Parsley: one of the most commonly used herbs, everywhere, including Italy. There’s an expression in Italy, most often said to children:
“Sei come il prezzemolo, sei dappertutto,” which means “You’re like parsley, you’re everywhere.”
Parsley, a familiar garnish on a variety of plates, is perfect for taming strong flavors which makes it an ideal complement for spicy dishes. It is an important component of a bouquet garni, which is a selection of fresh herbs – including parsley, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and sage – tied together into a bundle and cooked in soups, sauces or stews.
Italian Flat Leaf Parsley (Petroselinum neapolitanum) has been cultivated and developed over so many centuries that its precise origins are difficult to pinpoint. This is compounded by the fact that the parsleys we know, today, probably bear little resemblance to their ancestors. The botanical name Petroselinum comes from the Greek word for stone (petro) which was given to parsley, because it was found growing on rocky hillsides in Greece.
Although the Ancient Greeks did not use parsley in cooking, they associated parsley with death and used it to make burial wreaths. According to legend, parsley first germinated in the blood of Archemorus, an ancient character in Greek mythology, where it was spilled when he was eaten by serpents. Conversely, 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. Legend says that de Medici is responsible for popularizing parsley, when she brought it back to France from Italy. In medieval times parsley was surrounded by much superstition, one belief being that the long germination period for the seeds was due to them having to travel to hell and back seven times before sprouting.
Parsley has long been popular in European and Mediterranean cuisine. A favorite of King Henry VIII, he relished a parsley sauce on top of his roasted rabbit.
Parsley Root has been used medicinally since ancient times for digestive disorders, bronchitis and urinary tract problems. As far back as Hippocrates, parsley was used in medicinal recipes for cure-alls, general tonics, poison antidotes and formulas to relieve kidney and bladder stones. In Russia, a preparation containing mostly parsley juice is given during labor to stimulate uterine contractions. The juice has been used to treat toothaches, as a hair rinse or as a facial steam for dry skin.
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 antioxidants that prevent cell damage. Commercially, oil from the seeds is used to scent perfumes and colognes. Because of its high chlorophyll content, parsley is a great breath freshener. Scientists have even isolated a compound, apiol, which is now used in medications to treat kidney ailments and kidney stones.
Most grocery stores and markets stock both Italian (flat leafed) parsley and curly leafed parsley. Many people consider curly varieties to be more standard with Italian versions playing a gourmet role. This distinction is mainly due to the differences in taste and sometimes in price.
Curly parsley, which is frequently the less expensive of the two, has only a very subtle flavor. It is typically used as a garnish. Italian parsley, on the other hand, has a robust peppery flavor. It has a much higher concentration of essential oils, which gives it a distinctive taste. Cooks also use flat leaf parsley as a garnish because of its vibrant green color, but also use it to flavor a number of dishes.
The flat leaf variety (P. neapolitanum), referred to as “Italian parsley,” is the only variety used in Italy and in most Mediterranean countries.
Whenever garlic is used, parsley is usually there. Besides the taste benefit to a dish, parsley and garlic are a particularly potent combination for better health. They both contain substances that may help prevent cancer, improve cardiovascular health and strengthen our immune systems against viral infections like the common cold.
It’s always preferable to use fresh parsley, though this herb preserves well when chopped and frozen.
Buying and Storing Parsley
Usually sold in bunches, Italian parsley should be bright green with no wilting. At the market, it is easy to confuse Italian parsley with cilantro. Italian parsley has leaves that are larger with a fresh, grassy smell.
Wash and dry Italian parsley. Wrap it first in a paper towel, then place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator.
When using fresh parsley, first trim the leaves, then wash and chop them – keeping them all bunched together with one hand, while you chop with the other. In most cases, it’s best to add parsley to a sauce after the pot has been removed from the flame or as the final touch to the serving dish.
Dried Italian parsley typically lasts a lot longer than fresh, but has a diminished flavor. Most of the dried parsley purchased in commercial markets comes from curly leaves, unless otherwise noted. Cooks can dry out the leaves of Italian varieties themselves, often on racks or in a warm oven. I prefer the freezing method, since it preserves more of the fresh taste of parsley.
