It's more than a frill.
When judged against other herbs’ heady flavors, parsley’s seems pallid indeed. Lacking basil’s sweet fragrance, pepper’s fire, mint’s cool finesse, or rosemary’s piney bite, parsley’s taste has been described as grassy, vegetal, or green—more inspiring to cows perhaps than to cooks. Yet parsley’s mild, herbaceous flavor is just what makes it so useful. What other herb could play these diverse roles:
• Background flavoring. A few sprigs added to any soup, stew, or other water-based dish will enrich its flavor and add an elusive herbal bass note. This is parsley’s role in the French bouquet garni.
• Finishing touch. For a clean, finished flavor and colorful contrast, sprinkle noodles, vegetables, or potatoes with flecks of fresh parsley just as you would use black pepper.
• Liaison. Parsley’s mellow taste can link the flavors of two or more other, strongly flavored herbs or harmonize the flavors of disparate ingredients that might otherwise clash.
• Pseudovegetable. A cup of minced parsley leaves tossed with an equivalent amount of soft grains adds nutrients as well as enticing taste, or call it a green and heap it into salads with lettuces and other greens.
• Flavor extender or diluent. These roles differ in intent, but both combine mild parsley with an assertive herb. For example, when your basil supply is meager, you can extend your pesto with parsley, or use it to dilute and tame a harsher herb such as cilantro.
• Garnish. No herb is prettier than curly-leaved parsley.
Parsley is among only a handful of fresh herbs available year round in virtually any supermarket. If its versatility and convenience don’t persuade you to make parsley a daily habit, consider that it has enough chlorophyll to quench the sulfurous fumes of garlic breath and is packed with health benefits.
Parsley’s vitamin C concentration is among the highest of any food—roughly 125 to 300 milligrams per 100 grams, which is a little less than an average bunch. (Nutritionists recommend taking 60 milligrams of vitamin C daily.) It’s also a rich source of iron, calcium, lutein, and beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A). The latter two compounds are antioxidants, which have been linked with slowing cellular aging and the development of tumors. At least two other compounds—chlorophyll and myristicin—may also inhibit the development of some cancers.
Nevertheless, there are caveats to eating large quantities of this herb. Although parsley is high in calcium, its substantial concentration of oxalates—about half that found in spinach—bind calcium, making it inaccessible to the body. People with osteoporosis thus might do well to limit their intake of parsley and other foods high in oxalates. Anyone with kidney disease should probably avoid large quantities, as parsley can irritate the kidneys.
Women of childbearing age should also be aware that another component, apiol, and perhaps myristicin as well, have been shown to stimulate uterine contractions. If you are pregnant or think you might be, it would be prudent to restrict your daily parsley consumption to a leaf or two and pass up cups of parsley-laden tabbouleh (see recipe on page 46).
For such a nutritious herb, parsley has a curious folkloric link with death, the underworld, and ill fortune. According to Greek mythology, parsley sprang up from the spilled blood of the dead hero Archemorus. That may explain why the ancient Greeks festooned both victorious athletes and the graves of loved ones with parsley garlands. Other legends, laced through Europe’s history, held that parsley seed had to go to the devil seven times before it would grow and that shifting parsley from one garden to another brought bad luck. These fables no doubt derive from parsley’s reluctant germination and sensitivity to transplanting.
The ancient Greeks recognized parsley’s nutritious potential—but only to strengthen their racehorses. They sought to draw strength of another sort for themselves, wearing parsley necklaces or garlands at banquets in the belief that it would keep them sober. The Romans, no slouches at imbibing, not only adopted that practice, but finally championed parsley’s taste. The ancient Roman epicure Apicius included parsley in several recipes in his compendium of 500 dishes. During the same era, the Greek physician Galen, who lived in Rome for many years, noted that parsley was a common salad herb there.
Galen was also among the first to describe parsley’s use in medicine, in this case for soothing upset stomachs. Medieval and Renaissance herbalists suggested parsley as a cure for numerous ailments. Modern practitioners still favor its use as a stomach tonic, diuretic, and expectorant, and to bring on menstruation.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a biennial herb that belongs to the carrot family, Umbelliferae, which also includes such culinary favorites as dill, fennel and anise. Parsley plants are most valuable in their first year, when they’re lush and their leaves mild in flavor. During their second year, as they flower and set seed, they acquire a sharper taste and ragged appearance.
Although you can always buy cut parsley, growing your own enables you to select a cultivar that exactly suits your needs. Different types taste sweeter, are taller, have curlier leaves or sturdier stems, or survive better in cold, wet or hot climates. “A Bouquet of Parsleys” lists some readily available cultivars.
All cultivated parsleys fall into one of three categories:
• P. c. var. crispum. These are the curly-leaved strains. Types labeled “moss-curled” or “triple-curled” are frizzier than the “double-curled” kinds.
• P. c. var. neapolitanum. These are the flat-leaved types, also known as single, plain, or Italian parsleys.
• P. c. var. tuberosum. These strains with thick, fleshy taproots are called Hamburg or turnip-rooted parsleys.
Everyone knows the first type as the pretty, if trite, restaurant-entrée garnish. It’s the most attractive type in the garden, especially when grown as a neat, deep green, mound-shaped edging plant. The taller, rangier flat-leaved types, while less ornamental, are equally valuable in the kitchen. Some cooks even prefer their sweeter taste. The Hamburg types are grown mainly for their roots. Like carrots, they are delicious both raw and cooked.
Parsley grows vigorously almost anywhere—after it germinates. The trick is to remove naturally occurring compounds in the seed that inhibit germination. Soaking the seeds for several hours before sowing them, changing the water frequently, can slash germination time from the normal three to four weeks to one week.
