Once woven into wreaths that crowned ancient Olympic athletes, parsley has long been used as decoration. In more recent times, restaurants used the herb merely as a garnish, a bit of color on the plate not meant to be eaten.
Yet as most chefs today know, this familiar herb offers much more than ornamentation. Added at the last minute to a long-cooking stew, parsley single-handedly brightens up the flavor of the dish. Whole leaves tossed in a green salad contribute a clean, peppery bite; chopped leaves add color and flavor to most pastas.
The robust cuisines of the Mediterranean have made great use of parsley as a flavoring. The French mix chopped garlic with parsley for a garnish called a persillade (pronounced pehr-see-yahd), which is sprinkled on everything from mushrooms to fish and beef. (Persil is French for parsley.) Parsley is also classically combined with thyme and bay leaves in a bouquet garni to flavor stocks. In the Middle East, parsley is the main ingredient for the grain salad called tabbouleh. And in Italy, parsley is among the most important of flavorings, right up there with olive oil and garlic.
Green color, green flavor
When I think of parsley’s flavor, I imagine the color green. Its lush, verdant taste reminds me of the smell of a fresh-cut lawn. It’s the flat-leaf variety, also called Italian parsley, that gets me so excited. The curly leaf variety is much milder, although it can add an interesting texture, if not flavor, to a green salad. Flat-leaf parsley has a pronounced aroma and a pleasantly bitter flavor.
A little butter or oil helps carry parsley’s flavor. As with most aromatic herbs, the flavor of parsley is captured best in the fat used in the dish. A flavored butter, also known as a compound butter, is a great way to showcase parsley’s flavor (see the box below).
As for dried parsley, it lacks the very thing that fresh parsley adds to a dish—freshness—so I don’t even think about using it.
Keep parsley on hand
Parsley is sold in inexpensive bunches year-round. If you tend to use only a few sprigs from the bunch before it fades, my advice is simple: use more and use it more often. I frequently double the amount a recipe calls for because any dish that has parsley in it can benefit from some chopped leaves sprinkled on top, both for looks and for an additional flavor boost.
Treat parsley well and it will last a while. At the market, look for bright-green, lively bunches. Obviously, you want to avoid those that are wilted or yellowed, but you should also pass on those whose leaves have lost their slight shine, a sign that the plant and its flavor are fading.
Because parsley grows in sandy soils, it needs to be thoroughly washed. Though some people suggest only washing herbs when you’re ready to use them, I use parsley so much that I wash it as soon as I get it home. Loosen the bunch and wash it in a few rinses of tepid water and then dry it well in a salad spinner or by blotting it with a clean towel.
You can simply wrap the parsley in a paper towel inside a plastic bag or treat it like a bouquet. Put the stems in a jar or glass filled with water and then cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag. Change the water every other day.
Dry the herb well before chopping. I often wash my parsley a second time just before using it to be sure I’ve gotten rid of any traces of gritty sand. Then I dry it well to get better, more precise cuts. Use a very sharp knife to chop parsley leaves. (You can use the strong-flavored stems to flavor soups and stocks; strain them out before using.)
Finally, parsley certainly can pretty up a plate. Unlike many leafy herbs, parsley won’t blacken once chopped and so it looks great longer. So go ahead and use it for decoration—just don’t forget that it’s delicious, too.
Experiment with parsley
• Add chopped parsley to browned butter. Season with lemon, salt, and pepper; drizzle the sauce over grilled fish.
• Fry parsley for a festive, flavorful garnish. Mix flour with wine to make a thin batter. Coat the sprigs and fry until just golden.
• Mix chopped parsley with minced garlic and breadcrumbs to make a savory crust for roast lamb or a baked bean gratin.
• Flavor mashed potatoes with a pesto made with parsley, olive oil, and garlic.
• Toss whole curly parsley leaves with sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto, and parmigiano reggiano. Dress with a light oil and vinegar dressing for a different, vividly flavored salad.