Real Food Right Now and How To Cook It: Parsley

fresh parsley via shutterstock.com

I say “parsley.”  You say… garnish?

Probably. Arguably the best known culinary herb among Americans, parsley’s claim to fame has been ornamental rather than gastronomical. It has endured a long exile to the plate’s edge, a one-trick pony known only for prettying up America’s restaurant plates. 

The pity with the focus on pretty is that parsley has lost its footing as an herb of serious culinary merit. It was only 30 years ago when James Beard sang parsley’s praises in his book Beard on Food:  “If I had to pick six herbs I couldn’t cook without, I’d settle for basil, bay leaf, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme. Parsley too, of course, but that is so universal it goes without saying.”

Why we fell for dried parsley out of a canister and lost touch with the real thing is anyone’s guess. It’s time to take off the garnish goggles and give fresh parsley its proper due as a formidable vegetable. That’s right, vegetable.

A Brief History

Although no one knows the exact point of origin – possibly Sardinia, maybe Lebanon – it is widely agreed upon that parsley is a southern Mediterranean native.

Cited by scholars from both ancient Greece and Rome – Galen, Apicius and Pliny the Elder, to name a few – parsley played an important role as medicine, culinary seasoning and spiritual symbol. Ancient Greeks associated parsley with death, using it to make burial wreaths. According to the Greek historian Plutarch, a Celtic ruler exploited the Greeks' fear of parsley by decorating hundreds of donkeys with the herb to greet advancing Greek troops. At the sight of the parsley, the superstitious Greeks turned and fled, and the Celtic kingdom was spared an invasion.  

The Romans viewed parsley as a symbol of celebration and explored its culinary potential. According to Pliny the Elder, the Romans used both parsley leaves and seeds for seasoning.

Culinary scholar Jonathan Roberts in his book Cabbages and Kings argues that the Romans were so taken with parsley they may very well have been the force behind the plant’s migration to Britain.

Factual nibbles

  • Along with celery, parsley is traditionally used for the karpas, a component of the Passover Seder plate. The vegetable is dipped in salt water before being eaten to symbolize the salty tears of the Israelites slaves in Egypt.
  • Charlemagne, the emperor of western Europe in the Middle Age insisted that parsley be planted on the many royal estates. Some historians credit him for popularizing the herb throughout Europe.
  • By 1774, both curly and flat leaf parsley were a part of Thomas Jefferson’s famed vegetable gardens at Monticello.
  • Parsley makes an appearance in The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the world renowned children’s book written by Beatrix Potter in 1902. After gorging himself in Mr. McGregor’s garden, Peter Rabbit was “feeling rather sick, he went to look for some parsley.”

Cultivation

Botanically, we’re talking about the genus Petroselinum, which is part of the extensive carrot (or umbelliferae) family. There are three Petroselinum cultivars on the books : P. crispum crispum (curly-leaf parsley); P. crispum neopolitanum (flat-leaf or Italian parsley) and the less familiar P. crispum tuberosum, also known as parsley root or Hamburg parsley, a fall vegetable.

Etymologically speaking, Petroselinum comes from the Greek words petro (rock, stone) and selinon (parsley), a reference to the rocky hillsides that the plant has long called home. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the word selinon was used interchangeably for celery, a close relative.

Seasonality

Parsley season is nice and long, beginning in late spring or early summer and extending through the fall in most parts of the country. In the absence of a hard frost, parsley will continue to provide.  

Environmental impact

As with its cousin cilantro, conventional parsley has been at the center of several multi-state food safety recalls over the past few years due to salmonella contamination.

Although you won’t find parsley on the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, your best bet is to buy from small-scale and local sources whenever possible and talk to the grower about production methods. (Or grow your own!) At the supermarket, we recommend buying organic parsley. (See our veggie rule of thumb.) And most importantly, wash it. 

Characteristics

Curly-leaf parsley is actually more ruffly in appearance, similar to carrot tops (which makes sense since they’re all in the Umbelliferae family), and the flat-leaf has wide, almost webbed leaves, similar to that of celery, its close cousin. Flavorwise, curly-leaf is mild and ever-so-slightly herbaceous, whereas flat-leaf is assertively grassy, sometimes with a peppery punch.

What to look for

It takes a lot to push parsley to its un-useable edge, but the rule of the thumb is firm, perky leaves, firm stems and no wilting or yellowing of any kind.

Nutrition

For a seemingly ordinary herb, parsley is extraordinarily rich in nutrients. One of the biggest surprises: It’s a great source of vitamin C. One half cup – the amount called for in the tahini sauce recipe below – fulfills 50 percent of our daily vitamin C requirements. Additionally, parsley is also rich in vitamins A and K.  

Parsley is a motherlode of disease-fighting phytonutrients in the form of volatile oils and flavonoids. Its oils have been studied for their potential to ward off tumors, as well as their ability to neutralize carcinogens (of particular concern when grilling meat). The flavonoids have shown promise for their anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting abilities.

As is the case with other green leafy vegetables (spinach, chard and collards), parsley is oxalate dense, which may be an issue for anyone with kidney or gallbladder issues. We recommend consulting your medical provider as needed.

Moms-to-be may want to limit their parsley intake, as excessive amounts are known to stimulate the uterus and cause contractions, or increase fetal heart rate.

What to Do with It

Due to decades of plate-dressing duty, parsley is grossly underrated. It may not be fancy or exotic like lemongrass or tarragon, but it’s downright handy, along the lines of Betty Crocker. Parsley is practical and all-purpose and gets right down to business, both cooked and raw. And it holds up like a champ in the refrigerator.

