Real Food Encyclopedia | Parsley
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 how it looks 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 herb.
Fun Facts about Parsley
- 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.
What to Look for When Buying Parsley
Curly-leaf parsley is 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. Flavor wise, curly-leaf is mild and ever-so-slightly herbaceous, whereas flat-leaf is assertively grassy, sometimes with a peppery punch.
It takes a lot to push parsley to its un-useable edge, but when shopping, the rule of the thumb is firm, perky leaves, firm stems and no wilting or yellowing of any kind.
Sustainability of Parsley
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. And most importantly, wash it.
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.
Storing Fresh Parsley
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.
Cooking With Parsley
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 as 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 omelet, 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).
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. 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.
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 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. 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.