Herb of the Year: Parsley – A Nutrient Powerhouse
It may come as a surprise to learn that the ubiquitous herb we call parsley was the favorite pasture cover of the Greek gods, who raised their immortal fire-breathing steeds on it. This is perhaps not surprising if we consider that it was thought to have sprung from the blood of the Greek hero, Archemorus. One wonders if possibly the moon creature itself, Arion, foal of Gaia (the Earth), nibbled on the green garnish between stints as the chosen horse of Adrastus, king of Argos.
And while pondering the diet of fabled horses, one might also consider that English men and women alive and presumably thriving at the time of Queen Elizabeth consumed a dish of Parsley Pie. Well why not? Good enough for mythological horses, good enough for mere mortals.
A Recipe for Parsley Pie (Grieve, Maud: Culinary Herbs and Condiments, from an earlier (1863) book)
“Lay a fowl or a few bones of the scrag of veal seasoned, into a dish: scald a colander-full of picked parsley in milk; season, and add it to the fowl or meat, with a teacupful of any sort of good broth, or weak gravy. When it is baked, pour it into a quarter of a pint of cream, scalded, with the size of a walnut of butter, and a little flour. Shake it round to mix with the gravy already in. Lettuces, white mustard leaves, or spinach, may be added to the Parsley, and scalded before being put in.”
Indeed, as Sylvia Humphrey advised in her book (cited above) in 1965, parsley is a powerhouse of nutrients. One half pound of the deep green herb delivers 439 mg of calcium (recommended RDI is 1,000, milk has about 300 mg in 1 cup); 190 mg of phosphorus (1 chicken thigh has 150 mg); 10 mg of iron (1 cup spinach has .81 mg); 37.36 IU Vitamin A (17,000 in ½ cup cooked carrot); and 438 mg Vitamin C (an orange sports 53.2 mg). Not bad for that often sad-looking, wilted sprig languishing on the plates of contemporary diners.
For the ancients, parsley was a symbol of victory, joy, even revelry and festivity. Since he was thought to have the power of speech, did Arion kick up his heels, toss his glossy mane, and whinny, “Man, I’m feeling my parsley!”?
Parsley as a Significant Ingredient
For thousands of years parsley has been nourishing man as well as horses. ~ Sylvia Windle Humphrey, A Matter of Taste
Over time, the custom of using herbs in great handfuls, quantities large enough to be truly nourishing, has been – for the most part – lost. However, I would argue that because it is so commonly available and at the same time uniquely beneficial, what better herb to reawaken that tradition than parsley?
The variety of parsley known as Hamburg is grown for its enlarged and fleshy taproot. In his Gardeners’ Dictionary in 1771, Philip Miller writes, “the large-rooted Parsley…under cultivation develops both a parsnip-like, as well as a turnip-shaped form… the roots being six times as large as the common Parsley.” Miller goes on to describe the “long white” and the “round sugar” forms as being commonly sold in London markets at that time.
If you can find it at a farmers’ market (if not, you can easily grow it), I recommend that you scrub and trim an equal number of carrots, parsnips, and the roots of Hamburg parsley. Drizzle with olive oil and toss together with a handful of chopped fresh parsley, salt, and pepper. You can add a dash of nutmeg or cinnamon but the sweetness of the parsnips is all you really need. Sauté all together in melted butter over medium-high heat for about 12 minutes or until crisp-tender. Delicious.
In her ©1934 book, Culinary Herbs and Condiments, Maud Grieve advises that the “Neapolitan, or celery-leaved Parsley is grown for the use of its leaf-stalks, which are blanched and eaten like those of celery.” This inspired me to try making a simple salad of equal parts celery sticks (about ¼” thick and 1 to 2” long), parsnip sticks, carrot sticks, and Neapolitan parsley stalks, cut to the same length. Sauté all together in a generous glug of olive oil over medium-high heat for about 12 minutes or until crisp-tender. Serve over a nest of baby arugula and drizzle with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Divine.
Recipes Featuring Parsley by the Handful
We all know and love Tabbouleh with its bulgur, chopped fresh mint, and parsley – sometimes tossed with summer-ripened chunks of tomatoes and dressed with lemon juice and cold pressed olive oil. But what other dishes can benefit from generous amounts of the lightly spiced, anise- and lemon-tasting fresh parsley? Try experimenting by adding more-than-usual amounts to sauces, salads, side dishes, and main course favorites.
Grieve warns us, though, to never chop parsley destined for a sauce. Instead, she tells us to pick, remove the stalks, and blanch whole leaves for 1 minute in boiling water with ½ teaspoon baking soda and a pinch of salt. Lift out of the water and pat dry. Sauté in butter that you would use in the sauce and “it will break into tiny shreds, and both odor and flavor are better than if chopped in the usual way.”
The following parsley-friendly recipes will get you started thinking of this herb as a bonafide ingredient instead of the timid seasoning it has become.
Parslied Nut Loaf
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
½ red pepper, chopped
12 mushrooms, sliced
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 cup chopped salted cashew nuts
½ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup chopped chives
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon sea salt
- Preheat oven to 350º F. Line the bottom and 2 long sides of a loaf pan with parchment paper.
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté onion, pepper, and mushrooms for 12 minutes or until onion is transparent and peppers are tender. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- Add parsley, nuts, bread crumbs, chives and basil and stir to combine. Toss egg and salt into the mixture. Spoon into prepared loaf pan, pressing on the mixture with the back of the spoon. Bake in preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes or until the top is browned and the sides have begun to pull away from the sides.
Parsley and Rice-stuffed Peppers
4 large green, red, or yellow Bell peppers (poblanos also work)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup cooked brown or white rice
3 cups chopped fresh parsley
- Preheat oven to 370° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Slice the stem end off the peppers, discard, and remove the fleshy ribs and seeds. Lower whole peppers into the boiling water and cook for 6 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove using tongs and set, cut side down, on a cooling rack to drain.
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 7 minutes or until soft. Stir in garlic and cook, stirring frequently for 3 minutes. Add rice and parsley and stir well to combine. Taste and add salt as desired.
- Spoon filling into peppers and arrange on prepared baking sheet. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and return to oven to bake for 10 minutes or until peppers are tender.
Green Cabbage with Tomato Sauce
1 small to medium head green cabbage
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
½ green pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup chopped parsley
1 can (28-ounce) diced tomatoes with juice
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
sea salt to taste
- Wash, core and shred the cabbage. Transfer to a large pot and cover with water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or until crisp tender. Set a colander in the sink and pour cabbage into it. Allow to drain while you prepare the tomato sauce.
- Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in onion and pepper and cook, stirring frequently for 7 minutes or until soft and fragrant. Stir in garlic and parsley and cook for 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes. Taste and add salt as desired.
- Return cabbage to the cooking pot and toss with tomato sauce.
Gremolata is the Italian version of Persillade, and it relies on parsley and garlic, but other ingredients may also be added, including lemon zest, anchovies, or other herbs, such as rosemary. Use it with grilled vegetables, as a topping for scalloped potatoes, or vegetable casseroles.
Makes 1 cup (250 mL)
2 cloves garlic
1 cup (250 mL) coarsely chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup (80 mL) toasted slivered almonds or walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tsp (5 mL) sea salt
- In a food processor, process garlic until coarsely chopped. Add parsley, almonds and salt. Pulse for 30 seconds or until mixture is chopped.
- I prefer the mixture to be slightly coarse, but you can process until it is finely chopped, depending on how you plan to use it.