Storage

As one of the hardiest leafy herbs, parsley keeps well in the refrigerator. It doesn’t mind plastic bags and will keep for a week this way; it also likes standing upright in a jar with a few inches of water.

Growing parsley

Balcony gardeners, you’re in for a treat: Parsley grows well in containers and needs little attention. The only caveat is that seeds take their sweet time to surface above the soil, about four to six weeks. I’ve grown parsley from seed for the past three years and don’t mind the wait because once the seedlings emerge, they leaf quickly and stick around until the hard frost. Some gardeners suggest soaking seeds in warm waterovernight to expedite germination.

Parsley is considered a biennial, which means it will grow back the second year but won’t be as prolific. Stems tend to be thicker and more fibrous, and the leaves must share real estate with flowers and seeds. Pinch the flowers and seeds and enjoy the final round of leaves as you plant new seeds.

Cooking tips

Parsley is one of the components of bouquet garni, a classic French seasoning used to flavor stock, soups, stews or any kind of braised dish. Traditionally, it includes parsley stems, thyme sprigs and bay leaf, either tied together with kitchen twine or placed in a cheesecloth. 

Parsley and other chlorophyll-rich vegetables such aslike leeks are particularly useful when making chicken stock, as they attract impurities, making it easier to get a clear stock.

Next time you’re looking to spruce up a bowl of pasta, rice, roasted vegetables or an omelette, consider persillade, a raw mixture of finely chopped parsley and garlic that turns the ordinary into something special. The classic French preparation is pommes persillade, diced sautéed potatoes tossed with the persillade. The Italians take this mixture one step further with the addition of lemon zest and call it gremolata, which traditionally is served with osso bucco (veal shanks), but this seasoning trio works magic on all variety of vegetables (particularly after they’ve been grilled) and in no time, you’ll be getting into a gremolata groove.

There’s no better way to get your parsley on than to make a batch of tabbouleh, the iconic Middle Eastern salad of bulgur wheat, tomatoes and herbs. Despite popular belief on this side of the world, tabbouleh is considered a parsley salad rather than a bulgur salad, and everything else in the bowl works to support and season it. (Ssee details below.) Served with romaine leaves, pita bread or all by its lonesome, tabbouleh is both refreshing and nurturing, and a stellar way to take the edge off a hot summer day.

Last but definitely not least, say hello to another Middle Eastern table treat, the very zesty Baqdunis bit-Tahini, a tahini sauce enriched with parsley. It can be used any number of ways – as a dip for the crudité platter, atop a piece of grilled fish, as a salad dressing, drizzled on roasted cauliflower or eggplant, or drunk from the bowl. It is addictively good.

Recipes

Tabbouleh

From The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook by Kim O’Donnel  by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2010.

34cup fine or medium-grain bulgur wheat
3 plum tomatoes
1 cup mint leaves
2 large bunches (about 312 cups) flat-leaf parsley
6 scallions
12 cup lemon juice, from about 2 lemons
12 cup olive oil
12 teaspoon salt
1 head romaine lettuce, for garnish

Note: Everything going into the salad has to be as dry as possible. After you’ve washed all the herbs, make sure to dry them well. It makes a huge difference to the end result.

In a medium-size bowl with some depth, cover the bulgur with water. Soak for about 20 minutes. You’ll notice that the bulgur has absorbed the water and expanded. Add more water, just to cover, and allow to soak while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise, remove the seeds with your fingers or a teaspoon, and dice. Place in a large bowl.

Keep the mint and parsley separate at all times. Wash thoroughly, shake out the water and dry in a towel or salad spinner.

Pull the mint leaves from the stems. Chop finely and place on top of the tomatoes.

Separate the parsley leaves and use the stems for another purpose (soup stock is one idea). Chop the leaves until they are very fine, so small they almost look like a puree. Layer on top of the mint.

Thoroughly drain the water from the bulgur, then spread on top of the herb layer like a blanket. Spread around with a spoon if necessary. Cover the bowl and put in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to chill and set up.

Meanwhile, prepare the scallions: Wash, dry and slice off the roots. Usually only the white and light green parts, chop very finely. Place in a small bowl and add the lemon juice.

When ready to serve the tabbouleh, incorporate the scallion mixture into the bulgur mixture. With your hands, mix thoroughly. (“The parsley is not drinking the juice if you use a spoon,” my tabbouleh teacher Nada Kattar proclaims.)

Add the oil and salt, and taste. Traditionally, tabbouleh is served with romaine lettuce leaves that can also be used as garnish. The heart of the romaine can be placed in the center of the bowl or platter as decoration.

Makes about 312 cups.

Baqdunis bit-Tahini (Parsley in Tahini Sauce)

Adapted from “Lebanese Cuisine” by Madelain Farah

1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon salt
12 cup tahini
12 cup water
12cup lemon juice
12cup parsley, coarsely chopped

Make a paste of the garlic and salt, using a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, use a chef’s knife: Slice the garlic and sprinkle it with the salt. Lay the flat side of the knife on top. With one hand on the handle (which is close to you, off the edge of your cutting surface) and the palm of your other hand on top of the knife, press on the garlic in a smearing fashion.

Transfer the paste to a small bowl and add the tahini, stirring until well mixed. The sauce will thicken as you stir. Gradually add the water and stir, followed by the lemon juice, then the parsley. Taste for salt and add more as needed.

Makes about 1 cup.

 

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