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The Glamorous Side of Parsley

This bright herb is more than just a garnish, discover the range of its culinary potential

Fine Cooking Issue 79
Photos: Scott Phillips
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For the longest time, parsley has gotten a bad rap as the wallflower of fresh herbs. You know, the shy, boring one whose presence is an afterthought and who rarely shouts for attention. Well, I think it’s time to give parsley its due place in the kitchen. Sure, it may not be as sexy as basil or cilantro, but it can be a culinary powerhouse. Because its flavor doesn’t scream, you can use it extravagantly without muscling out other flavors. A big dose of chopped parsley enlivens any dish with brilliant, deep-green color and a clean, bright flavor. And don’t forget that parsley leaves are beautiful whole, too, and make a lively addition to green salads or light soups.

You’ll find two common varieties of parsley at the market: curly and flat-leaf, often called Italian. Both offer bright, grassy flavor, with a delicate balance of tang and sweetness, but flat-leaf parsley is bolder, with a distinctive licorice-like edge. So, for most recipes, I favor the flat-leaf variety, which is also easier to wash. The curly type is particularly good in fresh salads like tabbouleh, where its frilled texture adds welcome bulk.

Store it well, and it keeps for weeks

When I buy parsley, I look for dark color and perky stems. Back home, I wash and dry it thoroughly; it needs a vigorous swishing in two or three changes of water to get out all the grit. While I’m washing it, I also pick over the bunch to discard any yellowed and decaying stems and leaves. A salad spinner is a great way to get the excess moisture off the leaves. If you store parsley loosely in a zip-top bag lined with a paper towel, it will keep fresh for a week—sometimes longer. Alternatively, you can trim at least half an inch off the stems and stand them in a jar of water in the fridge, loosely covered with a plastic bag. I use only the leaves and thin stems, snapping off the thicker lower stems, which I freeze and save for stocks.

When you’re chopping

As with any tender, fresh herb, be sure to use a sharp chef’s knife when you chop parsley. The sharper your knife, the less the leaves will bruise and wilt. I sometimes like to use a nifty tool called a mezzaluna, which means half-moon in Italian. It consists of a single blade or two parallel blades shaped like a half-moon and is made for repeated rocking back and forth. It’s perfect for chopping piles of herbs. (You can find one in most kitchen shops, or visit Kitchen-universe.com.

Parsley has plenty of partners

Parsley is a good foil for the richness of cheese, from sharp Parmesan to mild fresh ricotta. It rounds out the flavor of pungent ingredients like anchovies, capers, olives, and crushed red pepper flakes, and it’s lovely with lemon zest, garlic, shallots, and scallions. Nuts are good enriching partners—especially walnuts, hazelnuts, and pine nuts. A big dose of parsley adds punch to starchy foods like beans, potatoes, winter squash, and grains. You can even mix chopped parsley into the dough of savory biscuits or scones. Finally, when looking for a good mate, think color as well as flavor. Parsley is gorgeous—and delicious—with deep-orange vegetables like butternut squash and carrots; or stirred into tomato or red pepper soup.

More than just a garnish

One of my favorite ways to use parsley is in sauces like the ones on the facing page. But I also love this little green herb in salads, pasta sauces, and dips.

For an easy, fresh pasta sauce, toss hot pasta with lots of chopped parsley, a few chopped scallions, diced mozzarella, and a generous drizzle of olive oil. Finish with grated Parmesan.

Make a rich and tasty filling for ravioli or tortellini or for layering lasagna. Mix plenty of finely chopped parsley with creamy ricotta, grated Parmesan, an egg, a little salt, and some freshly grated nutmeg.

Stir up a zesty dip with mashed cooked or canned cannellini beans, chopped celery, minced parsley, minced garlic, and lemon zest. Season well with salt, freshly ground pepper, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.

Make an authentic tabbouleh by combining soaked bulgur with lots of chopped curly parsley, chopped scallions, diced tomatoes, and diced cucumber. Dress with a zesty vinaigrette made with olive oil and lemon juice and well seasoned with salt, pepper, chopped fresh mint, paprika, and a little hot pepper, if you like. Serve on a bed of whole lettuce leaves.

Make a fresh herb salad with bibb and oak leaf lettuces, lots of whole parsley leaves, a few mint and chervil leaves, and chopped chives. Add a little fresh goat cheese and season with a light dressing of lemon and olive oil with a touch of honey.

It’s easy to grow your own

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) has the longest season of any herb I grow. I plant purchased seedlings in early April and harvest from them until a killing frost finishes them in late November or early December.

You can also grow parsley from seeds. The seed is slow to sprout and can take three weeks to germinate, but you can hasten germination by pouring very hot water over the seeds. Let them soak overnight, or until the water is cool and then plant immediately.

If you start parsley indoors or buy seedlings, set them out in the garden while still small, and be sure to handle them gently. Parsley forms a single taproot, and if it’s broken, the plant can die. Provide moderately rich soil and regular watering, and you’ll be rewarded with lush leaves. Harvest whole stems from the outside of the plant.


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