Parsley deserves a starring role

Published: Wednesday, May. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4D
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 15, 2013 - 8:06 am

Well-intentioned food writers have been trying for decades to rescue parsley from the American cook's indifference. Despite the media cheerleading, the message doesn't seem to stick.

Or perhaps our shifting appreciation for it is, like parsley itself, too low-key.

Elsewhere in the world, parsley is in no need of marketing. It is not just appreciated but ubiquitous in the Middle East, best illustrated by tabbouleh: In its traditional form, the parsley, not the cracked wheat, forms the backbone of the salad.

Parsley once stood taller in the American kitchen. Thomas Jefferson grew both curly and flat-leaf varieties at Monticello, and cooks of his era were wise to the prudence of using parsley early in cooking, and with a generous hand.

By the mid-20th century, parsley had been sidelined. Greengrocers, for the most part, kept only curly varieties in stock. Chefs, students of nouvelle cuisine, persisted in creating a garnish out of the frilly leaf, turning it fussy and useless. Cookbooks of that period called increasingly for dried parsley, a tasteless product best kept far away from food.

Contemporary cookbooks, particularly those with leanings toward Europe and the Mediterranean, foster a broader view. But their message competes with a more ingrained attitude: Parsley is pretty, not to be taken seriously.

Which is curious, because parsley is a workhorse. Used as a primary seasoning, parsley can carry a dish; its piney, faintly bitter flavor assumes brighter, rounder tones. Paired with more assertive ingredients, it makes a great unifier, assuring balance and nudging harmony forward. Parsley works more conspicuously to allow the whole to make a greater impression. You can't say any of that about sage, thyme, marjoram, tarragon, certainly not rosemary, and not even meek, lovely chervil.

So buy parsley often, and cook with it frequently; it is too agreeable an herb to wait for a recipe's permission to use it. Slice the leaves thinly or chop them coarsely (or finely, if that is your preference, though the texture of larger bits is nice). Use them whenever you want a hint of something lively and you don't want that hint to get in the way of everything else: sauteed with onions and garlic at the start of a soup, folded into the ending of a spring vegetable ragout. If you want more than a hint of liveliness, use more parsley. It is difficult to overdo it.


Here are ways to use up what's left of a bunch of parsley:

• Pesto. Replace the basil in your favorite pesto recipe with the same amount of parsley for basil, and use walnuts instead of pine nuts.

• Gremolata. Combine 3 tablespoons minced parsley, 1 teaspoon lemon zest and 1 or 2 minced cloves of garlic. Scatter over just-roasted potatoes, steamed sugar snap peas, roasted beets or meats off the grill.

• Sandwich filling. Add whole leaves in place of greens, or layer open-faced with radishes or cucumbers and ricotta or cream cheese.

• Compound butter. Work finely chopped parsley into softened butter; rub underneath the skin of a chicken, tuck into a baked potato or smear on a baguette then top with radishes or thinly sliced raw asparagus.

• Roasted vegetables. Add whole leaves to already-roasting vegetables during the last minutes of cooking.

• Parsley hummus. Add parsley, finely minced, to already-prepped hummus, or add straight to the food processor if starting from scratch.

• Parsley yogurt. Combine finely chopped parsley, a minced clove of garlic and a pinch of salt with plain yogurt; serve with poached eggs, braised greens, roasted vegetables or grain-based salads.

Recipe: Parsley and butter lettuce with grapefruit-shallot dressing

Recipe: Pasta with chickpeas, celery and parsley

Recipe: Warm parslied new-potato salad

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