Growing and Using Coriander Spice

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In Mediterranean countries, the leaves were used as a complexion bleach.
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The coriander plant in its flowering stage. Harvest the seeds before they fall to make coriander spice.
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Sprinkle the ground seeds over apples or pears as they bake.
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The pink pollen brightens bees' britches.
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The spice is an essential ingredient of curries.

Five thousand years ago, coriander seeds from the
Mediterranean were being carried along the Silk Road in the
saddlebags of caravans, on their way to enrich the cuisine
of ancient Cathay with their orange-and-sage flavor. A
millennium before the birth of Christ, Egyptian mourners
placed jars of the spice beside gilded sarcophagi to
accompany spirits departing for the Land of the Dead. And
while Aztecs gathered leaves of the Coriandrum sativurn to
season stews, Chinese dined on the plant in hope of making
themselves immortal … or put its juice to more
immediate use as a gargle to ease toothaches. Furthermore,
for generations coriander has been eaten as one of the
bitter herbs of the Feast of Passover, and Bombay nights
have been made hotter with coriander-spiced curries.

In summer, Chinese and Mexican produce stores carry fresh
coriander leaves, disguised under the names Chinese parsley
or cilantro, and your local supermarket keeps boxes of the
seeds on its shelves at all seasons. The seeds can spice up
sausages or give confections and puddings a sunny lift. In
fact, the candy coatings of cake sprinkles often conceal
the light brown spheres. A teaspoon of the spice will light
up the flavor of an apple pie. And by adding 1/3 cup of the
chopped leaves and half a teaspoon of cumin to a soup of
meatballs, carrots, onions, and zucchini, you can
approximate a dish popular south of the border: sopo de
albondigas.

Since coriander has naturalized widely throughout the U.S.,
you can bet that you won’t have to fuss over its
cultivation. As long as it’s drenched in sunlight, the
plant thrives in average, well-drained soil, and
overenrichment will only diminish its savor.

In late April or early May, plant coriander seeds
(available at most garden stores) in 1/4″-to 1/2″-deep
drills, eight or ten inches apart. Don’t expect to see a
sprout for at least a week, and the seeds may laze in the
soil as long as 20 days before germinating. And
be fore-warned: You’re not likely to enjoy the smell of the
intensely green, feathered foliage — the plant’s name
was justifiably derived from the Greek word for bedbug.
However, the reek fades to a pleasant scent when coriander
matures. By late June or early July, parasols of pinkish
white to lavender florets will start unfurling at the top
of two- or even three-foot-high plants, and because
coriander pollen is pink, your garden will soon be humming
with rosy-knickered bees. In the fall, the shiny, striped
fruits will turn into fawn-colored, hollow, ribbed balls
about 1/8″ in diameter. Then — quickly, before they shatter
and reseed the plot — gather in your sweet-smelling harvest.
When the seeds have been dried in a sunny, airy place, you
can remove the adhering husks by rubbing them between your
hands.

Feel free to experiment with your harvest. The orangey tang
of coriander transforms beets, pickles, blancmanges, cakes,
cookies, and liqueurs. And if you find yourself driven to
insomnia thinking of even more uses for this herb, just
pour a couple of pints of boiling water over half an ounce
of the crushed seeds. The ancients thought that a
wineglassful of this tea was a ticket straight to the arms
of Morpheus … and maybe they were right.

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