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Parsley's got Personality

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I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my new e-book “Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa” which is almost complete. I decided it was time to write a book on these little miracles of nature because there is a growing and widespread interest in herbs today, as people rediscover the joys of organic gardening and the health benefits of using herbs daily. For most of us our interest in herbs begins with food and the wonderful flavours and fragrances they bring to our dishes, but growing herbs will not only spice up your life but also reward you with their beauty and wonderful healing properties. Besides, the prices of both dried and fresh herbs at vegetable and grocery stores is incredibly high, and taking into account that these extraordinary plants are some of the easiest to cultivate - it simply makes sense to grow your own!

When you say “parsley” to people, most will think of garnish, right? This could not be further from the truth because this slightly peppery and bright herb is so much more than a bit of green on the side of your plate - it’s one of the oldest spices known to man! No refrigerator should be without this workhorse of the herb world - it goes in just about every dish you cook and there’s a world of recipes out there.

Flat leaf ParsleyFlat leaf ParsleyFlat leaf ParsleyParsley is excellent for your health, with a vitamin C concentration that is amongst the highest of any food. It’s also a rich source of fibre, iron, calcium, lutein, and beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A.) So, if you’ve ever bought a bunch of parsley, torn off a few sprigs to add some colour to a dish, then completely forgot about it until it rotted away - it’s time to rethink this remarkable green. Make it the base of your next pesto, or shower meats and seafood with it - it brightens up a dish like a squeeze of lemon.

Parsley’s got personality, and its robust “green” flavour is delicious in a multitude of recipes where it’s put centre stage. One of the easiest ways to feature parsley is in “Persillade” - a French term for a simple, ready to use sauce or seasoning mixture which can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. In its simplest form, persillade consists of equal parts by volume of chopped garlic and parsley, but many other variations are made. It’s a common ingredient in many dishes like the classic French bistro dish called “Pommes Persillade” - a simple but delicious dish of cubed potatoes fried in a small amount of oil, with persillade added at the end of the cooking time. Another delicious way to use it is to simply add it as a garnish for fried or grilled chicken. By adding lemon jest to the garlic and parsley you have what Italians call “Gremolata” - a traditional accompaniment to the famous Milanese braised veal shank dish “Ossobuco Alla Milanese.” This simple parsley and garlic mix is also used extensively in several other countries, and cuisines: Greek, Cajun, Louisiana Creole, and Québécois cuisines.

Parsley is believed to be native to the central Mediterranean region - southern Italy, Algeria, and Tunisia, but has been cultivated for many centuries and is naturalized throughout much of Europe. Much of the folklore surrounding parsley can probably be attributed to a look-alike plant called “fool’s parsley” which is actually deadly, and this is most likely why the ancient Greeks, Romans, and also the English, only used parsley for ceremonial purposes, and never at the dining table.

Curly ParsleyCurly ParsleyCurly ParsleyThe Ancient Greeks associated it with death as it was supposed to have sprung from the blood of Archemorus, whose name meant ‘forerunner of death.’ The ancient Romans wore garlands of parsley on their heads during wedding feasts to ward off intoxication; and victors at funeral games (athletic contests held in honour of a recently deceased person) were crowned with parsley. The saying “to be in need of parsley” was also the Romans way of saying that someone was terribly ill and not expected to survive.

Parsley was also associated with death in England, and different regions had their own versions of parsley history and folklore. To the Welsh parsley signified the gallows rope, and in Surrey and in other southern English counties it was said, “where parsley’s grown in the garden, there’ll be a death before the years out.” Folklore also seeks to explain why parsley seeds have a slow germination rate, saying that the reason for the slow and unreliable germination, is that the seed goes nine times to the devil and back before coming up; and the devil keeps the un-germinated ones himself!

Thankfully, in spite of its connections with death and suffering, someone figured out that real parsley was quite tasty and worthy of growing. The Romans introduced the herb to England during their colonial rule; and the early immigrants took it to the Americas with them - so parsley spread far and wide, to become one of the most widely used culinary herbs today.

The history of the use of real parsley (Petroselinum crispum) as a culinary and medicinal herb started from the centuries old belief that at the end of the meal, chewing a few of the fresh leaves will refresh the breath. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) who was an author, naturalist, and natural philosopher of the early Roman Empire, mentioned parsley as a cure for ailing fish, and listed it as a popular flavouring for broths and sauces; and Nicholas Culpepper (1616-1654) an English author, botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer said “it brings urine and women’s curses,” referring to parsley’s diuretic effect.
 
Today we know that fresh parsley is highly nutritious and extremely rich in vitamin K, an essential fat-soluble vitamin that plays an important role in bone and heart health. Vitamin K is one of the main vitamins involved in bone mineralization and blood clotting, but also helps to maintain brain function, a healthy metabolism, and protects against cancer.

Parsley is also an excellent source of vitamin C and a good source of vitamin A, iron, and folic acid, one of the most important B vitamins, which plays numerous roles in the body, but one of its most critical roles is in relation to cardiovascular health. Eating foods rich in folic acid like parsley is an especially good idea for individuals who either have, or wish to prevent, these diseases. Folic acid is also a critical nutrient for proper cell division and is therefore vitally important for cancer-prevention in two areas of the body that contain rapidly dividing cells, namely, the colon; and in women, the cervix. The leaves also contain a significant amount of protein and chlorophyll, as well as many other trace minerals important for our general good health.

Parsley oil exhibits antimicrobial, antiseptic, astringent, carminative, digestive, diuretic, and detoxifying properties, and can be useful for various ailments. Commercially it is used as an ingredient for soaps, cosmetics, detergents, colognes, and perfumes, especially men’s fragrances.