Parsley prefers a moderately rich, deeply dug soil. Select a sunny spot in cold gardens, a partly shaded one in hotter climates. Because their taproots resent transplanting, take special care when shifting plants, or sow the seeds directly in your garden in rows about 12 inches apart. Cover with no more than 1/4 inch of loose soil. Thin the seedlings to 8-inch intervals. Neither seedlings nor mature plants tolerate drought, so keep them well watered (but not waterlogged). Applying diluted fish emulsion to the soil every four to eight weeks is usually sufficient to keep them a rich green.
To maximize your yield and extend the parsley season, sow two to three crops each year. The timing depends on your climate. In the hottest areas, parsley struggles through the summer heat. Here, you’ll want to plant in early spring, mid- to late summer, and late fall (for early spring harvest). In the coldest regions, you’ll want to start your first crop indoors six to eight weeks before the frost-free date. Choose a rich potting mix, then keep seedlings warm and the soil moist. Transplant the seedlings to the garden when they reach 4 to 6 inches tall after gradually acclimatizing them to life outdoors.
Parsley is exceptionally hardy. If it’s not too cold, you can even harvest leaves throughout the worst months. Some gardeners dig up a few plants, transfer them to pots, and winter them indoors to have a supply of fresh parsley for the kitchen.
Let your plants achieve vigorous growth—they should form nice clumps and be a good 6 inches tall—before cutting sprigs. Harvest the outer stems first, cutting them near the ground to keep plants looking attractive. As plants mature, you can cut more aggressively, which will stimulate new growth. If you have plenty of plants, you can harvest entire clumps, clipping stems about 1 1/2 inches above the soil. New leaves should sprout if the weather is warm.
During the plants’ second year, remove flower heads to extend leaf production a little longer.
Like many other plants of the carrot family, parsley contains furocoumarin compounds, also called psoralens, which can sensitize the skin to ultraviolet light. In some individuals, touching the plants and then exposing the affected skin to sunlight produces a rash that can range in severity from slight reddening to huge blisters. Parsley produces more furocoumarins when it’s decaying or stressed, so to be on the safe side, wear gloves when working with withered plants.
Rinse parsley as soon as you cut it or get it home from the grocery store. Swish the curly types in a basin of water to remove trapped grit. Shake dry. Store parsley in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in a plastic bag or with the stems immersed in water and the tops loosely covered with plastic. If your kitchen is cool, parsley keeps well on the countertop, again with stems in water and leaves shrouded. In any case, remember that rot breeds rot. Ruthlessly remove any yellow or slimy green bits, rinse the remaining stems, and put the bouquet in a clean container with fresh water.
You can freeze parsley for a month or longer. The flavor will deteriorate over time, so let your palate be your guide. To prepare parsley for freezing, place small bunches with 4-inch stems in plastic bags, press the air out, and seal. Just slice off or grate as much parsley foliage as you need while it’s still frozen, holding onto the stems to keep the bunch together. Thawed parsley is limp but is fine to use in most cooked dishes.
You can also dry parsley, but it tastes like hay. Why bother when you can buy the fresh herb at your store?
Most recipes call for chopped leaves, in sometimes copious amounts. A bunch of parsley typically weighs about 1/4 pound, and about half that weight is stems. Expect the leaves from an average bunch to measure about 4 cups, loosely packed. Minced, they’ll fill 2 cups or 1 cup if tightly packed. A sharp, heavy knife and cutting board do the best and fastest job of chopping parsley. Food processors and blenders tend to mash rather than chop. When serving curly parsley raw, mince it well; the frizzy leaves sometimes have an unpleasant tickle.
For maximum flavor, add parsley to cooked foods just before you take them off the stove. Long cooking mellows parsley’s flavor to an indistinct herbal tone. Save stems to add to any soup or stock.
Parsley probably originated somewhere between the eastern Mediterranean region and western Asia. Natural dispersal by wind and birds (along with conquering armies later on) spread the herb around the Mediterranean region, from which it radiated north, west, and south until it reached tundra, ocean, and desert boundaries. This vast European/Middle Eastern territory remains parsley’s culinary home. The herb enriches Iberian stews and sauces and is fundamental to every French bouquet garni. It is the predominant flavoring of many a British sauce and is sometimes the sole seasoning of Britain’s meat pies. Parsley is a standby in Eastern European kitchens, but in the Middle East, the herb really comes into its own. Here, hosts serve meze—sprigs of parsley, dill, mint, and other herbs—as appetizers, and their tabbouleh contains almost as much parsley as bulgur. North African cooks add copious quantities of parsley to many stews, salads, and even cold couscous.
To enjoy more parsley at home, make it an integral part of your meals. Keep a bouquet of sprigs on the counter next to your salt shaker and pepper mill. Clip a few leaves into your salads. Mince a fistful to toss over pasta or potatoes, or add a cup to your next pilaf after you’ve toasted the grain. Line your sandwiches with the flat-leaved type and some lettuce, or mince and knead a bunch into whole-grain bread dough. Unless your recipe specifies a particular type, you can use the curly and flat-leaved kinds interchangeably. Be profligate with parsley. It’s tasty, cheap, and wholesome.
• The Cook’s Garden, PO Box 535, Londonderry, VT 05148. Catalog $1.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910-9731. Catalog free.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 North Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321-4596. Catalog free.
• Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Rd., Greenwood, SC 29647-0001. Catalog free.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. Catalog free.
• Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790. Catalog free.
• Stokes Seeds, PO Box 548, Buffalo, NY 14240-0548. Catalog free.
Cornelia Carlson, an inveterate herb gardener, has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. She is the author of The Practically Meatless Gourmet (Berkley, 1996) and a contributor to Nutrition Secrets of the Ancients (Prima, 1996).