Friday, August 6, 2010

Using and Preserving Summer Herbs: Parsley

This week's herb post is brought to you by Tina -- half of the duo over at Choosy Beggars!

I was delighted when Lo asked me to do a post using summer herbs. After all, it's only the end of July and already my herb garden looks like the Sinharajah forest. I consider this to be nature's way of trying to appease my suffering after long winter months of muttering and moaning, forced to pull dried basil off the spice rack (horrors!!) or substitute dried oregano in my tomato sauce. I love having an abundance of fresh herbs around the house, and find that I'm always looking for new ways to use the summer's bounty.

I will freely admit that sometimes I'm ambivalent to the dried versus fresh controversy that surrounds many herbs, but there is one where I absolutely, positively, no question about it, will NOT use dried, and that is my good friend and favorite herb: parsley. Of course that would be the herb that I begged, pleaded and cajoled to talk about today.

Yes, parsley. That's my go-to herb. I know, right? What good has parsley ever done for you, other than providing a limp garnish on the side of your lasagna at the Olive Garden, or being sprinkled in a lackluster way around a suspicious looking entree at Applebys? At best, parsley is widely known as a garnish with dubious aesthetic potential. However, I know that we can challenge that notion. Poor ol' parsley is always getting passed over on our lists of "Top 10", but truth be told it is one of the most underrated herbs in your garden. Parsley may be modest, frequently content adding naught but a faint aroma to your stock through a bouquet garni, or used to finish and brighten a potato salad, but there's so much more to the herb than that! We're talking salads, folks. We're talking soups, seasonings, dressings and the elusive scent in a perfectly juicy roasted chicken. By the end of this article, I hope that you'll agree; parsley is where it's at.
Come with me, won't you? Let's explore the wonders that this humble herb has to offer....

Varieties of Parsley
There are two common varieties of parsley that you'll see in the average market. "Curly parsley" is characterized by tall stems with densely packed bouquets of curling leaves. The second variety, "Flat leaf" or "Italian parsley" looks similar to cilantro, with long elegant stems branching out into broad, flat leaves. Flat leaf parsley is more likely to be the cook's choice because the flavor is slightly sweeter than curly parsley, but at the same time it has more of a peppery, robust flavor. As for me, I don't play favorites. I'll take them both, and at once given half a chance.

The third widespread variety of parsley is grown not for it's leaves, which may surprise you, but for it's roots. More common in Europe than North America, parsley root looks similar to a nice fat parsnip, but the flavor is worlds away. Slightly sweet but bright, fresh and green, parsley root tastes like a delicate cross between celery root and, well, parsley. If you have seen this root vegetable around but were hesitant to try it, don't be. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Beyond Culinary Usage
Discussion about the medicinal uses of parsley is varied. Most of us have heard about chewing parsley to combat some of the symptoms of halitosis, particularly after a decidedly delicious second helping of garlic bread, but there is a lot of other speculation on this fine herb's benefits. Some herbologists will recommend parsley tea to help control high blood pressure, while others use it as a "tonic to strengthen the bladder" (read: questionable diuretic). Some studies suggest that parsley can be a kideny stimulant that increases diruesis, while others suggest that parsley aids in the body's ability to uptake manganese which builds strong bones.

Folk lore even indicates that rubbing crushed parsley on the skin will reduce the itching of mosquito bites, but as a happy cottage dweller in Northern Ontario I can tell you that I find that one to be a load of malarkey that was probably started by the peppermint patch.

We've heard a lot about "super foods" lately, and more often than not you'll see parsley up there bumping elbows with the blueberries, flax seeds and walnut pieces at the front of the class. Many proponents of a "super foods diet" encourage increased consumption of parsley to act as a stress buster, get you "moving" (with the dietary fiber), keep your eyes bright and your bones strong. If that weren’t enough, it’s also thought to reduce depression, lower cholesterol and strengthen your kidneys. What a super food, indeed!

Parsley as a Garnish
When we talk about using parsley as a garnish, I can assure you that I am NOT referring to the feeble sprig plopped on top of your spaghetti bolognese. I'm a proponent of the classically gastronomic definition of a garnish, which basically states that a garnish is something that enhances a dish before serving using an edible decoration or accompaniment, which is both appealing to the eye and complimentary to the flavor of the dish.
One of my favorite examples would be gremolata. Classic gremolata is a bright and pungent mixture of finely minced parsley, garlic, and lemon zest. Sprinkled over a deep and luscious slow braised Osso Bucco or beef shank, gremolata cuts through the richness of the meat to brighten and excite the palate. Equally good on chicken, steak, or even sweet and fatty seafood, gremolata is equal parts aesthete and flavor enhancer. Better yet, you can play with the flavors as you see fit. One of my favorites is a preserved lemon and parsley gremolata to serve on top of a cheap surf'n'turf (flank steak and shrimp kebabs).

