Cilantro: Revered and Reviled for Good Reason
A woman with a severe cilantro allergy walks into a Mexican restaurant …No, that’s not the beginning of a bad joke, rather than the beginning of a search into the truth behind an allergy into a seemingly harmless, fragrant and delicious herb.
Cilantro allergy is indeed real–though rare and mostly non life threatening– just as real as the genetic mutation in some folks that make it taste like soap, transforming the bright scent and refreshingly grassy taste of cilantro into something reminiscent of a foaming antibacterial liquid. The culprit in this allergy is the rather small amount of protein found in the herb, as well as coriander, the fruit, not the seed as commonly thought, of the cilantro plant, causing antibodies and antihistamines to be released to attack the offending protein.
People with a cilantro allergy should be aware that cilantro and coriander are both used in medicinal syrups in small amounts to improve their taste, and in liquors quite extensively, particularly gin. FDA regulations allow for their use to fall under the blanket label of “spices” due to their small volume in the overall product, and quite frankly to allow manufacturers to maintain some level of production secrecy.
Cilantro allergy aside, is there another commonly used herb that draws such a strong reaction? No other herb is so reviled, so frequently dismissed as potentially ruinous to a dish. Even The Herb Society of America seems to find cilantro unworthy of it’s Ten Favorite Herbs list, including instead lavender, a scent and flavor far more likely to bring to mind harshly perfumed laundry detergent, than say, a richly creamy honey lavender ice cream with shortbread cookies. Perhaps it is the relative newness of cilantro to the American continent, being native to the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa, and not introduced to the New World until the mid 1600s, along with it’s widely accepted, and less flavorful cousin, parsley.
I am someone who once started nibbling on what could be called nothing but the most beautiful bouquet of freshly picked, emerald green organic cilantro, a small gift from a local farmer that went straight to my cilantro loving heart. I clearly don’t shy away from this delicacy, and see no point in removing the tender leaf from anything but the toughest of stems. In my years of cooking, I have found few foods, savory or sweet, that could not be improved upon by the generous use of herbs, be it cilantro, mint, parsley or basil, with a marriage of herbs yielding a better result than an overly enthusiastic use of one herb alone. Still, if I had to pick one herb alone for all my days, my heart would always be with cilantro.
Shrimp in Green Aguachile
Serves four as an appetizer
Aguachile is a style of ceviche typical of the state of Sinaloa, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, and while previously a very regional food, has gained popularity both in Mexico and the US. It’s literal name of spicy water refers to the use of dried red chiles, or fresh green chiles in the citrus juice used to cook the seafood. Green aguachile is normally pureed using a blender, but I much prefer to use a sharp knife to prevent the delicate herbs from bruising.
1 ½ pounds large shrimp
1 cup fresh lime juice
1 small red onion
1 serrano chile
1 cucumber, preferably Persian, or lemon cucumber
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped mint, preferably spearmint
Fine sea salt, such as French grey or fleur de sel, to taste
Peel and devein the shrimp. Split the shrimp in half, keeping the top and bottom intact to create a shrimp ‘ring’ if desired. Lay on a single layer on a non-reactive container, glass or ceramic, just big enough to fit them. Thinly slice the serrano into rounds and mix into the freshly squeezed lime juice. Pour the mixture over the shrimp, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30-45 minutes. The shrimp will be cooked once it’s outside turns pink and the expose inner flesh turns bright white.
While the shrimp marinates, cut the skin off the orange. Begin by cutting off the top and bottom, and with a cut side down, removing the skin by following the arc of the fruit with a knife, trying to cut as little as the flesh as possible, but removing all of the white pith. Once skin is removed, holding the orange in your hand, carefully cut away the segments, placing the orange over a bowl to catch any juices.
Finely slice red onion, as thinly as possible. A Japanese mandolin is a very useful, though potentially harmful, tool for this. Cut the cucumber into thin slices, testing for any bitterness before doing so. If slightly bitter, removing the seeds from the cucumber should help. Wash and dry the herbs completely before chopping finely. It is easier to achieve a good result in chopping herbs if they are neatly bunched together and held down on the cutting board with tucked in fingertips and lightly but quickly running a sharp knife over them than by chopping them bluntly with a downward motion. To easily slice the avocado, cut into quarters, separating them by twisting and peeling the skin to prevent wasting any of the delicate flesh attached to it.
When the shrimp are sufficiently marinated, re-plate them as desired, garnishing with the orange segments, cucumber slices, avocado and chopped herbs. Adding as much or as little of each as you like. Pour over this the Serrano-infused lime juice, and a bit of the reserved orange juice from the segments if desired. Season generously with fine sea salt, sprinkling evenly throughout the surface.