This Herb Stands Up to Winter

Something to chew on: The nutritive powers of parsley.
Something to chew on: The nutritive powers of parsley. (Gray / Istockphoto)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 1, 2007

I used to think that parsley was especially prone to winter predation by rabbits or deer. As its growth slowed in cold weather, something would always nibble it to the ground. Because it is very cold-hardy, the bright green foliage normally would persist in the garden long after most crops had succumbed to winter, and the plants sometimes have still been there in spring.

It seemed logical that creatures foraging for food in the cold season would find them. But when even the ones protected by a cold frame were chewed down to little nubbins, I knew I'd have to look elsewhere for a culprit. The trail led to my husband. Some people chew gum, others keep their hand in a bag of chips. He grazes on parsley. He loves its flavor and puts great trust in its nutritive powers.

It's widely known that the plant is good for you: high in calcium, potassium and folate, richer in iron than spinach, higher than oranges in vitamin C. Just how many grams of these vital substances you obtain from eating it is never quite clear to me, even when linked to a fixed unit such as one cup. What's a cupful of parsley? How full do you cram it, and how hard do you mash it down to measure it? That is irrelevant, according to my mate. For him it's a simple fact that chewing parsley stimulates the digestive juices, keeps you from getting colds and helps you deal with winter. He leaves a trail not of cookie crumbs but of parsley stems from which he has nibbled the leaves. We have learned to sow plenty, for a generous supply. This year, with winter's mild beginning, our crop was abundant.

Not long ago parsley emerged from the garnish ghetto and became a bona fide culinary herb. Cooks embraced the flat-leaf kind, as opposed to the more firm-textured curly type, but both still have their place. In our house, parsley has further progressed from herb to full-fledged vegetable. There aren't many green plants you can pick generous bunches of in January, but parsley holds its own with spinach, leeks and kale. Also, there aren't many culinary herbs whose flavor is mild enough to eat in large quantities. Recently I pureed a big bunch of it with some cream, then simmered the mixture to reduce and thicken it, melting in some Parmesan cheese and pouring the sauce over ravioli. It drew raves, as did a quiche in which parsley was the key player.

Eager to explore more uses, I consulted some of my favorite cooks. Fergus Henderson's "The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating" contains a great recipe for parsley salad, a simple affair in which it is chopped, mixed with capers and shallots, then sprinkled with coarse salt, dressed with a lemon vinaigrette and spread on toast along with the marrow from roasted veal bones. I should think tuna, salmon, tongue, liverwurst, paté and other meats or fish could substitute for marrow if you had none at hand.

Chef Odessa Piper, a wizard with vegetables, makes parsley salads that stand alone, with a chewy Parmesan added or with slices of prosciutto. She also combines parsley with endive (a classic winter salad staple) to take the edge off the endive's bitterness. Piper puts bright green swirls of parsley puree on top of soups. She'll drop a bunch of it briefly in a pot of boiling pasta water, just to blunt the rawness, and then serve it mixed with the cooked pasta, oil and crumbled goat cheese. She ranks parsley high among the herbs that are delicious when fried to a crisp in hot oil or in the bubbling, flavorful fat at the bottom of a pan in which a chicken has been roasted.

Parsley that overwinters in the garden will quickly bolt and go to seed after a few warm spring days, so it's a good idea to sow some very early in spring or, better yet, to start some indoors and have transplants ready to go into the ground as soon as mud season gives way to planting time. Because it is tap-rooted, that works best when you start the seeds in soil blocks. Meanwhile, you're blessed if you have a big patch of it still going now. It keeps well in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, but fresh snipping is always the best, especially if a good dose of vitamin C is your goal. Still, I keep a large bouquet of it in a tall beer glass on the kitchen counter. When it is that close at hand, parsley finds its way into every meal. I like the way it looks there. It's spirit-lifting to see, smell and touch something so confidently green on a dark winter day.

When spring begins in earnest, the perennial sorrel in my garden will be one of the first things to come up. Its tender, tart young leaves are a great delicacy, and I'll look forward to making the first sorrel soup of the season. Because the plant turns a drab olive green when cooked, I'll brighten it up with a generously packed cupful of parsley leaves. That is, if my two-footed browser has left me any.

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