The herb guide: parsley

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and regular Borough blogger, Ed Smith, looks in depth at the many fresh herbs available in the Market. This month: parsley

Read-up about parsley, and you’ll find most people consider it a mere garnish.

It is that, I suppose, but I think its image has probably been tainted by the sprigs of curly parsley sitting among raw meats on a butcher’s counter, or under and on top of extraordinary constructions in 1970s cookbooks.

Parsley is way more than something to be placed without imagination on top of a steak or egg mayonnaise and then moved aside. It’s a key aromatic, and we should make the most of it.

There are, you’ll know, two types of leafy parsley cultivars: curly and flat leafed (there’s a root, too, but that’s for another day). Curly parsley is the variety you’d traditionally find in Britain and northern France, while flat leaf parsley is used in the Mediterranean and Levant.

If you’re looking for a flavour note for parsley, I’d suggest ‘grassy’. The flat leaf variety is the more powerful flavour. Curly parsley is mild and ever so slightly bitter.

Follow the general guidelines for storing herbs in this post. It’s worth noting that parsley will last at least a week in the fridge if wrapped in a damp towel.

Neither type is worth drying—they both lose their flavour. While some people say you can freeze parsley, I’m not fond of the result, so personally would try to use it all up when fresh.

Cooking tips
The leaves of both flat and curly parsley are where it is at. Pinch these and the thinnest bits of the stem off your washed bunch and save the stems for other purposes (see below).

To my mind, you should only ever eat curly parsley chopped, so that it’s somewhere between relatively fine and dusty. It can be quite a robust leaf and is not enjoyable if you don’t do some of the digestive work with a knife; another reason, if one were needed, why using large, uncut sprigs of curly parsley as garnish is pointless.

Flat leaf parsley is more versatile than curly (and also, frankly, nicer) in its raw state. Whole, barely chopped leaves are quite pleasant in salads, though you’ll more normally find that some recipes call for the leaf to be chopped—roughly or finely.

If a recipe requires parsley leaves during the cooking stage (stuffing, parsley sauce, dumplings or gnocchi, for example), I would err towards curly parsley. But that might just be through habit because that’s what grows easiest outside my mum’s kitchen. In any event, the general rule is that you shouldn't cook parsley leaves—they lose potency quickly, so should only be added at the last minute (in a sauce), or as a garnish when you serve (for example in the form of persillade or gremolata).

The stems of both curly and flat leaf parsley do have their uses. Don’t throw them away without thinking what you might do. They are very useful aromatics to add to both chicken and fish stocks while they’re bubbling away. I often also chop them finely and add to onions and celery while they sweat down in a pan when making a risotto, for example.

Classic uses
Traditional matches include chicken, ham, veal, white fish, carrots and lemon. It’s true that many of the classic uses of parsley are as a garnish. The French use it in persillade, for example, which is really just a mix of very finely chopped parsley and garlic. Add that to cooked potato and you’ve got—wait for it—pomme persillade.

The Italians do a similar thing called gremolata. Alongside the chopped parsley and garlic, there’s lemon zest too. This is typically sprinkled on veal osso bucco.

Difficult to know who lays the strongest claim to salsa verde (Italy)/salsa verde (Spain)/sauce vierge (France), but it’s fair to say that green sauce is always built on a good handful of flat leaf parsley. Capers, mustard, garlic, anchovy, and something acidic such as lemon juice or vinegar are usually there too. There’ll probably be a scattering of other herbs (tarragon and mint are excellent), but parsley is the spine to the sauce.

Speaking of which, one of England’s rare cooking traditions is parsley sauce, made from a light roux (butter and flour), milk and chopped curly parsley. Works a treat both with white fish and boiled or roast ham.

Other easy wins include: scattering parsley over just-boiled carrots; using it to generously garnish lemon cream dressed pasta; and flavouring dumplings or gnocchi.

I like using uncut sprigs of flat leaf parsley as a salad with thinly sliced shallots and a little oil and vinegar, to have alongside roast bone marrow a la Fergus Henderson of St John restaurant.

For a really modern approach, try dipping sprigs into tempura batter and deep frying them.

Market herb hero
Arabica, for their authentic, parsley-heavy tabbouleh, which is served both in the restaurant and also on their hot food stand, Thursday to Saturday.

A recipe suggestion
I like many of the dishes and sauces mentioned above, but there’s one recipe in particular that really makes the most of parsley as an ingredient, rather than a garnish: tabbouleh. This is why I’ve singled out Arabica above for serving it as it should be at their Levantine restaurant on the edge of the Market. Here’s my interpretation of it to make at home.

For many years, tabbouleh was known as a bulgur wheat salad, laced with a little fresh parsley and fresh mint. The likes of Yotam Ottolenghi and Anissa Helou now remind us that this is wrong. Tabbouleh is actually a parsley salad, laced with a little bulgur wheat and maybe some mint.

Key things to remember
Wash the parsley well in advance and allow it to dry before you chop it; in fact, you’re not supposed to ‘chop’ the parsley. Rather, you roll it tightly and ‘slice’ it fine. Ottolenghi says no thicker than 1mm. But I won’t tell anyone if you settle for about 3mm thick
The ratio is roughly four to five parts parsley to one part mint
Spices are important. Either use baharat and allspice, or a mix of sweet spices as I have in my recipe