Parsley is hardly an ingredient that cooks tend to describe eloquently. To most people it's merely a decoration, a splash of green to color a plate. Basil stole our hearts during the pesto craze of the 1980s. Cilantro became the darling of the salsa decade, the 1990s. But parsley? Most of us continue to push the sprigs, uneaten, to the edge of our plates.
A different state of affairs exists elsewhere in the world of cuisine. Parsley is the main ingredient, for example, in two popular Italian sauces: Salsa di prezzemolo and salsa verde are tangy green sauces made from parsley, garlic and anchovies. Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the supremely refreshing salad known as tabbouleh consist of cracked wheat, mint and a lot of parsley.
Parsley figures prominently in French cuisine, where it's one of the three ingredients in bouquet garni (the ubiquitous herb bundle used to flavor soups and casseroles, the other two herbs being thyme and bay leaf). It's also one of the fines herbes , a quartet that includes chervil, chives and tarragon and is used to flavor omelets and delicate egg dishes. And what would a roast rack of lamb or broiled tomato be without persillade , a pungent topping of parsley, garlic and bread crumbs?
An 18th-Century epicure summed up parsley's importance this way: "To take parsley away from the cook would make it almost impossible for him to exercise his art."
Less well known than these European uses is the role the verdant herb plays in South American cooking. Parsley is the primary flavoring in chimichurri (pronounced "chi-mee-CHOO-ree"), a pesto-like sauce served with all manner of steaks and grilled meats. The basic ingredients for chimichurri are parsley, garlic, vinegar and olive oil. The recipe varies from cook to cook. Some may add hot pepper flakes, others oregano or wine.
I like to take a bunch flat-leaf parsley, chop it with the cloves from a head of garlic, and combine that with a whisked mixture of 1/2 cup vinegar, 2 to 3 tablespoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, a shredded carrot and 1 1/4 cups olive oil.
Why, then, is parsley such a second-class citizen in this country? Perhaps the problem lies with the type of parsley we use. A nation raised on curly leaf parsley may be surprised to learn that there are many other popular varieties, such as Neapolitan parsley (whose fleshy stalks are eaten like celery) and Hamburg or turnip leaf parsley (whose parsnip-like roots are eaten as a vegetable).
When it comes to flavor, the curly leaf variety known to most Americans pales in comparison to the robust tang of flat-leaf (also known as Italian) parsley. It used to be that flat-leaf parsley could be found only at Italian markets or specialty greengrocers. Today you can find it at most supermarkets.
When buying any type of parsley, look for fresh springy bunches, free of wilting or yellowing. Rinse it in several changes of cold water, holding it by the stems. Shake out the excess water. To keep parsley fresh for extended periods, loosely wrap the bunch in a slightly wet paper towel and store in an unsealed plastic food bag. (Sealed parsley tends to taste musty.) Moisten the paper towel as needed. The parsley should keep for up to a week.
Stem the parsley before chopping. (Save the stems for stock.) Blot dry with paper towels or spin in a salad spinner. The drier the parsley is, the easier it will be to chop and sprinkle.
Our word parsley comes from the Greek petroselinum , literally "rock celery." (The name refers to the plant's propensity to grow near rocks; the resemblance to celery is that in ancient times only the leaf of celery was used in cooking.) The Greeks regarded parsley as a symbol of death, scattering it on the tombs of their recently departed.
The Romans wore bunches of parsley around their necks to prevent inebriation. (The plant was supposed to absorb the alcohol fumes.) The 2nd-Century physician Galen declared parsley "gratifying for the stomach."
This brings us to parsley's health benefits. The herb is rich in Vitamin C; a half-cup serving provides 45% of the RDA. It's also a good source of Vitamin A and the B vitamin folate.
Another of parsley's virtues is its ability to freshen and sweeten the breath. Fresh parsley is often combined with garlic and it does, indeed, tend to counteract, or at last neutralize, the pungent flavors of garlic, vinegar and wine.