Salsa synchronicity; or, where’s the cilantro

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum).

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Cilantro can be a weed. Look at the lovely cilantro above. It came up volunteer in the tomato row in June. These are the first cilantro leaves, sort of like flat parsley. Later the upper leaves will be more fern-like. Ernest Small and Grace Deutsch, in Culinary Herbs for Short-Season Gardeners, write that the fern-like upper leaves have a stronger aroma. I haven’t noticed that, but it may be so. They also say that cilantro is an acquired taste. I know people who don’t care for it. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s a cultural thing.

The difficulty with cilantro is that it springs up weed-like when the ground is cool, the sun is bright, and water is sufficient. In the spring. Summer heat will cause it to bolt faster than lettuce. It blooms with lovely little clusters of flowers and then produces coriander seed, dries up, and that’s that. Just when I desperately need it for salsa.

Salsa requires onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, lime–and cilantro. At least that’s what my salsa requires. I found the recipe in the NY Times. This was an important discovery because the Times recipe calls for cherry tomatoes, which I had not thought to use in salsa. With the Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes producing non-stop in my vegetable garden, I was eager to find a new use for them. I’ve never looked back. Cherry tomatoes are the perfect ingredient for salsa, it seems to me.

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I modified the recipe over time. Reading that garlic best retains its healthful attributes when it is uncooked, and that salsa is one of the best ways to get fresh garlic into your diet, I added garlic to the recipe. Also, the recipe calls for white onions and jalapeños, but I like to use whatever the garden is producing at the moment. I like to use yellow and red onions, green bell peppers, and several hot peppers whether green, red, or yellow. Above is one day’s garden bounty of green bells, red jalapeños, green and red pepperoncini peppers, and yellow Havasu peppers, as well as the garlic, onions, Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes, and store-bought limes. Where’s the cilantro.

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I use the food processor, but leave the salsa very chunky. Chop the garlic, onions, and peppers, then add the tomatoes for just a brief chop. I love the colors and the texture. Each batch is a little different, but always good. Limes are the only store-bought ingredient. Except when I’m forced to buy spindly cilantro plants from Whole Foods because all the cilantro that was growing weed-like in the garden has disappeared.

So, next year I must plan for this dearth of cilantro during salsa season. I can start cilantro plants indoors in a cool, air-conditioned environment under sunny grow lights with lots of water, and transplant them to the vegetable garden, hopefully in a shaded spot where the soil is still somewhat cool, and remember to water them daily. I think my main cilantro problem is that I expect cilantro to be resilient. Always there when I need it. An ever-present weed. But even weeds come in cycles. Crabgrass doesn’t become a problem until August. Chickweed is a spring nuisance. So cilantro thrives in the spring when I have absolutely no use for it, and is obvious in its absence when I need it for salsa in August and September.

Coriander seeds are 2 seeds enclosed in a husk. If the husk is gently crushed and the seeds soaked in water before planting, this will aid germination. So, the first of July next season, I need to start cilantro indoors to transplant out. Keep it shaded. Water abundantly. And perhaps I will have garden-grown cilantro for salsa.

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