Like many people, I grew up thinking parsley was that stiff, crinkly, bitter-tasting sprig tucked between the patty melt and the French fries. Dad said it was for decoration, but it made your breath sweet if you ate it. It took me a while to make the connection between that version of parsley, the dry gray flakes in the spice cabinet, and the fluffy, glorious herb Mom used liberally on buttered boiled potatoes, her fabulous cauliflower with cheese sauce, and that her Daddy grew by the truckload in his garden. Grandpa’s tradition is alive and well in my backyard, and my personal chef/husband makes every effort to keep a year-round crop.
Curly or flat, parsley is one of the great staples of Old World cuisine and woefully underused in the average American kitchen. Which is a shame, because aside from being pretty and tasty, it’s loaded with vitamins C, A, K, folic acid, fiber, and antioxidants. It grows here from seed year-round, in pots or in the ground. Parsley has a natural affinity for garlic in Mediterranean food, and pairs well with seafood, cream sauces, and vegetables in northern cuisines. Aside from sprinkling as a garnish on salads or hot dishes, consider these classics:
Lebanese tabouli: a cup of bulgur wheat, soaked in just enough water to soften and plump the grains, mixed with up to 6 cups of minced parsley, garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar, chopped fresh mint, diced tomatoes, and onions.
Italian gremolata: a condiment of parsley, garlic, lemon zest, and olive oil, usually stirred into risotto Milanese at the last minute but real good on other things, too. Parsley also makes an excellent pesto, ground to a paste with garlic, olive oil, Parmesan, and pine nuts, walnuts, or blanched almonds.
Argentine chimichurri: a cup or two of minced parsley, lots of garlic, sometimes an equal amount of cilantro or fresh oregano, often a pinch of cumin and red pepper flakes, all mixed together with olive oil and a touch of wine vinegar, used as a topping for grilled meats.
In Spain and Portugal parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper is an essential combination. Try it on thin venison or beef medallions, with or without breadcrumbs, pan-fried in olive oil. For fish, add a bit of lemon juice. For a brilliant topping on cauliflower, heat minced garlic in olive oil, add a big handful of minced parsley, a liberal amount of pimentón or paprika, salt, and pepper.
The French use parsley in herb butters, as a braising base in the traditional bouquet garni, and deep-fry whole bunches of parsley as a classic side for seafood. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it — the result is a nutty, crunchy-textured herbal green that rivals the addictive quality of potato chips.
Our favorite for late season, thick-stemmed, full-flavored parsley is to fry minced garlic to just barely golden in plenty of olive oil, toss in a cup or two of minced parsley leaves and tender stems, and pour it sizzling-hot over pasta with plenty of fresh cracked pepper, sea salt, and Parmesan.
Julia Child loved parsley, both for flavor and because a liberal sprinkling covered a multitude of sins (like ill-folded omelets). So before dismissing it as a “mere” garnish, consider the fundamental charm of parsley as a vegetable.