The other day I was reading a blog by a food writer I enjoy, Michael Ruhlman. He posted an entry about tarragon being his favorite herb. In the comments section, cilantro entered the discussion.
I love cilantro. It's well-known for being widely used in Mexican cooking, but Puerto Rican cuisine uses it as well. (I almost feel weird calling it "cuisine" - it's so down-home that calling it cuisine sounds very fancypants.) My main application for cilantro is for making sofrito, which is a fragrant blend of various aromatic ingredients used as a seasoning during cooking. Traditionally, it's made with culantro instead of cilantro, but since that's hard to find over in these parts, cilantro works as well. It's a pretty malleable concoction, but mandatory ingredients are onion and garlic. Some add tomatoes, some add sweet chilies or, if those cannot be found, bell peppers.
Sofrito smells great as is, as soon as you're done blending it in the food processor. But its real magic explodes as soon as it hits a hot pan. All those aromatics immediately permeate the kitchen, then the entire house, and eventually even wafts out through the windows to make passers-by stop and wonder what the hell smells so good. I add it to soups, to yellow rice, to ground beef, to beans. Although if you make it with mostly green ingredients, you need to be mindful that it will affect the color of some foods.
You don't need to use a lot. A little bit goes a long way.
My grandmother used to make sofrito often, and she had culantro and cilantro growing in a little patch just outside the house. Her hands usually smelled of it, and, as dinnertime grew closer, so did the whole house. That smell elicited a Pavlovian reaction of wondering where my grandmother was, and what time dinner would be. As an adult, it's become a sensory trigger which, upon impact, shoots me back to that little house where Abuela would be running around, always juggling three things at the same time. One would be food related, one would be housework related, and one would involve running after some grandchild or another. Sometimes she'd complain, sometimes she'd scold us, but way more often she'd be laughing, smiling, and looking for ways to spoil us.
During this blog discussion, a surprisingly large number of people expressed very ardent anti-cilantro feelings. It tastes like soap! It tastes like crap! It ruins food! I had heard before that some people just cannot abide the taste - indeed, likening it to soap - but the harshness of the opinions expressed took me aback somewhat. First, I really dislike any food being catalogued as yucky, icky, or ew. Unless you're talking about warthog rectum, really, show a little bit more respect to those things that many people ingest and enjoy. (And even with warthog rectum, save your icks and ews for when you're out of earshot of people who actually eat it.)
What took me aback even more was how those comments got my back up. I wanted to defend cilantro's honor. Sure, she may not be for everyone. But damnit, she's green, lovely, and fragrant. She works well with others, but stands up to other ingredients who have strong tastes of their own. However, I think the reason this all left a bad taste in my mouth, more than it would have had it just been a food issue, was simply because I equate cilantro with love - good food lovingly prepared by someone who loves me, and whom I love very much.
I know that cilantro-haters have no way of knowing why I'm so attached that little herb, and that my attachment is not exactly rational. But I don't care - I'll continue to defend cilantro to all the haters out there. And if we need to take this outside, well, then, by all means - I'll meet you by the bike racks after school.