Parsley is a biennial herb in the carrot family (Apiaceae). It’s been cultivated for over 2000 years, first as a medicinal and later as a culinary herb.
There are three distinct species of cultivated parsley: curled parsley (Petroselinum crispum), Italian or flat leaf parsley (P. neapolitanum) and root parsley (P. tuberosum). Here on Smoot’s Flavor Farm, we primarily grow curled and flat leaf, but we are beginning to experiment with root parsley too!
While some may dismiss parsley as merely the garnish on your plate, this herb beholds the true essence of fresh, green flavor. Its distinctive taste is appropriate in nearly any savory dish and it harmonizes with every herb in the garden. It’s nutritious, delicious and–like most herbs–has a fascinating backstory.
PARSLEY IN HISTORY
Native to regions of Europe, the Mediterranean and Western Asia, parsley has led a colorful history. It’s worth prefacing that there exists a parsley lookalike. Fool’s Parsley (Aethusa cynapium)–a hemlock relative–is native to the same regions as our culinary parsley, but–like a hemlock–it contains alkaloids and is therefore poisonous. This fact could explain much of the folklore surrounding this otherwise delightful and nutritious herb.
According to Greek legend, the infant prince Opheltes was left unattended by his nurse and was bitten by a serpent resulting in his death. Where his blood spilt, parsley grew.
Romans dedicated parsley to Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld. It became customary to scatter parsley during funerals and to plant them over graves. They also had the saying De’eis thai selinon, which translates as “to need only parsley” and shares the meaning of our idiom “one foot in the grave.”
Because of its notoriously slow germination, folklore explains that parsley seeds travel between the devil and the soil several times before breaking ground and that the seeds which did not germinate were kept by the devil himself.
Superstitions aside, parsley was used therapeutically for some time. The Greeks and the Romans both knew parsley to be a diuretic, effective digestive tonic and menstrual stimulant–medicinal properties echoed by English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper in the 17th century. It was thought to be an antidote for poisons and even thought to treat a number of diseases in sheep.
It’s speculated that curled parsley was the first to be used for culinary purposes, perhaps because of its unmistakable difference in appearance from fool’s parsley.
Some credit Charlemagne for its rise in popularity, as it was cultivated extensively on his estates. The Romans are said to have placed it on tables and worn it around their necks during feasts to absorb food odors and ward off intoxication. Modern use as a garnish is thought to arise from the centuries old belief that chewing the leaves after a meal would freshen one’s breath (even after eating garlic!).
Albeit with considerable superstition, parsley has transitioned from a therapeutic medicinal to a popular culinary herb that is now found in cuisine around the globe.
PARSLEY IN THE GARDEN
Parsley is a hardy biennial, meaning it takes two years to complete its life cycle–flowering in the second season. Since most of its growth is focused on seed production in the second year, its often treated as an annual and re-planted every year.
That said, those parsley blossoms offer habitat and fodder to a variety of beneficial insects. It’s a favorite of swallowtail butterflies and their larvae. Flowering parsley also attracts hoverflies, the larvae of which are known to eat aphids, thrips and other insect pests.
As such, parsley is an excellent companion plant in the garden. It grows well in the company of carrots, corn, peppers, peas, and asparagus. Roses and tomatoes do especially well next to parsley.
PARSLEY IN THE KITCHEN
Parsley can be used in large quantities as a main ingredient–like in tabbouleh and couscous–or sprinkled as an emerald green garnish or last minute addition to sauces, soups and stews.
A welcome addition to roasted vegetables, parsley is delicious sprinkled atop carrots and potatoes. It’s always welcome with tomatoes and tomato sauces. Essential for soup, parsley is like the flavor glue that binds all other flavors. It’s also suitable with just about any rendition of egg, chicken, pork, veal and fish–especially fish! According to chef Alexandra Raij, parsley added to fish or shellfish brings out their “marine” quality.
Garlic is a parsley’s best friend. If you don’t believe me, try the French condiment persillade, a simple mixture of garlic and parsley. Or Italian gremolata–parsley, garlic and lemon–traditionally served with veal stew, or ossobuco.
Parsley is perhaps the easiest herb to pair with other herbs. I like to think of it as an alto of the herbal orchestra–occasionally playing a solo, but more skilled at harmonizing with the other herbs. It supports the subtle, melodic flavors of the delicate treble-like herbs such as chervil or tarragon. And it can mellow the strong, astringent and camphoric qualities of the pungent bass-like herbs such as sage or rosemary. It seems no matter the combination, parsley will add depth, flavor and harmony to your cooking.
You’ll find parsley in cuisines around the globe, but especially in Western Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Check out our blog for some of our own parsley recipes, including: a parsley-wild bergamot sauce, herbal crudité dip, ratatouille, a marjoram marinade, and more.
HOW TO COOK WITH PARSLEY
You can keep parsley for about a week in a jar of fresh water on your kitchen counter (trim the stem ends before submerging) or in a resealable bag in the crisper of your fridge.
Just prior to use, rinse parsley under cool water or hold the bunch by the stems and submerge in a basin of cool water. Gently shake, pat dry or use a salad spinner–the spinner is often preferred when parsley is to be used as a garnish, as the leaves can easily stick together when wet.
Detach the leaves from the main stems and chop the leaves with a chef’s knife to a desired size. Coarsely chopped parsley is visually appealing as a last minute addition to cooked dishes, whereas finely chopped parsley is excellent to sprinkle as an elegant garnish or for an herb crust on meats or seafood.
While the stems are typically trimmed and omitted, you can use them early on in cooking to impart their flavor deep within the dish or save them for a bouquet garni (a bundle of herbs tied and submerged into sauces, soups and stocks that is removed at the end).
I’ve found the secret to using fresh parsley is in the quantity. For some dishes–like tabbouleh–it’s the star of the show, but for most other recipes too much can overpower my taste buds. If a recipe is vague about how much to add–like “1 bunch”–I find a 1/4 cup of chopped parsley leaves is just right.
BEST FLAVOR PAIRINGS
- Olive oil
- Pasta and pasta sauces
- Soups, stews and stocks
- Other Herbs: basil, chervil, chives, dill, fennel, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme