Stop throwing away your cilantro stems!
Whether it’s New American, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, or Ethiopian cuisine, one of the reasons to break out of your go-to cooking routine is to learn about ingredients you haven’t taken advantage of in the past. Once you do, you’ll use them across the spectrum of your cooking. My new obsession, after reporting a piece about fantastic classic Thai ingredients, is cilantro—but not the flowery bits you’re accustomed to using. The stems.
Chat Suansilphong, co-owner of New York City Thai restaurant Fish Cheeks, tipped me off to the fact that in Thailand, the cilantro root—distinct from the stem—is a crucial part of the cuisine. The white, somewhat ungainly root is scrubbed, sliced thinly and used “in everything,” he told me. Along with garlic and white peppercorn, it’s considered one of the “three sisters” of Thai cooking: essential.
In America, you won’t always spy cilantro sold with its roots attached. More often than not, it’s been trimmed so that only the stems remain. If you can find cilantro with its root attached, by all means, experiment, and try it out in dressings, marinades, and salads. If you need inspiration, it makes many cameos in the cookbook Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand, by Andy Ricker and JJ Goode.
I don’t often see cilantro sold with its roots attached at my local markets, but if I went a little farther afield I would, since I’m near a huge Asian-American community. In the meantime, I’ve using the tender, sweet stems for… a lot of different dishes. Melissa Clark’s excellent red curry with tofu and mushrooms employs thinly sliced cilantro stems as a base. She sautées them with ginger, garlic, shallots, and chiles over medium heat. They contribute a sort of floral, sweet bouquet and flavor.
Watch: How to Make Classic Pad Thai
I’ve began to look for other ways to use them, and started pureeing them in marinades and dressings. Turns out they work beautifully in riffs on green goddess dressings, such as those made with yogurt and herbs. If your blender is high-powered enough, texture won’t be a concern, and they’ll add a general herbaceous quality.
Cilantro stems can also brighten other sautéed dishes, such as my go-to white bean dish, which is ideal for summer. When you see lemongrass in a recipe and don’t feel like going out to get some, although this flavor is definitely different, cilantro stems can serve as a similar flavor boost, in a pinch. They can work in lots of Mexican, Thai, and Indian dishes, and you’ll see recipes in all those cuisines asking you not to throw them away.
So don’t! It’s one more way to waste less food, keep your fridge clean, and feel like a smarter home cook. And no one needs to know that the top-secret ingredient in that delicious curry used to go right into the trash compactor.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.