There are two kinds of cooks in this country, the reductionist in me argues: the parsley pushers and the parsley-ambivalent.
I was led to that generalization through an exchange I had with a friend last year, one of many in which he called asking for cooking advice. On this particular occasion, I don’t recall what he was preparing or what the dilemma of the moment was, but I do remember asking whether he had parsley in the house, thinking I was onto an easy solution.
His response: “I don’t really buy parsley. I mean, what’s the point?”
Some distraction or other pulled me away from the phone, or I would have pleaded for his reconsideration on the spot. Instead I said, “I have to go, but we’re talking about this later.”
Well-intentioned food writers have been trying for decades to rescue parsley from the American cook’s indifference. One of the earliest attempts was in 1952, when the New York Times printed a piece championing parsley’s unsung virtues with the headline, “May Opens Season of Parsley Abundance — Herb Has Many Uses Besides as Garnish.”
Despite the media cheerleading, the message doesn’t seem to stick. Or perhaps our shifting appreciation for it is, like parsley itself, too low-key. Elsewhere in the world, parsley is in no need of marketing. It is not just appreciated but ubiquitous in the Middle East, perhaps best illustrated by tabbouleh; in its traditional Lebanese form the parsley, not the cracked wheat, forms the backbone of the salad.
In France, parsley starts dishes and finishes them; it is an essential component of the aromatic foundation that is a bouquet garni, and it defines persillade, the mixture of finely minced garlic and parsley that’s used to add a bloom of flavor at the end of cooking. With garlic and lemon it is gremolata, Italy’s answer to persillade. Add onion, capers, anchovies and olive oil, and it is salsa verde, an Italian condiment so versatile and compelling, it would do any cook good to stock a batch in the refrigerator at all times.
So integral is parsley to Italian cooking, where it is used not just to finish sauces, soups and stews but also to help build them, that sprigs of it are sometimes tucked into market shoppers’ baskets along with their purchase — a well-wish for the kitchen if there ever was one.
Parsley once stood taller in the American kitchen. Thomas Jefferson grew both curly and flat-leaf varieties at Monticello, and cooks of his era were wise to the prudence of using parsley early in cooking, and with a generous hand. For specifics I contacted Omnivore Books in San Francisco, where owner Celia Sack curates a few shelves’ worth of early-American cookbooks. Assistant Kate King e-mailed me to say that a number of those early cookery books called for parsley extensively in soups and stews — by the handful in a recipe for pigeon soup from “The Practical Housewife,” printed in 1860; as part of an aromatic base for Mary Randolph’s Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head in “The Virginia Housewife” (1824).
That treatment didn’t translate through the years. By the mid-20th century, parsley had been sidelined. Greengrocers, for the most part, kept only curly varieties in stock. Chefs, students of nouvelle cuisine, persisted in creating a garnish out of the frilly leaf, turning it fussy and useless. Cookbooks of that period called increasingly for dried parsley, a tasteless product best kept far away from food.
Contemporary cookbooks, particularly those with leanings toward Europe and the Mediterranean, foster a broader view. But their message competes with a more ingrained attitude: Parsley is pretty, not to be taken seriously. Which is curious, because parsley is a workhorse.
Used as a primary seasoning, parsley can carry a dish; its piney, faintly bitter flavor assumes brighter, rounder tones. Paired with more assertive ingredients, it makes a great unifier, assuring balance and nudging harmony forward. Parsley works more conspicuously to allow the whole to make a greater impression. You can’t say any of that about sage, thyme, marjoram, tarragon, certainly not rosemary, and not even meek, lovely chervil.
In Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace” (Scribner, 2012), the author urges readers to buy parsley whenever possible because, she notes, “everything needs parsley.” Recently, she told me: “Think about when parsley is great. It’s great when it’s used copiously, and it’s great when it’s used in conjunction with garlic. Parsley kind of needs a little buddy to reach its full potential.”
So buy parsley often, and cook with it frequently; it is too agreeable an herb to wait for a recipe’s permission to use it. Slice the leaves thinly or chop them coarsely (or finely, if that is your preference, though the texture of larger bits is nice). Use them whenever you want a hint of something lively and you don’t want that hint to get in the way of everything else: sauteed with onions and garlic at the start of a soup, folded into the ending of a spring vegetable ragout. If you want more than a hint of liveliness, use more parsley. It is difficult to overdo it. Scrambled eggs, new potatoes and grainy salads all agree.
Don’t forget the stems: Adler uses them in a kind of crunchy salsa verde, made with scallion, lemon juice, capers, anchovies and cornichons; or pureed, sieved and whisked into mayonnaise; or to infuse vinegar.
Finally, parsley is splendid as a garnish, and it is a functional one. Depending on the dish, liberal applications of parsley to something already on the plate can be invigorating, particularly with dishes that threaten monotony after one too many bites. Over a ragout of mushrooms on toast or a simple bowl of lentils, what might seem excessive garnish at the outset can materialize in lilting, restorative breaths.
For cooking, flat-leaf varieties are a little more versatile than the curly kind; their flavor is deeper and sweeter, the leaves generally more tender. Curly parsley can be lovely in a salad, fried or roasted whole, or, it goes without saying, as a garnish. But it must be in top form. Past its prime, curly parsley begins to taste unpleasantly grassy and takes on a plastic texture that won’t win anyone over.
Regardless of the variety, when you’re shopping for parsley, always look for deep green leaves and healthy stems. (The leaves may be more or less robust, depending upon the variety, but they should always be tender.) Parsley that has begun to yellow will be insipid. There’s no use for it anywhere, even in stocks and broths.
Best sources are farmers markets, where freshness is paramount and your chances of finding different varieties are better.
At the weekly FreshFarm Market in Silver Spring on Saturdays, Jarrah Cernas has seen an upswing in parsley sales. Her farm, Chicano Sol, sells pre-bagged clippings of a delicate, mossy Italian flat-leaf variety. Lately it has begun to sell out every week, outpacing the usually more popular cilantro. There may be hope for parsley yet.
As for my friend, a year working on a farm in California erased his parsley ambivalence. He is now fully committed, finding the herb nearly indispensable for soupmaking, worthy as a substitute for celery and charming in a compound butter.
He also mentioned a killer parsley salad he’d tasted recently, dressed with sesame oil, honey and black pepper. I have sent for the recipe.
Horton, a Washington food writer, will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.