From ancient Greece to medieval home gardeners, parsley (Petroselinum crispum) was associated with death. With a wreath of parsley placed on a Grecian tomb, the expression De’eis thai selinon, “to need only parsley,” was added. The expression was equivalent to having “one foot in the grave.”
Since parsley has a long germination rate (10-30 plus days) some thought that the seeds had to travel to hell and back two, three, seven or nine times before they could sprout. Today we know that parsley is an excellent source of vitamin K and vitamin C as well as a good source of vitamin A, folate, and iron. Parsley is not only palatable but a priceless herb that should be moved from the side of the plate into the main dish.
Stuart Walsh, Director and the Head of School for Le Cordon Bleu, Ottawa has been working in kitchens in one form or another for almost 34 years, starting with an apprenticeship.
“Commonly accepted as originating from South Eastern Europe near the Mediterranean or Western Asia, parsley is a prolifically growing and robust culinary herb,” Walsh says. “The more commonly used curly or French parsley has been used to provide a contrasting color as a cut or chopped garnish in soups, crèmes, salads and sauces without overpowering the flavor profile of a dish due to its milder characteristics or as a sprig as a plate garnish.” Originally, a sprig on the plate, Walsh explains, was intended as a palate cleanser or mouth freshener to be consumed after a full flavored or pungent menu item.
“Flat leaf or Italian parley is more commonly used as a component in a salad such as tabouli or gremolata as it is a more robust leaf that holds its shape better, has a splendid bright green that tends to hold even when dress and is the preferred option when deep fried parsley is required for garnishing,” Walsh says. Italian parsley is also excellent as an addition to green vegetable juices or smoothies. The extraction of chlorophyll from parsley can be used when required for soups and sauces as well.
“All the gastronomic reasons for the prolific use of parsley still exist for the modern chef as it has for generations of chefs past,” Walsh argues. He reasons the contrasting color, subtle flavor enhancing ability and the digestive qualities of parsley should be used throughout the kitchen.
“Hamburg root parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum) is a staple throughout Central and Eastern Europe but seldom used in Western Europe and North America where it is not considered a mainstream culinary produce,” Walsh says. “Closely resembling the shape, color and flavor profile of parsnip it is best suited to stews, soups, and braises to add starch and body but does have a sugar content that allows for full roasting and dep fried as a garnish.”
Hamburg root parsley grows well in Zones 3-11 and does well in loamy soil in full sun. Germination takes 14-35 days and the roots can be harvested 70-120 days after seeding. Outer leaves should be picked on Curly and Italian parsley, to ensure the plant will continue to grow. As a biennial, parsley overwinters well. Frozen plants can be dug out and thawed for use. Flat leafed varieties do better with freezes than curly varieties.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), also sometimes called French parsley, is a herb far more pungent and aromatic than true parsley. “It is excellent as an inclusion in a chopped fine herb mix alongside parsley, chives and tarragon and is ideal for stuffing’s, farces and omelets,” Walsh has observed. “Chervil makes an outstanding finely detailed sprig garnish and when picked, washed and stored correctly has excellent shelf life and sturdiness as a hot plate garnish.” Chervil is one of the kitchens most versatile culinary herbs and works well with everything from fish, white or red meats and vegetables.
Last summer I started to grow Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) a wild Japanese ‘parsley’ with has distinctive 3 serrated leaves and long petioles. “It is not related to the Italian parsley but it has a similar taste,” Jim Ryugo owner of Kitazawa Seed Company tells me.
“Mitsuba is used in a wide range of Japanese dishes because of its culinary versatility.” Ryugo adds that the young, tender leaves can be served fresh in salads or as a garnish. The leaves can be fried in tempura or cooked in sukiyaki or miso soup.
Mitsuba is easy to grow and will tolerate a wide range of conditions (Zone 4 – 9) and will tolerate partial shade. Mitsuba is considered a perennial but most gardeners will grow Mitsuba as an annual. The light green foliage can be harvested when the stems are 6″-8″ in length and if left alone, the plant can grow to a height of 2-3 feet. Mitsuba can be grown hydroponically as well.
To preserve, wrap a bunch of parsley in a moistened paper towel. Keep in the refrigerator and place the freshly cut roots in water, and chang daily. This will keep the parsley perky and ready for use. “After picking to a sprig, bathe in iced water, spin dry and store on a moistened paper towel in a sealed glass or plastic airtight container,” Walsh recommends. After chopping, Walsh says, twist into a clean tea towel rinse under cold running till the color ceases to run, wring dry and save under plastic wrap.
Whether you choose Hamburg, French, Italian or Japanese be sure to include parsley into your next culinary adventure. After all, parsley is much more than a garnish.
Stuart Walsh’s Favorite Parsley Recipe
Gremolata is an Italian garnish of raw, finely chopped garlic, parsley and lemon zest. It is usually sprinkled over slow-cooked braised meats, as in the Italian dish osso bucco, but it makes a good garnish for grilled fish or chicken too. The following is a basic gremolata recipe:
- 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 2 lemons, rind finely grated
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
Combine all ingredients together in a bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed. Serve sprinkled over seafood or meat dishes.