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Cilantro brightens the winter garden

Winter in many vegetable gardens is when the line blurs between anything bright-green and growing and actual food.

Hardy kale and collards withstand Southern Oregon's coldest months, and I nurse them along by plucking a few nutritious leaves here and there to add to pasta dishes, soups and quiches. No matter that greens aren't very filling; if more numerous, they could compose whole side dishes or salads. But when it comes time to sow seeds in late summer and early fall, I'm always torn between sacrificing the aging hot-weather plants or contenting myself with a few rows of greens that will need months of babying.

This year, winter greens yielded even more space to cilantro — of all things — at the hands of my gardening guru mother-in-law. When Ann mentioned that she planned to sow the herb seeds, I just shrugged my shoulders ambivalently.

I'm neither one of those people for whom cilantro tastes like soap or who craves its inclusion in every Thai or Mexican dish. I buy bunches of it almost weekly because it's the least expensive herb in grocery stores and the trickiest to grow on a consistent basis.

The majority of culinary herbs — chives, mint, tarragon, sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano — represent a gardening gateway, owing to their perennial personalities that require little care most of the year. Convenience aside, cultivating fresh herbs translates to serious savings at grocery stores, where a few sprigs often are more costly than an entire starter pot at a nursery.

Cilantro, on the other hand, is not an herb that establishes itself to await harvest. Quick to sprout, the plant is even quicker to go to seed, leaving cooks with the spice known as coriander, but not fresh cilantro leaves. This cycle speeds up in warm weather, of course, making succession planting practically essential every few weeks.

Such a strong tendency to bolt, however, makes cilantro particularly suited to winter gardens in regions that don't experience heavy snow or regular frost. But who knew it would fare so well in Southern Oregon's relatively mild climate?

After a little late-fall weeding, the rows of cilantro in my garden were the most robust, pest-free plant specimens we had going by January. While the kale remained slightly scraggly, the green onions short-statured and the fennel fronds ephemeral, the cilantro was so luxuriant with leaves so broad that I could assemble a small salad from them alone — or at least come close. By contrast, commercially grown leaves are paper-thin, good for little other than garnishing.

And there's some evidence that grocery-store cilantro — if not organic — is among the least wholesome items in the produce section. A U.S. Department of Agriculture random test of cilantro showed that 94 percent harbored pesticide residue, according to an article posted last summer to the website Mother Nature Network. More alarming, pesticides that the USDA detected on 44 percent of the cilantro were "unapproved."

That's reason enough to grow your own.

In winter, cilantro can be sprouted indoors in containers. Leave enough area unplanted in the container for two more plantings (or use three separate pots). Plant new seeds every three or four weeks for a continuous supply of fresh cilantro. After the third planting, the first batch of cilantro is ready and likely will go to seed in about a week. When it does, pull it out and sow new seeds in that spot. The same process works outdoors in spring, summer and fall.

Although not exactly a source of sustenance, my cilantro brings a much-needed splash of fresh flavor and color to cold-weather dishes such as chili, root-vegetable curries and Asian-inspired pastas. The herb is a major player in this slaw served at Mustards Grill in Napa Valley, Calif.

Creative cabbage slaws can be stars of the wintertime menu, bringing fiber and vitamin C to a diet of starchier storage crops. And cabbage is one of the few locally grown vegetables still available at farm stands, food co-ops and the first growers markets of the new year.

Mail Tribune Food Editor Sarah Lemon can be reached at 541-776-4487, or email slemon@mailtribune.com. For more tips, recipes and local food news, read her blog at mailtribune.com/wholedish

Curried slaw works as a perfect side dish, whether you're playing host to a formal dinner or having the gang over to watch a little football. - MCT