How to grow parsley and use it in the kitchen

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By Judy Barrett
 |  Special to the American-Statesman

The International Herb Association established National Herb Week in 1991, and every year since 1995 they have chosen an Herb of the Year. The Herb of the Year must fulfill its mandate by being useful in at least two out of three categories: medicinal, culinary or decorative. This year that herb is parsley, Petroselinum crispum, and it qualifies on all counts.

Parsley was cultivated as early as the third century BC. The Greeks tied it to their horses before battles to make them impervious to weapons. The Romans used it as a garnish and flavoring and decorated their tables and floors with it to absorb unpleasant odors. Medieval Europeans believed that if you spoke your enemy’s name while plucking a sprig of parsley, your enemy would drop dead. Parsley came to the U.S. with the early settlers, and it continued to grow widely throughout the country as a culinary herb. We don’t use it much to kill enemies anymore.

Of all the culinary herbs, parsley is probably the widest known, and probably it is best known as that green, curly thing that restaurants put on your plate. The tradition of putting a sprig on the plate has good reason behind it. The chlorophyll in parsley will help freshen your breath if you chew it after you finish the other food. Most people just ignore it. Too bad.

How to grow parsley

Parsley belongs in every garden. A biennial plant, it produces a nice clump of leaves in the first year of growth and flowers in the second year. The flowers are very attractive to beneficial insects, and for that reason alone it deserves a place in the garden.

It also makes a lovely border or container plant because it is mannerly and will maintain its compact shape.

Parsley prefers cool weather and is more likely to be done in by heat than by cold. In our climate, plant it in the fall and give it some shelter from afternoon sun and a good mulch in the summer. Once the flowers begin to appear, the plant will die. You can postpone the inevitable by pinching off the flower stalks as they appear.

You can also plant a new plant or two every year so you always have some 1-year-olds as well as 2-year-olds in the garden. Plant in good garden soil and water when it is dry. Nothing could be easier. Pests are rarely a problem.

There are two basic types of parsley: curly-leaf and flat-leaf (aka Italian). Curly-leaf was all we knew for years, but now flat-leaf is more popular. The curly-leaf has a more subtle flavor than the flat. Flat-leaf can stand up to stronger herbs like rosemary in sauces better than curly.

On the other hand, curly is prettier in the garden. Judge for yourself which you like better. Either one is a tasty and healthy addition to your life. There is no reason why you can’t grow both in your garden.

Parsley is an excellent companion for many other plants. Plant it or sprinkle its leaves among tomato and asparagus plants to encourage growth. Planted beneath or next to roses, parsley will increase the fragrance of roses and improve their general health.

Make a tea of parsley and spray it on the garden to ward off asparagus beetles. Hoverflies, beneficial wasps and other predatory insects love parsley flowers.

Although they signal the end of that plant, the flowers do have their value. The flowers also attract the swallowtail butterfly. They will lay eggs on the plant, and the brightly colored larvae will gobble it up. Because the flowers signal the end of that plant anyway, it’s good to use its waning life to feed butterflies. These are the same butterflies that love dill and fennel.

It is a good idea to separate plants that are close relatives of parsley: dill, fennel, carrots and gotu kola. If they are planted close together, they will likely cross-pollinate and none of them will taste very good.

Buy your parsley from a nursery, and don’t try to find it in the wild. Fool’s parsley, a wild plant that looks and smells like parsley, is poisonous and not something you want in your garden or kitchen. Parsley essential oils are also best avoided. The fresh plant provides the nutrition and taste that work best.

If you buy it in the grocery store or decide to harvest a bunch before it starts to flower, make a bouquet and put it in a container of water – glass, vase, fruit jar, whatever – and store it in the refrigerator. It will stay fresher longer than if you just toss it in the vegetable bin or a closed container.

How to use parsley

In addition to being highly useful in the kitchen, parsley is also good for you. Parsley is rich in vitamins, minerals and antiseptic chlorophyll. It is high in vitamins A, E and C and contains iron, iodine and copper. The plant also contains apigenin, a flavonoid that reduces allergic responses and acts as an antioxidant.

In addition to using it to freshen breath, a poultice of chopped leaves can be made into an antiseptic dressing for sprains, wounds and bug bites. A tea will make a soothing eye bath if you are suffering from tired or strained eyes. Parsley is also said to increase milk in nursing mothers.

Parsley is almost universally used as a culinary herb. It blends well with most other flavors and adds a mildly spicy taste of its own. You can snip it into sauces, dressings or just about any dish. It is generally an ingredient in bouquet garni (along with bay, thyme and oregano). Tied together, this group of herbs adds depth of flavor to soups and stews, but don’t forget to remove the bundle before the dish is served.

Combine parsley with butter to spread on biscuits, rolls, corn muffins and broiled meat. (You can also freeze this butter and have it on hand for any occasion.) Add garlic to that parsley butter and toss with hot pasta, spread on Italian or French bread or put a dollop on fresh steamed vegetables.

Chop parsley and add to salads. Add parsley to other herbs when you are making pesto. It will make the other herbs go further and give the resulting sauce a nice, slightly different flavor.

Whisk into salad dressings and sauces. Add plenty to your stuffing. It has an affinity for most foods, including poultry.

Poultry seasoning: Mix together 2 cups dried parsley, 1 cup chopped dried sage, 1/2 cup dried crushed rosemary, 1/2 cup dried crushed oregano, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 3 tablespoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, 2 teaspoons onion powder. Pour into airtight containers. Shake well before using.

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