Parsley Past and Present

By Barbara Aiken

About that emerald green, magical herb in your garden. Where did it all begin, how is it used today? Parsley, the underutilized and oversimplified herb, is the most popular in the world.  Is that an oxymoron; well, yes and no. Parsley has earned the highest award in the realm of garnishes and is widely used for its tulle-like glamour. Finely chopped it is often sprinkled atop a cook’s creation to add a hint of contrast and flourish. Overlooked in many a cook’s kitchen, parsley, over time, has become more revered. Let’s take a look at this overused yet sometimes neglected herb.

Grown for more than 2,000 years, parsley originated in the southern Mediterranean region of Europe and then made its way throughout most of the world. Parsley is related to the celery family and in Greek means “rock celery.” In Greece, it was used as an adornment on the tombs of the dead and presented to winning athletes. During the Middle Ages it was popular as a medicinal. Over time, it gained popularity in cooking and many consider parsley the greatest herb. There was a period in our past when the use of classic herbs was abandoned. Dill, mint, marjoram and others fell out of favor. However, parsley held its ground as a garnish, not so much as a flavoring.

Many folks grow parsley from seed, but often it’s purchased at the garden store in small pots and planted in the Spring. In many areas it is grown as a biennial, but usually treated as an annual. If used a second year, I find the flavor may become bitter. It grows best in well-drained, moist soil in full sunlight or part shade. It makes a fine addition to the kitchen window herb garden close at hand for the aspiring chef at work. Out of doors, parsley attracts swallowtail butterflies; I’ve seen them enjoy many a plant of mine. Eventually I witness that a once-thriving plant has been reduced to barren stalks if I don’t spy the brilliant green, yellow and black larvae early enough to curtail their feast.

There are two main types of this splendid herb, the curly leaf and the flat leaf, or Italian. Some say the Italian has more flavor, but I have not found this to be so. Each has its place in the kitchen for culinary use and for decorative appeal. There is another type, Hamburg root parsley, which is used for its tuber rather than its leaves, most often in central and Eastern European cooking. This form of the herb is similar to the parsnip and is used in soups or eaten raw.

Though parsley may be used fresh or dried, fresh is always best to provide the most flavor and vibrant color. You can grow and dry your own or freeze it. For drying I find that cutting parsley on a sunny day, tying it into a bundle and popping it into a paper bag works well. Make a few holes in the bag for air circulation, and hang in a warm, well-ventilated area to dry. Chopped parsley, placed in ice cube trays with a little water or cooking stock are most useful. I pop out the needed amount and drop the desired number of cubes into soups or stews.

Parsley infuses many toppings and dishes around the world. In the British tradition, my English “mum” would concoct parsley sauce to use over delicate fish. Delicious! If you’ve ever eaten tabbouleh you know that parsley is the base for this Lebanese salad. Have you tried tempura-fried parsley or made your own herb butter using this tasty herb? Parsley rounds out bouquet garni along with other herbs such as thyme, bay, rosemary or sage. When adding parsley to a dish, do so at the end in order to retain its bright emerald color.

This robust herb, according to my mother-in-law, is considered excellent for refreshing the breath and I know my husband has always popped the frilly parsley garnish in his mouth after he has finished his meal. It is touted as an excellent antioxidant and is high in vitamin C.  Some sip parsley tea as a tonic and some believe it excellent to apply to insect bites to quiet the “itch.”

Today parsley is used more extensively in cooking than in the past. It is a subtle herb and not pushy. It complements other herbs and makes an excellent partner in that regard. My garden would not be complete without a few plantings of this flavorful herb, both curly and flat. Spring is around the corner and a few of the local garden centers already have this perfect plant ready for purchase. Parsley, it’s more than just a garnish. Plant some and get creative.

Barbara is an herb enthusiast and enjoys them all year long, either from her garden or from her windowsill. She can be reached at [email protected]



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