Thursday, August 16, 2007


I peruse cooking magazines whenever I am in a rut with my repertoire of dishes. Last summer, I found a recipe for green plantain tamales in Saveur's May/June 2002 issue. I hadn't made tamales before, but Saveur's recipes have been foolproof for me. I decided to give it a try and put my shopping list together. One of the ingredients is culantro. Having no idea what this herb is, I asked a Puerto Rican friend about it (not telling him the dish I was making is Cuban).

"Oh! Culantro! I have not seen it here. I tried to bring some back from Puerto Rico, but it didn't make it," said Vern.

I Googled it and found pictures of a plant with small dandelion-like leaves. I then made the rounds of my favorite Asian grocery stores in Seattle's International District and found it at Viet-Wah. The leaves are packed with a cilantro-like flavor plus a hint of resin.

Shopping for seeds last winter, I found a source for culantro seed through Johnny's Selected Seeds. Even though it only costs 99 cents per bag in the store, I decided to grow my own culantro. And, I could surprise Vern with his very own plant.

Culantro (Eryngium foetidum) is in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and related to Sea-Holly (Eryngium maritimum). It produces a rosette of leaves and the flowers emerge from the base. I started the seeds in early spring, and I had plants ready to use by mid-June. They are growing in regular potting soil in a shady spot where the slugs can't get to them. I lost three whole plants to slugs! I remove the flower stalks to keep the plant going through the season. Vern was surprised when I presented him with his own culantro plant, and he gives me an update on how it's growing whenever I see him.

Last weekend, I made the tamales again--a 4-hour process, but they are so good. The first time I made them, the mixture was similar to pancake batter that I was sure they wouldn't turn out. I added masa harina to half the batch; making them easier to work with. I think they are better and more sweeter without it. This time I used my home grown culantro. Pictures of the tamale making and the final dish with prawns in a coconut sauce (another Cuban recipe from this Saveur) follows. You can also use culantro when cilantro is called for. Just remember that a couple leaves go a long way.

The flavors blending on the stove for the plantain tamale batter.

Batter is placed at one end of the banana leaf, rolled up, and tied at both ends.

Banana leaf-wrapped tamale will be wrapped in foil and steamed for 1 hour.

I did a second batch a couple days later. The batter thickened up and didn't need to be wrapped in foil. Here they are in the steamer--I used my large stainless steel colander.

Tamales underneath coconut prawns. Delicious!


Anonymous said...

Hello... I want to thank you for posting this... I live in Snohomish county and I've been looking for CULANTRO everywhere. Was beginning to think there was no hope for me. I am going to try Viet Wah and see if they still carry it. I sure hope so.

I wanted to ask, how easy/difficult was it to grow the culantro plants from the seeds?


Bridget Lamp said...

You're welcome! Culantro is easy to grow. You just need a warm sunny spot for it. It's not hardy though so I think you'll have to grow it every year. Start it indoors now. Does great in a pot outside!

Anonymous said...

We've had this plant in our garden for weeks and finally found out it is culantro!---Am just now making a recipe I found online:

"Arroz con Frijoles Negros y Chimichurri de Culantro" (Black Beans and Rice with Culantro Chimichurri).

Ingredients for the rice: (4 servings)
1 cup long grain rice
1-10 oz can black beans
8 oz chicken broth
1/2 cup chopped onion
4-5 cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon culantro chimichurri (recipe follows)
5 slices bacon, chopped
Cook the bacon under high heat, uncovered, until most of the fat is released and becomes crispy and golden brown (3-4 minutes). Remove the crispy bacon from the pan and set aside.

Add the onion, tomatoes, chimichurri and the rice to the hot pan and saute for 3 minutes, stirring constantly to mix all the ingredients and ensure even coating of the rice. Mix in the beans and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cover. Cook for 15-20 minutes under low heat or until rice is cooked.

Serve warm and garnish with the crispy bacon and fresh culantro leaves. This is the perfect side dish for any kind of meat. Actually it is sooo good that it could be served as a main dish with a salad of fresh greens. Delicious!
For the Chimichurri Sauce, whisk together thoroughly in a small bowl:
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Stir in:
1 small onion, chopped
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh culantro
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano, or parsley
Salt to taste