It's Much More Than A Garnish
If you primarily think of parsley as a piece of decoration to be removed from the side of plate, in fact it's much more than a garnish. It's an herb, a flavor enhancer, and a a sadly overlooked ingredient. With its fresh, green and woody flavor, there are more than 30 varieties of parsley. The two that we know best are curly and flat leaf. What's the difference?
- Curly parsley -- Some say it's popular because it's easier to distinguish it in the wild from toxic plants like hemlock. For city cooks that's not a problem. More the reason for its staying power is its milder flavor. Plus if you plan to fry parsley, which is a tasty embellishment to fried fish or calamari, its little curly edges crisp better than the flat leaf kind.
- Flat leaf parsley -- Also called Italian parsley, flat leaf has a stronger flavor, is slightly peppery, easier to chop, and usually the choice of both home cooks and chefs. When I buy parsley this is what I choose.
Whether flat or curly, parsley became a garnish not to decorate a plate but to be a refreshing end-of-meal bite. With its strong green flavor and chlorophyll, eating a sprig will cleanse the palate. But in the hands of wedding hall caterers, this original purpose got lost as limp sprigs got added to other food décor, like roses made out of tomato peels. What a waste.
But there is much to love about parsley. Besides its flavor, it's packed with nutrients. With nearly no calories, parsley is rich in vitamins K, A, and C, anti-oxidants, beta-carotene, iron, and folic acid. As an ingredient it's common in Middle Eastern, American and European cuisines, but it's grown around the world, sometimes to be a protection for other plants against predatory insects.
A challenge when buying fresh parsley is that it's inevitably stacked alongside coriander, also known as cilantro. Choosing the wrong one could make a terrible impact on what you're cooking, so how can you be certain -- which is which? There are two easy ways:
- Cilantro is sold with its roots intact; parsley's are almost always chopped off. So just grab a bunch and take a look at its ends.
- But if you can't remember this, the other sure way to tell them apart is to give a sniff: cilantro has a forward, distinctive aroma; parsley has nearly none. So put your nose to a bunch and you'll absolutely make the right choice.
When you've got your parsley home, shake off any excess moisture, wrap it in a paper towel, place in a plastic bag and refrigerate. It should stay for about a week. If you're planning on using it sooner, I like to stick the bunch in a glass of clean water, as if it were a bouquet, and leave it on my kitchen counter. It doesn't last as long as if it were refrigerated, but it keeps for several days and having it visible also prompts me to use it more often, as when I'll grab a few leaves to chop and add to steamed potatoes.
How To Cook With Parsley
Parsley is usually a minor ingredient, not the main event. A few sprinkles of raw minced parsley on something cooked -- a potato or a cup of soup -- can sharpen all the flavors. Parsley stems are a frequent addition to a bouquet garni to help season a stew or stock. In a few recipes its appealing green color is showcased, as in French ham Persillade, certainly one of the most beautiful dishes ever created. But there are a few dishes in which parsley is front and center. Tabbouleh is one.
Tabbouleh is a satisfying salad made with cracked bulgur wheat, chopped parsley, lemon, mint, and chopped raw vegetables. There are versions across the Middle East but the ones from Syria and Lebanon are particularly popular. The ratio of bulgur to chopped parsley will vary as will the diced vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, peppers, others), but the mint and lemon give tabbouleh a signature flavor.
Tabbouleh is easy to make, healthy to eat, can be a main course, a side to fish or meat, and a perfect lunch to carry to work. See the link to our recipe.
In Italy, parsley is used in a chopped garnish in combination with garlic and citrus. Called Gremolata, it is a traditional final flavor added to braised veal shanks, or osso buco.
In her landmark first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook, Marcella Hazan included her recipe for Gremolata along with her extraordinary tomato-based osso buco (this hall-of-fame recipe is enough of a reason to treasure this book). While Signora Hazan argued against adding the pungent Gremolata to the balanced osso buco, she included the recipe nonetheless and we've added it to our recipe database. See our link.
Parsley is an essential for garlic bread. It gives the garlic another flavor to counter against, makes the bread look better, and adds a subtle complexity to what could otherwise be a rather brutish finish of only melted butter and garlic.
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup packed parsley leaves (no stems)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette (20 to 24-inches)
- Preheat oven to 350° F.
- With its motor running, drop the peeled garlic cloves into a food processor and run until garlic is finely chopped.
- Place a small saucepan over medium heat and add the minced garlic, butter, a generous pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper. Cook until the garlic slightly softens and begins to turn golden brown, about 2 minutes (be careful that it doesn't get too dark or else it will be bitter). Remove from the heat.
- Pulse the parsley in a food processor until finely chopped -- but be careful to not liquefy it. Stir the minced parsley into the butter and garlic.
- Cut the baguette lengthwise. Place both pieces on a large sheet of foil. Use pastry brush or teaspoon and brush or drizzle the garlic/butter/parsley mixture on both sides of the bread. Put the two pieces back together and wrap the foil tightly around the bread and bake until heated through, about 10 minutes.
- Cut or tear into pieces and serve.
Ham Persillade is a very classic French dish made with pieces of ham encased in a parsley-flecked gelée and served cold, usually with potatoes. The flavors are refined and the presentation is gorgeous, with the pale gelée encasing the pink ham floating alongside pieces of bright green parsley.
Minus any gelée, Persillade is also a way of adding flavor to meats, as when a paste of chopped parsley, olive oil, garlic and lemon zest is rubbed inside a butterflied leg of lamb, which is then rolled, tied and roasted. The rub seeps into the lamb as it cooks, adding complexity to the lamb's characteristic sweetness.
Here's a Persillade rub:
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup packed fresh parsley leaves (leaves only, no stems)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
- With the motor running, add the garlic cloves to a food processor and run until garlic is finely chopped. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides.
- Add the parsley leaves, lemon zest, salt and several grinds of black pepper. Pulse until the parsley is finely chopped and everything is combined -- but be careful to not liquefy everything.
- Transfer to a small bowl. Add the olive oil, stirring until combined. If it sits a while before you use it, give it a stir again before spreading inside a butterflied leg of lamb and tying and roasting in your usual way.
Other Ways to Cook With Parsley
- As a main ingredient alongside capers or roasted tomatillos in a piquant salsa verde.
- In Argentina it is a core ingredient in a spicy Chimichurri sauce used with grilled meats.
- In a lemony parsley butter that is used to flavor tea sandwiches and canapés.
- Fried to a crisp as you finish deep frying fish, seafood or potatoes.
- As a simple sprinkle on buttered steamed potatoes or as the finish to a big flavored shrimp scampi served on a bed of rice or pasta.
Once you make a few dishes that feature parsley for its bright flavor, you'll never look at it as a garnish again.