Variations of a pungent and fresh parsley garnish are abundant across the globe. For example, the French equivalent of gremolata would be persillade, with vampire thwarting amounts of chopped garlic tempered by parsley's delicate charm.
As you travel south and temperatures start to heat up, the parsley garnish gets a little bit pluckier. By the time you hit Argentina, Chile and Brazil, our garnish has transformed into a cross between a sauce and an acidic vinaigrette, always used more as a condiment than a garnish. Such is the beauty of chimichurri sauce, which has as many variations as it has cooks to make it. The quintessential condiment on many Latin American tables, chimichurri is a blend of parsley, garlic and acid. Sometimes there might be a smidge of onion, other green herbs like cilantro or thyme, and maybe even a little heat to spice things up with dried chili. There is really no way to go wrong with chimichurri, but after trying chimichurri on steak, grilled fish, pork kebabs and as a sandwich spread, you will find yourself thinking that the ways to go right are endless. Chimichurri speaks to our experimental instincts, and if you want some good guidance on how to make a basic sauce you can find it at Eating Club Vancouver. If you're a recipe person, however, I'm more than happy to share what I put in mine.

Parsley as a Salad
Confession: I am half Lebanese. This fact, in and of itself, explains my affection for gold painted floor lamps in the shape of exotic birds, showing my affection by YELLING REALLY LOUD ON THE PHONE, and having a bunch of parsley in my fridge at all times. You might have grown up with Caesar or House, but I grew up with tabouli salad, a Middle Eastern side dish of very finely minced parsley with a smattering of bulghar (cracked wheat), tomatoes, and just a hint of onion. No Lebanese meal is complete without a bowl of tabouli on the table, and my father's tabouli is so legendary among my peer group that friends would actually say (to my face, no less), "Yeah, let's get together this weekend! Maybe we can, you know, I dunno, go see your parents or something? For dinner? Is your dad home?" That's the kind of fealty that a good tabouli salad can inspire, taming teenagers and tasteful eaters alike.
If you were looking for a more urbane and modern approach to parsley salad, an emerging trend in some finer restaurants is a spin off on the Thai tradition of mixed herb bundles dipped in a tart vinaigrette. There is a fabulous French restaurant in my home town which serves a little amuse bouche before the meal, comprised of a sprig of parsley and mint tied with chives and dipped into a light white wine and shallot vinaigrette. So simple, but packed with flavor and utterly able to entice your taste-buds, fresh parsley can be a small salad and appetite stimulant rolled into one neat, little pouch.

Parsley Soup
One of my best friends likes to tell the story of the time she went in for super-secret-day-surgery and, of course, being the nosy Nelly that I am, I somehow found out. I promptly mobilized into action, determined to lift her spirits and soothe her soul through the auspices of soup. Two hours later I was at her doorstep with fresh bread, a creamy (but lactose free) parsley root soup, and a chicken soup with plenty of parsley and fresh marjoram. I'm telling you -- parsley is the salve for an aching body and mind. If parsley root soup doesn't tweak your imagination, why not try a traditional Irish parsley & potato soup with some fresh brown bread? Or, if you're not quite confident enough to use parsley as the winning flavor, it makes a fabulous and flavorlicious garnish for rich and creamy soups, such as our fine host lo's hearty potato soup.

Dressing Things Up
Dress me up and tie me down! The most common way for parsley to find it's way to your table is through a dressing. Whether it is on the side of a simple grilled salmon, a slow cooked beef pot roast, or even an Irish corned beef and cabbage, buttered parsley potatoes are always in style.

Parsley and potatoes are a match made in heaven. Warm or cold, a parsley rich potato salad is sure to be a hit on the potluck table. You could go for a classic, like a bacon laden parsley and potato salad, or this version which is rich with garlic and olives. All you need is a light vinaigrette, a smattering of salt, and a bunch or fresh parsley and you're bound to find a winner.

Parsley is just as good on a dressing for greens, and a classic Eastern salad is simply chopped watery lettuce, tomato and onion with a drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice, and plenty of finely chopped fresh parsley. Simple but beautiful, it makes up in flavor what it lacks in sophistication. Or, if you were looking for a spin, nothing says freshness quite like a preserved lemon vinaigrette with parsley and mint.
I spoke a bit about "super foods" earlier, and now that we're on the topic of salads I just can't help coming back. I love salads made from whole grains or heart healthy ingredients, and being a bit of a keener I like to pack all of my favorite ingredients into one dish. One rule the world!! At least, I certainly feel like I could rule the world after eating a big bowl of parsley rich quinoa superfoods salad, packed with walnuts, goji berries, soy beans and chili powder, as well as a great big bunch of fresh parsley.

Season To Taste
What is the difference between an Argentinian meatloaf and just....meatloaf? PARSLEY.

Why is kafta more like a religion than just meat on a stick? PARSLEY.

