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In the bag

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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When it comes time to account for my sins, cilantro abuse won't be at the top of the list, but it'll be up there. I use a lot of cilantro — in salsa, curry paste, salads, sandwiches, quesadillas, and chili. That's no sin, of course. But typically I'll buy a $1.29 bunch at the supermarket, mince up a tablespoon or two, and put the rest of the bunch back in the crisper drawer in its plastic bag. A day or two later, the cilantro will have putrefied into brown sludge and I'll throw it away and repeat the process. I'm not just a cilantro killer; I'm a cilantro serial killer.

No other fresh herb gives me quite as much trouble. I use a lot of Italian parsley, but it's hardy enough that I usually get two or three uses out of it before it reverts to dirt. Sage, thyme, and rosemary last a couple of weeks. And delicate basil? Well, if you check my list of sins, you'll find that I don't actually like fresh basil.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Keep your fresh herbs in a glass of water — unless you knock such things over easily."]

Because my grocery budget has been growing out of control but giving up cilantro is unthinkable, I wanted to find a way to enjoy its green freshness on demand without being so wasteful. Here's what I tried.

Growing my own. The gold standard, no doubt. Last year I planted a pot of cilantro on the balcony, and, in a refreshing departure from my usual gardening adventures, it actually grew. As soon as there was enough homegrown cilantro for a batch of roasted tomatillo-serrano salsa, I harvested it and made the best salsa of my life. 

Upon dipping the last chip, I realized I'd cut all the cilantro and that was it for the summer. This year I'll plant several pots in rotation and hope it doesn't bolt immediately. Assuming all goes well, I'll be rolling in cilantro all summer, but what about the tacos I'm making for lunch today?

Taking it downtown. At Seattle's many Asian supermarkets, cilantro runs about 50 cents, which is a big psychological distance from $1.29. Unfortunately, my closest Asian market is a serious bus ride away. I should probably move and tell people it's for work-related reasons.

Being a king of convenience. I tried two processed cilantro products. Trader Joe's sells frozen cilantro cubes in a cute miniature ice-cube tray, imported from Israel. The taste was OK, but it took many cubes to impart much cilantro flavor, which made the cost savings negligible, and it only works in applications where you'd cook cilantro, because it's already cooked. 

Then at Safeway, I found Gourmet Garden refrigerated herbs in a tube. I was hoping this would be as good as tomato paste in a tube, which I swear by, but it turned out to have about as much culinary potential as Tartar Control Crest.

[%image cilantrotowel float=left width=400 caption="Wrapping fresh herbs in a damp paper towel and then a plastic bag works well and saves space."]

Precarious storage. Many sources advised storing the cilantro upright in a glass of water and covering the leaves loosely with a plastic bag. Some people report that this keeps their cilantro fresh for up to three weeks. It might have done the same for mine, except I knocked the glass over on day two and was too frustrated to set it back up.

Bagging it. The most common suggestion for preserving fresh herbs is to wrap them in a wet paper towel and place them in a ziplock bag. This, I'm pleased to report, works great, but it didn't stop me from . . .

Buying new toys. I'd long admired the FoodSaver vacuum sealer, but was too cheap to drop $100 on it. Then Reynolds came out with the Handi-Vac sealer, which sells for a mere 10 bucks. The bags look like ordinary ziplock bags, but with a special area for applying the vacuum sealer. Obviously they're playing the "we'll give you the razor" game, and obviously I bought one right away.

My daughter and I spent the afternoon putting various things into the vacuum bags, sucking out the air, and watching, say, our socks shrink into little lumps. We even remembered to vacuum-seal some cilantro — one bag with a moist towel and one bag with just unwashed herbs. Then we left town for a week.


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When we got back, the moist cilantro was rotten, but the dry was fine. This was very cool, but I'm not sure it works any better than the vacuum-less bagging method, nor do I need more than a week to make it through a bunch of cilantro. The vacuum sealer was still a good investment, though, because it makes cool noises and could give you a severe hickey.

So there you have it: the solution to my cilantro conundrum is as boring and low-tech as a paper towel and a plastic bag, a couple of seed packets and a bag of dirt. Now, for my next scientific inquiry: What happens if you vacuum-seal stuffed animals?

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

reference-image, l

cilantrotowel, l