The bright green leaves of parsley have a sharp, peppery taste, and the stems actually carry more of the flavour than the leaves; so save them for soups and stews which have a longer cooking time.  Flat leaved parsley is preferred by many cooks because it has a sweeter flavour than curly parsley, and stands up to long cooking times better. Others prefer curlyleaf parsley because of its more decorative appearance in garnishing.

Parsley complements any savoury dish and is especially good in fresh salads. It goes extremely well with meat, poultry and fish dishes, and is delicious in pasta and cheese sauces. Flat leaf parsley is widely used in Middle Eastern, European, Brazilian, and American cooking; and in southern and central Europe, parsley is part of a “bouquet garni” - a bundle of fresh herbs used as an ingredient in stocks, soups, and sauces.  

Parsley is the main ingredient in Italian “Salsa Verde” - a mixed condiment of parsley, capers, anchovies, garlic and bread, soaked in vinegar, and served with “Bollito Misto,” or fish.  Bollito misto is a famous, classic Italian dish of mixed meats like beef, chicken, sausage and veal, simmered with vegetables and seasonings in broth, and served with a green sauce based on parsley, or alternatively, a red sauce based on tomato.

In England “Parsley Sauce” is a roux-based sauce, commonly served over fish or gammon. In Brazil, freshly chopped parsley and freshly chopped spring onions (scallions) are the main ingredients in the herb seasoning called “Cheiro-verde,” which literally means “green smell” in Portuguese. It is used as a key seasoning in many Brazilian dishes, including meat, chicken, fish, rice, beans, stews, soups, vegetables, salads, condiments, sauces, and stocks. Parsley is also a key ingredient in several Middle Eastern salads like “Tabbouleh” - an Arab Middle Eastern vegetarian dish traditionally made of tomatoes, parsley, mint, bulgur, and onion, and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt.

To keep bunches of fresh parsley from wilting, simply clip and place in a glass of cold water; loosely cover with a plastic bag, and chill in the refrigerator - if they were wilted the cuttings will perk up in no time! Fresh stems will also keep in the refrigerator for a week or so if they are wrapped in damp paper towels and placed in sealed plastic bags in the crisper drawer. Stems and leaves can also be frozen in ice cubes, or whole in sealed plastic bags.

In cultivation, parsley is subdivided into several groups of cultivars, depending on the form of the plant. The two most widely used are curly leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and Italian, or flat leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum neapolitanum.)

All types make a very pretty border in the garden and even a couple of plants will supply you with sufficient fresh leaves.  Planting parsley at the base of your roses is said to increase their fragrance and repel harmful beetles. It also makes a good companion for chives, carrots, corn, onions, peas, tomatoes, chilli, and sweet peppers.

When parsley is grown in cooler climates this biennial herb can produce leaves for up to one and a half years before it produces flowers and needs replacing. Although it is hardy to frost, in very cold regions it may die down in winter. Unfortunately, it tends to suffer, and may die in very hot and humid regions, where it is better grown as an annual during the cooler seasons.  In the first year the plant forms a rosette of leaflets, and a long taproot which is used as a food store over the winter. In the second year it grows a flowering stem 75cm tall, with sparser leaves, and flat-topped umbels of numerous white to yellowish-green flowers.

Parsley can be grown in containers, but because it has long roots, pots at least 30cm deep work best. In the garden it is essential to plant in deep, rich, composted soil which drains well. Although parsley loves sun, in hot, dry regions it will appreciate some shade. Water it well, and parsley will provide you with leaves for many months in summer and winter.  

Harvest parsley leaves as required by cutting the stems an inch or two above the ground. Always harvest from the outer edges, and not directly from the middle of the plant, as this will keep the plant producing for longer. Also, to encourage more leaf growth, remove any flower stalks which may form during the first year of growth.

Parsley is easily propagated from seed sown directly into garden beds, or seedling trays, when the soil has warmed in spring or early summer. Germination is slow and can take four to six weeks - soaking the seeds overnight prior to planting will aid germination. Seeds should be planted no more than 6mm deep, and the soil should never be allowed to dry out, but kept constantly moist, but not soggy, until germination. Seedlings should be thinned to a final spacing of 10 to 15cm, with 30 to 60cm between rows. If you wish to collect seed, parsley should be left in the ground for a second year; and if left to its own devices, will conveniently seed itself in the garden, popping up all over the place.

Parsley suffers from no serious insect or disease problems, but adult swallowtail butterflies may lay their eggs on the leaves, because parsley is a favourite food for their caterpillars; so plant a few extra for these beautiful butterflies. Also, if parsley is allowed to go to seed, it will attract hoverflies to your garden, but don’t be alarmed, the larvae of some species of hoverflies are known to eat aphids, thrips, and other destructive garden insects. Small black ants seem to love parsley roots and you may see activity at ground level. They do not, however, seem to damage the plants.

Damping-off diseases can occur when parsley is sown in cold soil that does not drain well. Sow in raised beds to help with drainage, and sow only high quality seed. Fungal diseases like powdery mildew and rust can spread long distances in the air, and disease emergence is favoured by high humidity and moderate temperatures; with infection being most severe in shaded areas. To prevent this, plant tolerant varieties, avoid excess fertilisation, and apply protective sulphur-based organic fungicides when conditions favour outbreaks.

Caution: Although no major toxicities have been reported with the use of fresh parsley in cooking, do not use parsley oil without the supervision of a qualified health care practitioner.

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