When it acts more like a seasoning than a garnish, parsley teases the best out of rich, moist meats like ground beef which can sometimes be rather bland. Even a sub-par package of ground beef can still get the allstar treatment when it is mixed with finely chopped parsley and onion, a hint of cinnamon and a wee dash of red chili. Grilled over a hot flame, kafta is the thing that exotic BBQ dreams are made of.

There are many ways to incorporate parsley into your dish as a seasoning rather than just a fluttering garnish, and the key is to remember that the flavor of parsley really does add to the overall dish. For example, what would Burp Blog's Orechiette with roasted eggplant and ricotta be without the parsley? Well, probably a titillating pasta scented with exotic cinnamon and cocoa, languidly wrapping around earthy rich toasted walnuts with a sexy shower of salty pecorino romano. Oh hell, I've been drooling ever since I first saw that recipe and evidently I haven't stopped. Go. Make it. Make their pasta, but be sure to add the parsley while you're at it.

The Final Flavor Enhancer
One of the reasons that parsley is so often an unsung hero is that it often plays a supporting role in our cast of culinary characters. Bundled up with stage stealers like rosemary and thyme, or the deep dark mutterings of black peppercorn, parsley often just quietly hums along in the background, enriching our stocks with an earthy green flair. A classic and indispensable ingredient of the bouquet garni, which is an exclusive assortment of herbs selected for their flavoring potential and all tied up with a neat little bow, parsley is in it for the long haul and deserves to be treated with the respect owed to classic French cuisine.

As a final homage to the flavor enhancing properties of parsley, think of the enthusiasm you feel as you cram them up the sun-don't-shine end of your fresh plucked poultry, before stuffing in half a lemon and calling it a day. Nothing says comfort like a nice roast chicken, and nothing says delicious like a roast chicken stuffed with aromatic parsley, garlic and lemon as it cooks.

Alright, so we've been through soups and salads, dressings and seasonings, and the multitude of ways that you can use parsley in everything from your morning cuppa to your Sunday night dinner. I hope that you're starting to see why parsley is my favorite fresh herb, and why I would go to the ends of the earth to encourage you to nurture it, cultivate it, and eat it every chance you get. This herb is so much more than just a bit of dried greenery feathered along the edge of your plate. There is absolutely a world of fun and flavor to explore with parsley, and the ship sets sail tonight. Or tomorrow. Well, or whenever you realize what you've been missing out on all this time, and decide that parsley is the way to go, y'all. I'll see you at the Farmer's Market this Sunday!

The Choosy Beggars are Tina and Mike, a pair of life-loving amateur chefs and mixologists, just trying to get by on mortal salaries. At least that's how they describe themselves.  I'll add that they tell a good story, and their blog is as much a great place to find a good hearty laugh as it is to find a great meal. We'd encourage you to saunter on over and check out what they've got to offer -- we're absolutely positive you're going to love them. And, just in case they didn't entice you enough with all the recipe suggestions in the above post, there are plenty of other herbilicious delights over on the Choosy Beggars site, including Lemony Orechiette with Fresh Fava, Feta and Dill and Herb Marinated Bocconcini Balls .

This guest post is part of our Summer 2010 Herb Series: Using and Preserving Herbs. Stay tuned every Friday for more hints, tips, and tricks on how to use summer's bounty!

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  1. I usually have so much of this in the garden by this time, but what I had went to seed, and what I planted is about 2 inches high...

    And just look at all the amazing things I could be doing with it! May have to pick some up at the market this week. Even in the winter, fresh parsley and cilantro are the two things you will most likely find in my fridge, even when I have to spend upwards of 2$ on it. Nothing compares 2 U, parsley! Well written, and have to go check out Choosy Beggars, now!

  2. I too have abundance of herbs in my garden and usually don't know what to do. Last year I dehydrated them and they were great.

  3. Hey Tina - I completely didn't expect to find you here, but what a pleasant surprise. If I remember rightly, back in the day on WANF, in our top 5 herb contest, parsley was your top choice. It's now clear you weren't just saying that to win whatever lame-o prize we were offering! I'm totally with you about it being under appreciated. One of my favorite salads is flat leaf parsley with grated carrot and a fresh cream and red wine vinegar dressing. And one of my favorite sauces is parsley sauce with anything, but usually white fish (or if I'm feeling super British, a pickled egg). Subtley is scarcely appreciated these days both in flavorings and literature. Great choice of subject matter and superlative writing, as usual.

  4. Wowza! Look at all those options. Unlike most of the population, I do not like cilantro. So I am always substituting Parsley. It's one of my go-to herbs also. I like both varieties. Oh, and I love love love gremolata - I use it on seared scallops. Yum.

  5. Great guest post! I'm not a huge parsley fan, but loved the writeup here. And thanks for the recipe suggestions.

  6. I've only recently really started to love parsley so this info about it is perfect! Great post.

  7. So nice to see all the uses in one post! I am a chimichurri addict, but all these other recipes look divine!


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