Many nurseries sell potted Italian parsley and it can also be grown quite successfully from seed. Like most herbs, it is somewhat delicate, particularly when it is first getting started. Success typically requires a regular temperature and plenty of water. Once stalks have reached a height of about 5 inches (approximately 13 cm), they can be transplanted outdoors, preferably to a flat surface with consistent sunlight.
Italian Parsley and Beet Salad
Makes 6 (first course) servings
- 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
- 2 1/4 pounds assorted young beets with greens (such as Chioggia, white, golden and red; 1 1/2 pounds if already trimmed)
- 1/4 small red onion
- 1 1/4 cups Italian (flat-leaf) parsley leaves (from 1 bunch)
- Fresh ricotta cheese
Equipment: an adjustable-blade slicer
Whisk together juices, oil and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a large bowl.
Trim beets, leaving 1 inch of stems attached, then peel.
Using stems as a handle, slice beets paper-thin (less than 1/8 inch thick) with slicer (wear protective gloves to avoid staining hands), then cut slices into very thin matchsticks.
Thinly slice onion with slicer.
Toss beets, onion and parsley with dressing. Let stand, tossing occasionally, 30 minutes to soften beets and allow flavors to develop.
Before serving, toss again and season with additional salt and pepper, if needed. Drizzle with additional oil, if desired. Serve with ricotta cheese.
Italian Potato Salad
This is an easy recipe which is perfect for a summer picnic or get together.
- 5 large red skinned potatoes unpeeled and sliced in ½ inch slices
- 1/3 cup of chopped fresh parsley (do not use dried herbs)
- 2 cloves of garlic crushed and chopped
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
In a large pan over medium-high heat add potatoes and cover with cold water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, approximately 10 to 15 minutes or until just tender (do not let them get too soft). Remove from heat and drain. Place the potatoes into a large mixing bowl.
Add the parsley, garlic, olive oil and vinegar and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover the bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. Use within 3 to 4 days.
Swordfish Steaks with Lemon-Parsley Sauce
- 3/4 cup minced fresh Italian parsley
- 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
- 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- (4) 8-ounce swordfish steaks (each about 3/4 inch thick)
- Lemon wedges
Combine parsley, lemon zest and garlic in small bowl. Mix in oil, lemon juice and 1 teaspoon sea salt. Season with pepper to taste.
Place fish in single layer in shallow dish. Spoon half of the parsley sauce over fish. Set aside remaining sauce. Turn fish over to coat in the sauce. Cover and chill at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours, turning fish occasionally.
Preheat broiler. Place fish, with sauce still clinging to it, on a broiler pan. Broil until fish is just cooked in the center, about 3-4 minutes per side. Transfer to platter. Spoon remaining parsley sauce over. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve.
Spaghetti with Bay Scallops and Parsley
Yield: 2-3 servings
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1/4 cup diced pancetta
- 1 cup bay scallops or sea scallops quartered
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 pound spaghetti
- 1 shallot, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- 1 tablespoon butter
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium heat. Cook pasta according to directions. Drain, reserving ½ cup pasta water.
Put a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and pancetta and cook until the pancetta is rendered and crispy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Season scallops with a little salt and add the scallops to the pan. Cook until slightly golden, about 1 minute, turning constantly. Add the shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes and give the pan a shake.
Transfer the cooked pasta directly into the saute pan with the scallops, Add the 1/2 cup pasta water to the pan to create a sauce consistency and reduce the heat. Stir in the parsley, remaining olive oil and butter. Taste and add salt, if necessary. Transfer the pasta to a serving dish and serve immediately
Roasted Brisket with Parsley
Serves 10 to 12
- 1 (4 pound) beef brisket, trimmed
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Ground black pepper, to taste
- 3/4 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 cup roughly chopped onion
- 2 cups low-sodium beef broth
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Put parsley, thyme, vinegar, pepper flakes, garlic, onion, salt and pepper into a food processor and pulse to make a thick paste; set aside.
Season brisket all over with salt and pepper and arrange on a rack in a roasting pan; roast for 2 hours.
Remove brisket from the oven; reduce oven temperature to 325°F. Carefully add broth to the pan, spread the parsley paste over the brisket, cover the pan with foil and continue roasting and basting every 45 minutes or so, until very tender, about 3 hours more.
Transfer brisket to a platter; set aside to let rest for 10 minutes. Skim off and discard any fat from liquid in the pan. Thinly slice brisket against the grain and spoon pan sauce over the top.
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