Battle Cilantro: Not for ‘The Haters’

Battle Cilantro group

The weather around these parts has been nothing short of strange. September was unseasonably cool with October and even parts of November seeing uncanny days in the 60’s and even 70’s. And I’ll be the first to admit that I love the weather around here lately. Each and every day my puffy marshmellow coat stays in the closet is a day I am happy to be living in Chicago.

Aside from the weather, I love the fall for the cuisine. I love fresh-picked applesthick, warm soup and anything involving butternut squash and I can’t wait to eat a hearty bowl of chili with an unrestrained blob of cheddar on top. But I’ll also confess that in the midst of fall when everything revolves around root vegetables and stewed meat, sometimes it’s nice to have a little taste of the warmer days.

I’ll take that taste any which way I can get it. No-jacket-needed weather? Sign me up. A hike in one of IL’s state parks? Sure thing. An iron chef battle utilizing a fresh herb whose versatility lends itself to a protracted list of suitable proteins, vegetables, and even fruits? Come to mama.

cilantro syrup for horchata

Well…if I must. I did initially harbor a smidgen of disdain for this month’s chosen ingredient, cilantro. I definitely am not a cilantro hater by any means, although I have come across many on that side of the fence. In fact, I usually have a bunch of it in my crisper and I use it without reserve. But cilantro is not what I’d hoped for in a November, i.e. the midst of fall, competition. And sure, cilantro grows great in the fall and is available fresh as can be at farmers’ markets in the fall, but the fact of the matter is this: I was keeping my fingers crossed for cranberry or pomegranate or apple, even cinnamon or vanilla. And am I too ballsy to wish for cardamom? Clearly, I have undoubtedly embraced fall in its’ entirety.

Nonetheless, I slowly came around. I more than came around – I embraced cilantro. I thought of a couple of ideas of dishes to make to highlight the fragrant herb, and I never looked back.

I think everyone else did too. We had a record 15 challengers this month including 3 newbies and a few people we’ve missed dearly over the past few battles. And to follow tradition, everything was scrumptious.

Chris even challenged himself (and succeeded) with making empanadas (despite his frustration that the recipe instructed twice as much filling as would fit..) and I made tacos with tuna ceviche and a couple of cilantro salsas/cremas. I also made some horchata, which I’d been wanting to make for a while. I figured, why not dump a bunch of cilantro syrup in it?

We had pears, pizza, quiche, soup, and even sweet potatoes. Who knew sweet potatoes and cilantro worked! And while this would have been a cilantro hater’s nightmare, the 15 of us seemed to fare just fine.

Chris' empanadasChris B's grilled shrimp pizza with cilantro pestomy Mexican ceviche tacos with cilantro salsa and crema

Margaret's quicheHope's sweet potatoesEmily's poblano cilantro cups

somebody's tabboulehVicki & Mike's hand-made pasta with cilantro alfredo saucesomebody's grilled cilantro pears

And although everything was tasty, we didn’t all come together just to eat cilantro. We came to win, and that award only goes to one person at the end of the night. I’m happy to say that this time, the ladies reclaimed the crown – finally! Holla!

The Top Three:

  1. Jennifer’s Apple-Cilantro (gluten-free) bruschetta with feta cheese
  2. Hope’s Sweet Potato Cakes with cilantro yogurt
  3. Emily’s Cilantro & Poblano Potato Salad in wonton cups

After the competition, I talked to my buddy Jennifer in hopes of learning her strategy. I should insert here that Jennifer is one of the least competitive people I know – she’d always prefer to have fun and eat good food rather than sweat about winning. But don’t let her fool you – she’s a tough one, and she’s bound to pick a superb ingredient next time in hopes of keeping her title.

Jennifer's winning apple-cilantro bruschetta

But if you’re still wondering what her strategy is, I’ll fill you in. When ‘interviewed’ after the battle, she chuckled and said, “I guess if you want to win, you have to not try so hard”.

So – there you have it!

Mexican Ceviche Tacos w/ Cilantro Corn Salsa & Cilantro Crema
Tacos Adapted from  Bon Appetit, August 2009; serves 4

Ceviche is one of the freshest, cleanest ways to cook fish – fish that are cooked literally in your fridge by the acid in citrus. But – you have to get super-fresh fish to make it work. If you have leftovers, they will surprisingly keep for a couple of days, avocado and all.

printable recipe

1 1/4 lbs fresh sushi-grade tuna (can also use hamachi, mahi-mahi), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
fine sea salt
fresh ground black pepper
3 T fresh lime juice
2 T fresh lemon juice
2 t sugar
1 c chopped seeded tomatoes
3/4 c chopped red onion
2 T pickled jalapeno, chopped plus 1 T liquid from jar
1 T olive oil
1/2 large head of romaine lettuce, chopped
1 large avocado, diced
4 T fresh chopped cilantro
12 blue corn crisp taco shells

1 1/2 c chopped seeded tomatoes
1/2 c frozen or fresh corn
2 T lime juice
3 T fresh chopped cilantro
salt and pepper

1 8 oz container Mexican crema*
1 c fresh chopped cilantro
1/2 t salt


  1. place fish in medium glass bowl and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper. add citrus juices and sugar and toss. cover and chill until fish turns lighter color and doesn’t look ‘raw’, 4-6 hours (no more than 6)
  2. meanwhile make salsa and crema. For salsa, combine ingredients in bowl, cover, and chill. For crema, process ingredients in mini food processor until well incorporated. add more cilantro if desired. cover and chill.
  3. strain fish and discard marinade. place ceviche in large bowl; add tomatoes, red onion, jalapenos, liquid, and olive oil and toss to blend. {can be done in advance, up to 2 hours ahead}
  4. preheat oven to 350 F. heat taco shells on baking sheet for 5 minutes.
  5. add lettuce, avocado, and cilantro to ceviche mixture and toss. fill taco shells with mixture and top with salsa and crema.

Want more cilantro? Try these tasty salmon burgers with cilantro mayo – another hater’s nightmare!

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