Monday, May 25, 2009

Coriander vs. Cilantro

The other day my son sent up a tweet indicating he'd just learned that coriander and cilantro are the same thing. To me: surprise (how'd I fail him!) and memory trigger.

The first time I wondered about the connection between coriander and cilantro, I was following a recipe from a cookbook with some regional slant. It called for one of them and offered a useless 'clarification'. So, say, it read like this: coriander (cilantro) -- or the other way around.

Unless you already know what the connection is, that parenthetical sends you off on a research jaunt. Even if you've used both coriander and cilantro before. No, sorry, particularly if you've used them both before.

Most cooks -- and I include here anyone required by circumstance to do more than boil an occasional egg or reheat something in the micro -- first encounter coriander as an ingredient in pumpkin pie or gingerbread; thus, it is associated with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, stuff like that. Then again, the other common use for coriander is in curries, in which case it seems to go with cumin and chilies as well as several of the previously mentioned items. What we usually call coriander is purchased in jars, as a ground power; it comes from the seeds of the plant.

Cilantro, by contrast, often comes to our attention nowadays in salsas, although I first discovered it when I was served seviche. Though apparently not a defining ingredient, all the seviches I encountered in Central American in the 1960s carried the distinct and recognizable favor of cilantro. Sort of a cross between citrus and soap. As many people do, I found it took some getting used to, but once I'd acquired the taste, I was hooked. You might be amazed how much cilantro I go through in my kitchen. You buy it in the produce section, between the parsley and the watercress.

Never -- and we are talking decades here -- had I made any connection between the two items until that fateful cookbook and I crossed paths.

The next part of this story requires some -- excuse the expression -- back story. See, growing up I was pretty interested in food and, by extension, cooking. Similarly, I did such things as: learn to sew, dust and vacuum like a dynamo, change more than a few diapers, practice planting a garden and develop significant typing skills. I bet you can see where that’s going!

Fast forward to life in the city as a liberated woman: assuming the bank account will support it, I pay to have my skirts shortened, my house cleaned, all my vegetables trucked in from elsewhere. I prefer my parties catered. And god forbid anyone discover I can type!

So, while my family-of-origin believes I'm a crackerjack cook, it doesn't surprise me when my family-of-procreation sneers at my domestic and distaff skills. Hey, my bad -- or maybe not even.

Add to that a few ethnic issues (blog for another day) and some subtle problems involving blended families, and we find my cooking cred with the people I sometimes call 'my kids' was and remains low, low, very low.

So the next chapter makes perfect sense.

Having a female teen-ager in the household at the time, I must have shared my coriander-cilantro discovery with that likely candidate. A few days later, I was informed that I was ... misinformed. “Faye said coriander and cilantro are not related.” Faye -- another Mom in the neighborhood, but also model-beautiful Jewess possessed of the first and only Sub-zero frig I've ever seen in a residential kitchen. Well, what do you know.

I know I didn't crack open my Joy of Cooking, 1967 edition, to page 531, where the connection is actually explained. Nor did I attempt to persuade in anyway. And anyone who has had a teen-age step-daughter will understand my thinking there.

Faye and I, of course, talked about it a few days later and laughed when she realized the connection.

But I somehow forgot to tell the boys!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spring has Sprung, Midden Arrives

It is spring clean-up week-end in my neighborhood. Excuse me! I mean it is our annual Spring Clean-Up Program weekend. Each year in April and May, our town schedules a series of special, free Saturday garbage collection days with different areas of town assigned to different Saturdays.

For about a week before your Saturday, your neighbors start setting junk out on their curbs. An amazing variety of debris bubbles up out of basements, rolls out of attics and floats out of garages. The sidewalks and parkways become littered with two-by-fours and broken trellises, porcelain toilet bowls and defunct Shop-Vacs. Mattresses and cushions and pads of all descriptions are piled about. Last night on the way to dinner, I spotted a garish green tarp appropriate for sheltering a Cormac McCarthy character. That, along with half a set of TV trays on their stand looking incomplete but solid. Recently acceptable furnishings mix with perfectly useless scree.

The result makes the entire area look at bit like a midden for a few days, distracting painfully from the seasonal glory of newly leafing trees and brushes and bursting blossoms in every direction.

My neighborhood usually gets assigned to Mothers’ Day Saturday. And in my family, two family birthdays also fall right around Mothers’ Day. So I am usually planning to entertain on Mothers’ Day Sunday. As the refuse and detritus accumulates, I send up silent fretful prayers to the village demigods not to fail the Saturday promise. I really don’t want my guests confronted by my neighbors’ mounts of trash.

The flotsam and jetsam attract an odd fleet of vehicles. As the day approaches, scavengers prowl in their dilapidated but business-like pick-ups, trucking off a good deal of the truck. I welcome these wily and perhaps wise operators, who seem to know how to salvage all that is useful in these piles of debris. The idea that someone can put the stuff to use pleases me quite a lot.

Mostly. But I had one melancholy moment in the midst of this annual event. Glancing out my window yesterday, I noticed an old, battered, dull-burgundy van parked at my curb; looking closer I could see a bent little old man and woman picking through the already picked-over heap on the parkway across my street. I wish I could believe they would find what they need.