In praise of parsley

In the 1989 film “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” Michelle Pfeiffer’s character is trying to demonstrate the utter banality of the song “Feelings.” “It’s like parsley,” she says, holding up a sprig from her plate. “Take it away and no one would know the difference.”

That’s certainly the common view of parsley — a frilly tuft stuck in between the steak and the peas. Lately it’s been reduced to a mere dusting of green specks on the border of the plate, framing the main attraction.

Once upon a time, parsley had much more clout. For the ancient Greeks it was the herb of death, worn in garlands by mourners and placed on tombs. The Romans believed it could stop an advancing army and — even more miraculously — purge the fumes of onions, garlic and wine from the breath.

In other lore it could arouse desire, or make you bear the devil’s child. In herbal medicine it’s been used for numerous complaints and is universally praised for its rich stores of iron, vitamins A and C, folate, potassium and calcium. Maybe it was the old breath-freshening trick that typecast it as the pre-eminent garnish — a role it then kept because of its good looks.

But parsley is a real food, with its own culinary virtues, and it’s so rewarding to grow — easy and abundant — that there is no impediment to having plenty of it on hand, all year.

The one thing that might frustrate you initially is that the seeds germinate slowly. While you can sow them directly in the garden very early in spring, I find that they sprout more quickly indoors, with some warmth. Since there’s a long taproot, soil blocks are the most foolproof method, since they reduce transplanting shock. But any system will work if you move the seedlings on carefully to bigger containers, while they are still small.

Once outdoors, treat parsley as you would carrots, giving it a stone-free bed with loose, fertile soil, well supplied with organic matter and consistently moist but well-drained. Unlike its cousins chervil, cilantro and dill, it will not bolt and go to seed but will triumphantly soldier on through fall and early winter, until the heaviest freezes beat it down.

Usually the roots will overwinter and regrow in spring. Since it’s a biennial that sets seed the second year, the lengthening days of late spring will make it bolt, but you’ll still have some to snip while you’re waiting for the new spring crop. Sowing another crop in midsummer in the protection of a cold frame will give you a winter-long supply.

Another option is to pot up a few plants and bring them indoors or into a partly protected spot like a sunny shed. Use a deep pot to accommodate as much of the taproot as possible, filled with a loose soilless mix. Water plants right away and keep them consistently moist. Fish emulsion will keep them green.

Whether you grow curly parsley or the flat Italian kind is a matter of taste. I like both. The mossy, curled varieties such as Forest Green are so beautiful that you can edge a flower border or patio planter with them.

They’re good in dishes where you want to lighten or fluff up the texture, such as rice salad, or taboulleh concocted with soaked bulgur wheat, lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, mint and fresh tomato if it’s in season.

I’ve also found curly parsley more cold-hardy. But the flat kind is the current “gourmet” choice, easier to chop and to many palates more pleasant tasting, less scratchy in the mouth. I like a tasty, small-leaved variety called Titan. There is also a type known as Hamburg or turnip-rooted parsley, grown for its carrot-shaped, parsley-flavored root. It can even be dug up, stored and resprouted indoors in a pot for a winter harvest of coarse leaves, to season soups and stews.

The important thing is to use parsley with conviction and passion. You must say, “I want this dish to taste of parsley.” Add so much to the vichyssoise that it turns grass-green. Make a creamy parsley soup with a chicken broth base. Try parsley pesto — a brighter color than the basil kind — or a parsley risotto.

Parsley dries poorly, with little flavor. It freezes somewhat better, but is best used fresh. I keep a just-picked bunch in water on the kitchen counter.

To use it as a garnish, make it iresistible by deep-frying it in oil for a second or two, then sprinkle it with salt. Or get into the habit of making gremolata — that excellent Italian mixture of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest, traditional in osso bucco but equally good tucked under the skin of chicken before roasting, or on top of fish.

If you have a good winter supply growing you can even make a hearty Cornish parsley pie, filled with eggs, cream and cubes of bacon. You can either construct it like a quiche with a pastry bottom, like a pot pie with a pastry lid, or like a half-moon pastry turnover. It’ll set just the right mood on a cold night.

I happen to think “Feelings” is like instant vanilla pudding. But let’s give a big hand for parsley.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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