Last year at about this time, I sat down with a stack of seed catalogs, a warm beverage, and a pantry full of ambition. I repeat this ritual every year, fully aware that it's only a game. Regardless of how many seeds I order, only a token amount of my food will come from my garden.
I am undaunted by the insignificance of my pursuits. Each winter as I peruse my seed catalogs, I even choose a few new themes to explore. Last winter it was cilantro, in a decidedly non-token amount. I’ve grown it before, after purchasing it in small packages. It isn’t hard. But based on conversations with a farmer friend who plants cilantro every two weeks from April through September, I ordered a whole pound.
Cilantro is my friend's most profitable summertime crop, in terms of energy and money expended versus money made. I figured that if it’s a good deal for the farmers it must be a bad deal for the buyers, who are buying something they could grow all too easily. So I turned the tables (with her blessing), and did what she did. I didn't have to buy cilantro all summer.
I also ended up with a good supply of cilantro seed, which also goes by the name coriander. No, I didn’t harvest the seed of my cilantro plants. I simply failed to plant all of the seed I had ordered. And in trying to figure out what to do with this surplus I became acquainted with one of England's favorite comfort foods.
In the UK, where cilantro is called "coriander leaf," cooks use both seed and foliage in a velvety carrot soup. Carrot coriander soup is so popular that entire Top 10 lists have been written to rank and compare the various retail options of this soup that are available in Great Britain. When I started making batches of carrot and coriander soup this winter, I began to understand why.
My farmer friend had recommended the Calypso variety of cilantro seed because it can handle more heat than most cilantro plants. In the middle of summer, when cilantro wants to flower the moment it sprouts, she uses shade cloth to cool the soil before planting. But token gardeners — like myself — can use the shade of other plants.
Without need for straight rows, or even rows, we token gardeners can just toss our coriander toward the garden by the handful. Like naturally dispersed seeds, they will sprout where they land, though you can tip the garden in their favor by covering them, either by raking them in or sprinkling with topsoil or compost. Otherwise you might make life too easy for the birds. And unless rain is imminent, give them a good soaking.
My Calypso seed arrived in February. By April, I was throwing that coriander into the middle of the garden, where it would get the most early-season sun. As the days grew longer and hotter, I threw seeds into shadier spots, between raspberry bushes, under the tomatoes, beside the spinach. I threw seeds at the pathways, the garlic patch, the chicken yard.
In the heat of summer, as expected, most of my cilantro flowered and went to seed. Most, but not all. Because I had so much cilantro in the ground, in so many spots, from full sun to full shade, it was always possible to find enough cilantro when I needed it. My $14 pound of coriander, which came at a significant discount to what you pay for the spice at the store, returned free cilantro all summer long. There wasn't always a ton of it, but it never quite ran out.
I did what you do when you have cilantro. I made salsa, chutney, curry, tacos. By the end of summer, the garden was full of cilantro plants gone to seed, some of which had dropped more seeds, some of which sprouted anew.
With the cilantro growing everywhere and seeding itself, I scaled back my coriander throwing. That’s how I ended up with leftover seed from my order, which sent me on the search that lead to carrot coriander soup.
It’s almost entirely local and seasonal, with carrots and onions from the winter farmers market, and garlic and coriander from my pantry. What I find most striking about this mellow, satisfying soup is how the coriander, which has such a strong taste, disappears to the point where you can barely taste it in the soup. My version is assembled from ideas and ingredients picked and chosen from other recipes, all of which are permutations of the same five ingredients.
Coriander carrot soup
This soup is pureed, ideally in a blender. An immersion blender or food processor does the trick, eventually. We want zero chunks.
Makes 12 cups; serves 6
1½ pounds carrots, sliced (about 5 cups)
1 pound onion (one large one), sliced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large garlic clove
¼ pound potato, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon coriander seeds or 1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ cup cilantro, loosely packed
1 teaspoon salt
8 cups water (no stock necessary)
Garnish: some kind of cream, such as heavy cream, mayo or sour cream
Place the carrots, onion, potato, garlic, salt and stock in a large pot, and bring to "the boil," as they would say. Simmer for 30 minutes, skimming any foam that floats to the surface.
Meanwhile, toast the coriander seeds in a dry pan on medium-low heat. When browned and aromatic but not burnt (about 5 to 10 minutes), grind them (If you don't have a spice grinder, use the ground coriander) and add to the pot. Simmer until everything is tender, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it cool to a temperature you can manage in a blender. Blend in batches. Add fresh cilantro and blend again, until the green flecks of fresh coriander are to your liking: not too big, not too small, but just right.
Serve hot or cold, garnished with the cream of your choice, extra coriander or some grated ginger, if you wish.