Culture and Coriander

cilantro flowers and beesThe mist lingers late in the mountain mornings some days, a welcome respite from a week of record heat that reminded us briefly of the potent summer weather that is late in coming this year. The breeze gusts unsteadily, carrying changes. Gray skies give way as the day progresses to a clear bright blue ruffled with clouds, and the angle of the sun slants high overhead, even late into the afternoon. The fog pools later in the day on the coast, a soft blanket spread on the bluest bed.

The summer solstice passed while we were in the garden, staking tomatoes and planting a late crop of beans to replace some that were eaten by grasshoppers, or by birds. The longest day, stretched over the western hemisphere; the shortest night, a bright bowl of stars. Even as summer swells and climbs like a magic beanstalk, the seeds of autumn are already beginning to swell. Zucchini comes out swinging.Color creeps into ripening fruit. For whatever reason, the plague of grasshoppers seems to be lessening in our plot here; the skeletonized leaves of squash and eggplant are slowly being supplanted by young leaves that have remained whole for an entire two weeks now. Bless an ecosystem that corrects itself, moving as it does in cycles; boom and bust, predator and prey. Thanks be to birds, sharp-eyed and hungry; the young of many species have fledged and are busy exploring the garden in their still-fluffy feathers, awkward and adorable as teenagers. There are plenty of grasshoppers to go around to feed the young birds. Bon appétit, my darlings!

Cilantro, once it goes to seed, is given a new name, and known not for its leafy stems but for the mature seed we call coriander. Cilantro we planted from healthy starts a few weeks ago bolted to coriander straight away; this is the dice roll of weather and luck. Sometimes a cool-season crop like cilantro can be coaxed into thriving between heat waves, but the high temperatures a week ago proved too much for the annual herb. Autumn again, knocking on the door. We’ll try again if these cool temps look to hold, in a shadier spot perhaps.

The young cilantro that bolted early won’t make too much seed, as they had hardly gotten to grow at all before they decided to end it all in a mad reproductive dash. However, the older plants that have been in the ground since spring have finally reached the end of their useful life. Topping out at over 3 feet tall, we decided to remove the lacy, leaning foliage to make more light and air circulation for the maturing vegetable garden. The bolting cilantro graced us for weeks before maturity with lacy white umbel flowers, beloved of bouquet-makers, bees, and butterfilies alike. Insects and backyard florists alike love an umbel-shaped flower, and the delicate sprays made their way into many bouquets of early summer flowers and even a few salads. Once pollinated, the flowers dropped their petals, swelling into tiny round green seedheads, striped and textured like tiny basketballs. The plant pours everything it has, every last drop of sugar from the sun, into producing these seeds, until the very leaves of the plant begin to turn a sucked-dry purple, tan, and brown. The seeds turn color too, drying in the sun, fading to a toasty brown. We gather the seeds for different reasons in each stage; the brown mature seed for long keeping as a dry spice, and the juicy green immature seed, to make this weeks featured recipe for Fermented Green Coriander Seed.

We lift more harvests of potatoes from the friable earth; they keep better in the ground for a while, unwatered and drying than they do in the pantry. We trim dill from the herb patch, and make a roasted potato salad greened with chopped herbs. We sprinkle these coriander capers over the top of the dish, and put the jar away in the fridge, to await inclusion in another meal. These capers taste like tiny umami bursts of salt and tart, a seedy pop that brightens grain and legume dishes as well as starches. Plus, the recipe was fun to revisit; to do some serious, serendipitous name-dropping, we hadn’t remembered that we shot this recipe on a day when one of our favorite chefs and cookbook authors had been in the little yurt kitchen, shooting a different recipe.

We can see Joshua MC Fadden, blurred in the background of the photographs for our little fermented coriander seeds, and the accompanying recipe text reminds us that we were a little bit starstruck, then and now. We may have gushed, just a little. Forgive us. He came through town a million years ago—or was it only in 2017?— to promote his then-new book, Six Seasons. Like all of our most beloved cookbooks, the once-crisp pages have become splattered with sauce, dog-eared and side-noted, falling open to familiar places. What a debt we owe to all those who come before us, gardeners and seed savers, recipe writers and home cooks, whose life’s work has shaped and flavored our gardens, our memories, our palates and our culture.