WebMD The Magazine - Feature
Monica Kass Rogers
Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Of all the bright-green herbs out there, cilantro -- the fresh, leafy stalks of the coriander plant -- may be the most polarizing. The millions who love cilantro pile it on soups, salsas, wraps, and roll-ups. And the people who hate it, really hate it, tend to post vitriolic rants in online food blogs. But even dedicated cilantrophobes can have a change of heart, mind, and tastebud. Take WebMD community member Rebecca Rose, 33, a life-insurance case manager in Huntington, N.Y.
Rose's first cilantro moment came at a restaurant in New York, when she was a teenager. "I scooped up a chip full of pico de gallo, took a bite, and basically freaked out," she remembers. "I couldn't get it out of my mouth fast enough. I was convinced I had eaten a bug!" But there was no bug in the salsa, just a lot of cilantro. "I was completely unfamiliar with the herb," Rose says.
For years, Rose was on cilantro high-alert, carefully avoiding the herb, which she called "The Great Parsley Pretender." Finally, she decided to give it another try. "I love, love, love avocados. And my favorite guacamole-making-restaurant includes cilantro in the guac. I think that's what converted me."
Today? Rose not only tolerates the herb, she seeks it out. "My mom always said, "‘Your tastes change. You might not like something today that you'll like farther down the road.'" And cilantro-wise? "She was right!"
Cilantro adds fresh, lemony, bright, and spicy flavors as well as earthy undertones to Asian soups, spring rolls, salads, and Southwestern dips, salsas, stews, and sandwiches. Pulsing cilantro into dips or pestos tames the herb's scent somewhat, making it more approachable for a wider audience.
Cilantro is a good source of dietary fiber, vitamin K, iron, magnesium, and manganese. The herb is super low in calories (only 1 calorie per quarter cup) and super high in a long list of plant-based nutrients called phytochemicals, including limonene, camphor, and quercetin. These compounds, abundant in vegetables and fruit and in cilantro's essential oils, are powerful antioxidants, which help the body fight disease and aging.
Fresh cilantro leaves may also be a natural antibiotic: Studies show a compound called dodecenal in the leaves may be as effective as a commonly used antibiotic drug at killing salmonella. To get the most out of these benefits, eat cilantro when it's fresh and vibrantly deep green. Leaves should be crisp and spot-free.
Combine one or two thin slices of jalapeño pepper with ¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves (bottom of stems removed), 2 ripe avocados (pitted and peeled), ¼ tsp salt, ½ tsp ground cumin, the juice of one lime, and ½ cup water in food processor. Pulse/blend until smooth. Mix in 3 tbsp chopped white or red onion and serve with fresh veggies or baked tortilla chips for dipping.
Combine 1 bunch of very fresh cilantro (bottom of stems removed) with four cloves of garlic, ¼ cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, 1 slice of jalapeño pepper (or ½ tsp red chili flakes), and ½ cup toasted pine nuts or blanched almonds in a food processor. Pulse. With motor running, slowly pour in ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil. Add 1 tbsp lime juice and blend. Mix in sea salt to taste and toss with 6 to 8 servings of your favorite prepared whole-grain pasta.
SOURCES:United States Department of Agriculture: Nutrient Database for Coriander (cilantro) leaves, raw.Ensminger A., Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia, Pegasus: 1986.Kubo I., et al., Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2004; vol 52: pp 3329-3332.
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