made it one of the bitter herbs involved in the ritual of Passover.”

Once grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, cilantro was a favorite of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese, who believed its seeds conferred immortality. The Spaniards brought the coriander plant to the New World, where it came to infuse the cooking of Latin America and the American southwest.

“To the uninitiated — and they are increasingly few — cilantro, the leaves of the coriander plant, taste vaguely of soap suds. To dispel this impression, and to show off cilantro at its best, use it along with chilis, to flavor hot, spicy dishes, especially Indian and Mexican recipes,” wrote James Peterson in “Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, $40). “It is also magnificent in Thai and other Southeast Asian dishes, marrying well with fish sauce, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. In any dish calling for curry powder, add a little chopped cilantro at the end, and the flavors of the spices will come into focus.”

According to Espinosa, cilantro pairs particularly well with lime-flavored dishes, such as lime chicken and fish marinated with lime. Her father, Carols Pena, a native of Cuba who once lived in Mexico, favors the taste of chopped cilantro combined with raw onion over steak.To conjure an easy, nutritious side dish, Espinosa suggests combining tomato, black beans, corn kernels, onion and cilantro, and then tossing the mixture with lime and jalapeno juice. The spirited salad can liven up meal times even long after the Days of the Dead have departed.

Stokes Farm Inc. 23 Dewolf Road, Old Tappan, 07675. (201) 768-3931 www.stokesfarm.com.