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Over the last twenty years there has been a renaissance of herbs. People are planting herb gardens, classes are being taught on the uses of herbs, and whole books are being devoted to the subject. The big thing in cooking is to use fresh herbs and the more unusual the better -- just notice how many types of basil are available these days in the markets. But while all of this is going on, one herb, parsley, despite its long and illustrious history, seems to have not only been forgotten, but is actually shunned as too pedestrian and old-fashioned in some culinary circles.
I, myself, was guilty of this -- striving to find something, anything, other than parsley to use as garnish. Parsley always reminded me of the era in American cooking when sprig of parsley was the only herb used as a garnish -- always that one sprig at the side of the plate (if it was a special presentation it would come with an orange slice as well), or chopped and sprinkled over roasted potatoes. But recently, having found out more about it, I have come to appreciate and enjoy parsley as other cultures have for years.
Basically, there are two main types of parsley -- flat leafed and curly leafed. They are members of the Umbelliferae family -- the same one as celery and carrots. I love the species name for curly parsley -- Petroselinum crispum -- it perfectly describes the clean, fresh, crispy taste of the tightly bunched, bright green leaves -- crispum. This crispiness is one of the things it does best, adding texture and color when added just before serving. Parsley holds its shape well under refrigeration, when wrapped in a damp towel. This is the parsley that is the essential ingredient in the classic flavoring: bouquet garni, along with thyme and bay leaves. Together with tarragon, chives and chervil, parsley helps make up the traditional French flavoring blend of fine herbs. Chopped and added at the last moment, it perks up sauces and salads. There is very little that does not benefit from the addition of parsley -- it's good in stews, sauces, cheese spreads, rice dishes, vegetables, omelettes, and in fish dishes. It helps add color to pestos. Deep-fried, it makes an intriguing garnish. The ancient Romans combined parsley with cheese and bread for meals.
The other variety of parsley, flat leafed or Italian parsley (Petroselinum neapolitanum) has a more delicate sawtoothed leaf pattern which does not hold up as well for garnishing. With its stronger flavor, it is more frequently used in cooking, particularly since it stands up well to heat. For instance, try using the stems rather than the leaves when you want the freshness of parsley in a white sauce but don't want the color to bleed. Persillade and gremolada are two well known sauces which have parsley as one of the main ingredients. Persillade, a French sauce, is a sauteed mixture of finely chopped parsley and garlic. It is added just before serving to broiled meats, particularly lamb and beef, as well as chicken or vegetables. Gremolada is a Milanese condiment made of sauteed parsley, garlic, lemon and orange zest. This mixture is traditionally spread over osso bucco just before serving, although it enhances any braised meats.
There is a third and much less familiar form of parsley called Hamburg Parsley or Soup Parsley (var. tuberosum). In this variety the root that is the star of the show. The leaves can be used but they are a bit too strong for my taste. In all my years of cooking I havd never heard of such a parsley, so I asked my produce man if he could find some for me. Within a few days, I was the proud owner of what appeared to be pale dwarf carrots, or tiny parsnips. Its flavor is a pungent cross between celery and parsley -- definitely tasty. It can be sliced raw and added to salads, or cooked and added to soups, stews, gratins, or vegetable purees. The one drawback is it lilliputian size: it takes a lot of peeling to get even a small amount of useable root.
Parsley is mentioned often throughout history, and not only for its culinary and medicinal properties. The early Greeks made crowns of parsley to bestow upon the winners of the Nemena and Isthmian sports games, in the same manner that bay wreaths honored the Olympians. Parsley is used in the Hebrew celebration of Passover as a symbol of spring and rebirth. It is mentioned as one of the plants in the gardens of Charlemagne and Catherine de Medici. Rumor has it that Medici is responsible for popularizing parsley when she brought it back to France from its native Italy. As far back as Hippocrates parsley was used in medicinal recipes for cure-alls, general tonics, poison antidotes, anti-rheumetics and formulas to relieve kidney and bladder stones. One herbalist used the small brown seeds of the plant to help "those who are light-headed to resist drink better."
Modern science has confirmed many of these claims. Parsley is rich in vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamins A and C, and compounds that clear toxins from the body. It also reduces inflammations, contains histamine inhibitors and is a free radical scavenger. Commercially, oil from the seeds is used to scent Oriental style perfumes and colognes. Because of the high clorofil content, it acts as a great breath freshener. Science has even isolated a compound, apiol, which is now used in medications to treat kidney ailments and kidney stones.
It is possible that parsley gets its Latin name from this characteristic of relieving stones since "petros" means rock. Another theory is that parsley was named for the rocks in the Greek gardens, in amongst which the parsley grew. This was probably the curly variety: its compact, dense bright green leaves tend to make it an attractive edging or container plant. The flat leaf variety is far more delicate and lacy, and gets very leggy. Both varieties are biennials, but are usually treated as annuals, planted anew each spring. The process to start a parsley plant from seed is a very slow one: the seeds must first be soaked overnight,then given warm conditions. Even then they may not sprout for several weeks. This long gestation has given rise to a saying that "parsley seeds must go to the devil and back nine times before sprouting." Once they do sprout they prefer part to full sun, and regular water. They will grow 6-12" and do well in pots. The tufted leaves are ready to harvest the first year, and most gardening books recommend planting anew from starts each year. When they flower in the second year, they produce tiny, cream colored blossoms.
Parsley is best used fresh, but can also be used frozen or dried. With so many ways to use parsley in the kitchen, I keep it in pots as well as in my herb garden so there is always plenty to clip at a moments notice. Besides, with the way I love to cook with garlic, it always helps to have some parsley close at hand.
Mashed Potatoes with Hamburg Parsley
This recipe adds an interesting twist to traditional mashed potatoes. It is delicious with roasted meats, especially lamb.
1/2 lb. peeled Hamburg parsley, about 1 1/2 cup
1 1/2 lb. peeled Russet potatoes, about 3 cups
2 tbls. butter
1 large garlic clove, smashed
1/2 cup milk or 1/2 and 1/2, heated
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbls. curly leaf parsley, chopped
Chop the potatoes and roots into small cubes. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil. Add the parsley root. After 5 minutes, add the potatoes and continue to cook until they are both soft, about ten minutes. Meanwhile, heat the butter and the garlic until the butter is melted (the microwave works great for this). When the vegetables are cooked, pour through a colander making sure to get off as much moisture as possible. Transfer them to a mixing bowl. Add salt, pepper and the butter. Adding the milk slowly, whip the mixture until it is light and fluffy. Adjust seasonings and serve at once, or reheat when serving later.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.