All who follow this blog or are steeping themselves in the traditions of Mexican cuisine may find the recent reports about outbreaks of stomach illness that have been linked to imported cilantro from the state of Puebla more than disturbing. More than 380 people in 26 U.S. states have been diagnosed with a stomach illness tied to contaminated Mexican cilantro especially disturbing. An FDA ban will affect certain shipments of fresh coriander from Puebla from April to August, corresponding to the timing of the recent outbreaks, and will continue in future years during the summers, unless the exporter can provide documentation to U.S. health authorities that its product is safe.
Cilantro (also known as “coriander”) imported from Mexico was linked to outbreaks of the stomach illnesses in the United States in 2012, 2013 and last year as well, according to the FDA.
Given FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher’s statement that, “If you are concerned go back to the store and ask the retailer where they purchased the cilantro,” said. “If in doubt, throw it out”, especially since washing the cilantro may not remove the disease-causing pathogen; you may decide to grow your own, buy organic, or adjust your recipes for salsas and guacamoles.
You can grow cilantro, even indoors; seeds are available from Seeds of Change. According to gardeningknowhow.com, you’ll want to make sure that your plants are 3 – 4 inches apart in an unglazed terra cotta container with plenty of drainage holes. Use a mixture of potting soil and sand. In addition, you can use a fertilizer of fish emulsion available from Amazon.com in liquid form or make your own composting fish bones and other remains. Thorough watering is important for your cilantro… do not stop until the water comes out the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Gardeningknowhow.com recommends that you check the soil frequently, and that cilantro grown indoors should only be watered when the soil is dry to the touch which will be more often in the summer months. Plants need full sun 4 – 5 hours per day or use a growing light to assure success. When you grow cilantro indoors, it is important to harvest it with care, pinching at the growing tips to force a bushier plant. Keep in mind that cilantro grown indoors that it will grow less abundantly outside.
Since seeds usually germinate in 7-14 days and you shouldn’t expect plants before 45-70 days, in the interim you may want to omit, substitute or buy organic cilantro (although the “organic” label by no means assures that the plants are salmonella-free, although there have been no reports of recalls in the organic rops). Organic cilantro is available at Whole Foods Markets in San Francisco for $1.49/bunch (3 times the price at Chico Produce on 24th St, for non-organic but obviously well worth the extra $1). For those of you who do not have access to organic cilantro locally, it is available via Bambeco for $10 from their Garden-in-a-bag Collection, plus $7.99 shipping
While there seems to be universal agreement that there is nothing that you can use in place of cilantro that has the same taste and texture, there are some options that you might want to try. Depending upon whether your cilantro is going into a salsa or guacamole, you’ll want to experiment to see which of the following most closely approximate what you are looking for in terms of flavor and texture:
- Italian parsley– looks similar, tastes completely different but has a similar texture and can interesting in salsa
- Basil– again, different flavor but an interesting addition to salsa
- Celery leaves– try these in guacamole, be sure to coarse chop