They may not be glamorous, but they’re irresistible -- big dewy piles of parsley, tender and fragrant cilantro, floppy basil, fuzzy mint. We grab them reflexively, tossing them into shopping cart or market basket.
More often than not, we bring them back to our kitchens only to throw them into the bottom drawers of our refrigerators, where they languish until we toss them into a hasty pesto -- if we remember them at all.
But there’s a world of possibility out there besides pesto. These staple herbs, when used in ways that capture their sudden flavor and beauty, can transform a dish from ordinary to revelatory, especially if you use techniques that don’t compromise their essential qualities or exile them to the aesthetic side of the plate. A garnish is what the IRS can do to your wages -- not what you should be doing to parsley.
With that in mind, take a big bunch of parsley, either Italian or the curly kind -- their taste is as different as their appearance -- and mince it into fine confetti. Add some minced garlic and you have persillade, which is an appropriately beautiful name for something so utterly simple. Add lemon zest, and it becomes gremolata.
Ah, that’s all well and good. But what are they for?
Persillade is a key ingredient in the classic French bistro dish known as pommes persillade -- diced, sauteed potatoes with the persillade tossed in at the last minute for an amazing zing of flavor. Mixed with breadcrumbs, persillade traditionally goes atop rack or loin of lamb or roasted tomatoes a la provencale.
Gremolata, on the other hand, is the classic garnish for osso buco, veal shanks braised in broth, wine and tomatoes.
These aromatic additions not only have a way of ratcheting up the composition and flavor of dishes in a way that far exceeds their simple parts, they also add contrast in texture and flavor.
Clearly, there’s a reason the classics have endured: With osso buco, for example, the bright garlicky flavor of the gremolata offsets the richness of the braised veal, adding a zesty twang. A persillade adds a lovely herbal crunch to roasted halved tomatoes that would otherwise be just juicy; it pulls the dish together.
Of course anything that good deserves to be spun. Who said the uses of persillade -- or gremolata -- have to stop at the classics?
You can spoon them onto bruschetta topped with chopped, roasted portobellos or tomatoes. Stir them into soups or spread them atop grilled or roasted fish. Use them as a last-minute addition to roasted or blanched vegetables.
But why stop there? You can even play with the components of the mixtures themselves. Use mint or cilantro instead of parsley, orange peel instead of lemon, shallots instead of garlic. Add chopped anchovies or finely chopped tomatoes -- wouldn’t that be nice with basil? Cooking, like jazz, is the most fun when it’s a series of riffs on an idea. Pesto, shmesto.
The trick is to keep the herbs’ integrity: You want a light fluffy pile of them, not a sodden mass of discoloring green bits. So chop them by hand, with a very sharp knife. And chop whatever you add to the mixtures separately. If possible, you also want to prepare them at the last minute, as fresh herbs -- particularly basil and mint -- discolor quickly. Keeping the ingredients separate also prevents the moisture that they all contain from bleeding together and further discoloring them. It may seem like busy work, but the care you take with your fresh herbs will translate into your finished dishes. Likewise, you don’t want to use old or wilted herbs for persillade, gremolata and their cousins. Smell your herbs before you buy them to make sure they’re as aromatic as they should be. Certainly taste them before you cook -- you want to be sure they’re fresh and pliant and still aromatic before you go to the trouble of mincing them into an enormous pile.
To keep the flavors bright, add the mixtures at the end of the cooking process (if it’s a long one) instead of at the beginning. You want a little heat to take the edge off the garlic, but not enough to compromise the herbs, to dim their flavor and color. Slow-roasted tomatoes are heavenly, caramelized, their flavors concentrated like sun-dried tomatoes. But the two hours it takes to achieve this would reduce the persillade to crispy brown flecks, its flavors and colors long gone. But if you add it at the end, the garlic mellows and the herbs marry with the glorious tomatoes, providing a fresh contrast with the deep flavors. The parsley provides a bright counterpoint to the incredible depth of the tomatoes. The flavors complement each other but don’t get lost among themselves. Basil would be great in this one too.
Likewise, you can use a mint gremolata as a late-addition blanket on a rack of lamb instead of the expected persillade. Fresh mint has a cool bite that marries beautifully with the lamb -- it recalls the mint jelly that your mother used to pair with it, but without the wobbly sweetness.
Or stir a cilantro-anchovy-lemon mixture into a potato leek soup. The sassy cilantro provides a contrast in flavor and color, and the anchovies work wonderfully with the creamy potato puree. The lateness of the addition gives you the best of both worlds, as the brunt of the rawness is tempered slightly. But the zest remains the same.