What’s the Deal with Parsley?
Pictured is young flat-leaf Italian parsley growing in our garden.
A friend of mine recently confided that she rarely bought parsley, and had none in her garden, because she really didn’t know what to do with it. Believe me, I get it. For many of us, parsley is that curly green garnish that comes on the plate in cafeteria food that’s mostly there for looks. Why would you eat that? And all these recipes that call for one measly tablespoon of chopped parsley? What’s the point? Why buy a whole bunch just for one tablespoon?
Here’s the deal. Parsley brightens flavors. It adds balance to savory dishes the way that a little lemon juice can make something just taste better. Parsley is a mild “bitter”. The tastebuds on your tongue can distinguish 5 tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Salty and sweet are obvious. Sour you get from acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Umami has to do with the savory taste of protein. Bitter you get from citrus zest, bitter greens like kale, mustard greens, arugula, and parsley. Well balanced dishes stimulate all or most of these taste receptors. Adding parsley to a stew doesn’t make the stew taste like parsley, but will make the stew taste more balanced, if it doesn’t already have a bitter in it.
When I first started cooking I would get annoyed at buying a bunch of parsley for a recipe and then not knowing what to do with the rest of it. Now I look out at our garden that I just planted with 12 parsley plants for my parents, and 6 for me, and I’m hoping that that’s enough. Almost every savory dish tastes better with a little chopped parsley either cooked in or sprinkled over the top. (By the way, flat-leaf Italian parsley works better for cooking than the curly parsley. Don’t ask me why, it just does.) The best thing about growing parsley plants? Bugs and slugs typically stay away from them. They are biennials, so in mild climates, a plant will live for two years. The plants over-winter well, at least here in California. The frost just seems to make them happy.
Parsley is also good for digestion. As with other bitter herbs, parsley stimulates appetite and your digestive tract. Years ago I learned that you could ask a bartender for bitters to help settle your stomach if you were out to eat and your stomach needed settling (you know what I mean). That concoction is not made with parsley, but with other bitter essences, but the effect is the same. Bitters help digestion.
What to do if you truly have too much parsley hanging around? I recommend making chimichurri, a South American condiment like pesto, that is made with parsley, garlic, oil and vinegar, which is terrific with steak. Or you could just make parsley pesto, and serve it over pasta.
Do you have a favorite dish where parsley is the star ingredient? Please let us know about it in the comments.