Parsley is without a doubt the most popular and widely used culinary herb in the world. It grows in most climates and is readily available throughout the year. It’s unfortunate, though, that parsley is also one of the least appreciated herbs in America, its subtle flavor is often overlooked and not even considered—it’s usually added to a dish purely for eye appeal, not flavor.
While this is fine because parsley does have a beautiful vibrant green color and can brighten most dishes, overlooking its qualities as a flavoring agent is a sad thing indeed. This misfortune of parsley is somewhat understandable because it has never truly been utilized to it’s full potential in the United States in the same way that it is in other countries, particularly those of the Eastern Mediterranean from where parsley hails. (Although I did recently come across a recipe for “parsley squares” in the Buffalo Evening News Cookbook, circa 1925. The parsley squares were basically a parsley-flavored custard that was sliced and added to consommé as a garnish.)
It’s odd, and I don’t understand why this is a particular memory for me, but I can actually remember the first time that I saw a sprig of parsley garnishing my plate. It was at the Yankee Doodle Roomthe restaurant that was at one time located on the sixth floor of the Adam, Meldrum and Anderson store in downtown Buffalo. It was Christmastime; I was a youth bristling with excitement, and eating at a restaurant seemed very special. My mother was there and I’m not sure who else, most likely my sisters and grandmother. Anyhow, I’m not sure if I had actually ordered it or if my mother did but my meal was to be a grilled cheese sandwich, and when it arrived at table it had a delicate sprig of parsley on top of a tomato slice at the edge of the plate. Asking my mother what it was and why it was there she told me that it made the plate look nice, and that if you ate it it would make your breath smell nice too. Not caring much about fresh breath at that age but being a very curious kid I bit off a piece and ate it. It was the curly variety and scratched my throat when it went down; I’m sure that I gagged. Thus, at the time I didn’t think parsley tasted very good.
Though parsley is indigenous to the Middle East it is a common flavoring ingredient in recipes from many countries. In French cuisine, for example, deep-fried parsley is a common accompaniment to grilled meats, it’s also a main ingredient in bouquet garni and sachet d’épice, both are used to flavor stocks, broths and soups. The cuisine of France also utilizes a fragrant herb mixture simply referred to as fines herbs; it is made up of equal parts minced parsley, chervil, chives and tarragon. In that same country ham paté with parsley is not uncommon, nor is lamb with a parsley and breadcrumb topping, which is known as persillade (which takes it’s name from the French word for the herb—pérsil). The same type of topping—with the addition of orange—is also known in Italy and is called gremolata, which is the traditional garnish for osso buco. But it is in Middle Eastern cuisines—not surprisingly—that parsley truly takes center stage. The most well known of these recipes is tabouleh, or parsley, mint and bulgur salad. There is also falafel—chickpea fritters whose crispy outer shell yields a moist interior that is colored green and redolent of parsley.
Parsley is also one of the oldest recorded herbs. The Greek demi-god, Hercules, is said to have worn a garland of parsley, which prompted the same as a victor’s crown during the Isthmian games, which eventually became known as the Olympics. Parsley wreaths were also worn by the Romans at great hedonistic feasts, they believed that the parsley absorbed odors and thus enabling them to drink more wine without getting intoxicated. And as with many herbs, parsley is and has always been celebrated for its medicinal properties as well as culinary. The renowned seventeenth century astrologer-physician Nicholas Culpeper prescribed a paste of herbs and spices (based on parsley) as a cure-all to treat a large spectrum of ailments, including “the jaundice, falling sickness, the dropsy, and stones in the kidneys.” In modern times the health benefits of parsley still stand true. Parsley is rich in vitamins A, B and C, and it helps clear the body of toxins. It also aids in digestion, and as I learned as a youth, its natural oils act as a breath freshener.
While there are many botanical varieties of parsley they can be divided into two basic types—flat-leafed and curly. The curly-leafed is more common in the US and also the type most often used as a garnish because of it’s ability stay fresh-looking longer; it is also easier to mince than the flatleaf. The flat-leafed variety is the true Mediterranean parsley (often called Italian parsley, not to be confused with Chinese parsley, which is actually cilantro) and is far superior in flavor. Dried parsley is also available, but because fresh parsley is so readily obtainable throughout the year the use of dried is unnecessary—its color and flavor is barely recognizable to that of the fresh.
When purchasing fresh parsley look for leaves that are bright green and uniform in color with no overt blemishes, wilting or yellowing—all are signs of age or improper handling. It should smell and taste clean and fresh and distinctly of the herb. Parsley can be stored loosely wrapped in a damp cloth and refrigerated for up to a week. Because parsley often has soil trapped in its leaves it should be thoroughly washed twice prior to use.
Joe is a chef, culinary educator and writer- is a graduate of The Culinary Institute Of America, and The School For American Chefs. He has also studied at The New School For Social Research in New York City and Le Cordon Bleu, in both Ottawa and Paris. He is the past co-owner of the acclaimed Café Cosmos, in Buffalo, New York and has been chef at numerous Buffalo area restaurants. Besides maintaining his own web site (Joe’s Cyber-Kitchen) his work has appeared in both national and local publications, including Chef Magazine, Artvoice, Sally’s Place, One4.com, Fillet and The National Culinary Review.
He is the author of a self-published book, Basic Elements: A Recipe Book Of Soup And Bread, and also worked as recipe tester for the Northeast Organic Farming Association Cookbook. Joe is currently teaching private cooking classes, and is a part-time instructor at Erie Community College. He lives in Buffalo with his wife Carrie Marcotte and their son Isaac George
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