Parsley: More Than Garnish

Although most of you probably think of parsley as the green stuff nestled modestly between the mixed vegetables and the entree when you go out to eat, this undervalued herb has three times more vitamin C than citrus juice, more iron than most leafy greens, vitamin A, potassium, iodine, magnesium and other goodies that make it too good to leave behind when dinner’s over!

Used historically since the Middle Ages to treat an astonishing variety of ailments from water retention, gonorrhea, liver, spleen and gallstone blockages, to malaria, parsley was also worn around the necks of ancient Romans at banquets to absorb alcoholic fumes and reduce intoxication!

Today, parsley is most often credited with diuretic properties, relieving flatulence and bloating and addressing both menstrual and prostate problems. Parsley’s high chlorophyll content also makes it a “socially useful” herb to freshen breath, and is frequently paired with garlic, as in the taboulleh salad, to counteract garlic’s strong taste and odor. Current studies link parsley to possible cancer treatments, and it may improve adrenal malfunction in cases of low blood sugar.

Externally, a poultice of bruised fresh parsley leaves help soothe insect bites, bruises, and itchy, cracked or chapped skin, while it has been cited as useful in removing freckles, liver spots, moles and even head lice. An old remedy uses violets, parsley, red clover and pansies in an ointment to removing skin, while another recipe pairs boiled parsley and houseleek in milk to relieve bed wetting in children.

Parsley is not recommended, however, for pregnant women, as it could cause uterine contractions.

The two most familiar types of parsley are the curly, petroselinum crispum, and the Italian flat-leafed variety, petroselinum sativum, also known as “Hamburg.” Also called “smallage,” parsley has seen a colorful past marked with the rise and fall of favor through the centuries. In 1682, a publication called The English Midwife associated it with increasing the flow of breast milk and, quite interestingly, also increasing lust; however, another source said that parsley could be used to dry up breast milk by putting bruised parsley under the armpits!

There are many legends connected with parsley, one stating that if parsley grows well, then the lady of the house is the dominant resident. Another says that it only grows in a witch’s garden. The Greeks fed it to their chariot horses that, according to Homer, made them run faster. Parsley is dedicated to Persephone, the Queen of Hades, and is associated with ancient Greek funeral rites.

For culinary uses, parsley is best at bringing out the flavors of other herbs, especially in salads or with vegetables. Try mixing it with basil for a delicious pesto variation, or mix with fresh basil and summer savory and sprinkle on tomato slices for a peppery flavor.

Parsley is an important ingredient in bouquet garni and excellent in sauces, soups, fish and cheese dishes.

Herb butters are also great ways to enjoy parsley. To make parsley butter, blend 2 tablespoons chopped parsley to one-quarter stick softened butter. Add a touch of lemon juice or white wine to enhance the flavor, mix well and refrigerate. Or, make a parsley sauce for cold lamb or beans by finely chopping 1 hard-boiled egg and mixing well with 3 tablespoons of French dressing and 6 tablespoons of fresh or dried parsley. Let this stand for a half hour before serving.

Sow parsley seeds densely in spring and throughout the summer, as it is notoriously slow and erratic to germinate. Myth says this is because the “seed has to go back 7 times to the Devil” before it grows, and several sources recommended soaking the seeds overnight or steeping in boiling water to aid germination. Parsley likes alkaline or neutral soil, keeping it moist but well drained. It prefers full sun or light shade, and is successfully grown in containers, flowering with green-yellow flowers in June and July. Hardy to 0 degrees, some varieties can reach 2 feet. The flat-leafed Italian parsley is considered more vigorous than the curly variety and it’s recommended to collect the leaves in the second year of growth for the best flavor.

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