Cilantro is one of my favorite herbs to work with. My boyfriend Serrano is practically obsessed with it--he puts it on everything he possibly can. He even stockpiles it in salads.
One thing I didn't know before I started this blog is that cilantro is the same as coriander. I was going through recipes in Rosemary Brissenden's cookbook Southeast Asian Food and some of her recipes called for coriander root and coriander leaves, which we call cilantro. It turns out this little plant is more versatile than I thought. The roots are bruised and normally used in Southeast Asian soups and curries. The seeds from the fruit are dried and we use them as typical coriander. If you buy it ground, it's just the ground up seeds. And cilantro are the leaves of the plant, which give dishes a fresh flavor.
Cilantro is also a staple in Mexican dishes. It's typically used as a garnish, but it can also be added to many different dishes to liven up the flavors a bit.
About a month ago, I went with a friend to Habana, a delicious Cuban restaurant I love in Costa Mesa. We split an order of paella, and it was served with several cilantro leaves on top. It totally changed the dish. I absolutely love paella, but I find that the flavors can start to wane fairly quickly into eating it. But the cilantro made it taste much fresher and lighter, and it gave an unexpected twist I've never tasted in paella before. It showed me how much one little herb can transform a dish.
One tricky thing with cilantro is often how to prepare it to use in a recipe. First of all, you always need to rinse it. Then you can dry it out by spreading out the stems on a paper towel. Serrano taught me a trick that worked surprisingly well--he wraps the cilantro in paper towels and rings the paper towel like a dish rag. The first time he did it I didn't believe that it would work, but when he pulled the paper towels apart I saw that the leaves looked dry and fluffy. Recently I put a whole bunch of cilantro in between paper towels, rolled them up, and rang the paper towel. It was easy and effective.
I will admit I'm very particular about how I chop cilantro. If you don't mind the stems, you can hold a few stems of cilantro at a time, arranging them like a bouquet so that the bottom leaves are all even. Twist the leaves a bit and hold down the stems and chop until you've gotten all the leaves.
Personally, I can't stand eating stems. So I like to rip the leaves off and discard the stems before I chop all the leaves together. This does take a fair amount of time, but I find it relaxing and meditative. It's best if you can recruit someone to do it with you so that you have someone to talk to, but you can also do it and watch TV or just enjoy some quiet time. Then you can chop the cilantro according to your recipe.
If I'm making a dish that uses cilantro as a garnish, I roughly chop the leaves and place them in a little bowl so that everyone can sprinkle some on their food. Unless I'm serving Serrano. Then I have several little bowls because I know he'll need at least two to himself.