Parsley is an herb that I use almost as frequently as Cilantro. I buy several bunches of it per week, and like with cilantro I throw it into everything. It’s got a beautiful color, a heavenly smell, and a wonderful taste - but really is it any wonder that I love it so much when Parsley and Cilantro are related? You might not think so but parsley and coriander (cilantro) actually belong to the same family. The Apiaceae family, other members of which include fennel, dill, cumin, celery, carrot, anise, hemlock and lovage. Though there are several varieties of parlay there are really only two types commonly used as herbs. Curly parsley, and leaf - or Italian - parsley, which is my favorite. Curly parsley is more decorative in appearance, as it’s name suggests it’s rather curly, where as Leaf parsley, also called flat-leaf parsley is flat, and looks a lot like cilantro. The flat variety is said to have a stronger flavor then the curly type but different opinions on this subject abound. The reason I like flat-leaf parsley best is because it’s a lot easier to mince. There is a third type of parsley commonly grown throughout central and eastern Europe called root parsley which produces a much thicker root then the types of parsley cultivated for their leaves. These roots are often used in casseroles, or soups, or simply eaten raw, but they are not to be confused with the parsnip. Though the parsnip is actually the closest relative of parsley in the Apiaceae family, the two taste quite different. Now, I don’t know about you but I find that kind of stuff fascinating.
Unfortunately, as wonderful as parsley is, it is so often neglected in our cooking. Parsley is considered somewhat of a ‘bland’ herb - don’t ask me why, - and is more often then not relegated to the world of artistic plating where it is perpetually stuck playing the part of a mere garnish. A real travesty if I ever heard one. If you just so happen to be one of those people that doesn’t give parsley the time of day, then I hope that by the time you’ve reached the end of this post you’ve changed your mind.
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean (Southern Italy, Algeria, Tunisia.) Though it’s been cultivated for more then 2000 years parsley was first used medicinally before it was consumed as a food. The ancient Greeks held parsley to be sacred and used it to adorn victors of athletic contests as well as for decorating the tombs of the dead. Interestingly enough using parsley as a garnish has a long history that can be traced back to the civilization of ancient Rome.
When parsley made the shift from medicinal and sacrificial use to culinary use is unknown. However that change is thought to have occurred at sometime during the Middle Ages in Europe. Some historians even credit Charlemagne with it’s popularization since he had it grown on his estates.
Health Benefits -
Parsley contains two components that provide unique health benefits, volatile oil, and flavonoids. Parsley’s volatile oils - particularly myristicin - have been shown to inhibit tumor formation - particularly tumor formation in the lungs - in animal studies. Myristicin has also shown an ability to activates the enzyme glutathione-S-transferase which helps attach the molecule glutathione to oxidized molecules that would otherwise do damage in the body. The activity of parsley’s volatile oils make it a ‘chemoprotective’ food, and a food that can help naturalize particular carcinogens - such as those found in cigarette smoke or charcoal grill smoke.
The Flavonoids in parsley - especially luteolin - have been shown to function as antioxidants that can help prevent oxygen based damage to cells. In addition parsley extracts have been used in animal-based studies to help increase the antioxidant capacity of the blood.
Parsley is also an excellent source of Vitamin C which is important since vitamin C is the body’s primary water-soluble antioxidant, capable of defeating otherwise dangerous free radicles in all water soluble parts of the body. Since high levels of free radicals contribute to both the development and progression of diseases like atherosclerosis, cancer, diabetes and asthma, people who eat healthy amounts of Vitamin C rich foods may be at lower risk. Vitamin C is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and so it can be useful in conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Not to mention the importance of vitamin C to the immune system.
Parsley is also a great source of beta-carotene, another important antioxidant working in the fat soluble areas of the body. Diets rich in beta-carotene are also associated with a reduced risk of developing atherosclerosis, diabetes, and cancer. Beta-carotene may also help reduce the severity of asthma, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Beta-carotene is also converted by the body into Vitamin A which is an essential nutrient for a strong immune system.
Parsley is also an excellent source of folic acid which plays a critical role in relation to cardiovascular health. Folic acid plays a major role in the body’s process of converting homocysteine into benign molecules. At high levels homocysteine can directly damage blood vessels and significantly increase one’s risk of heart attack or stroke especially in people who may already suffer from atherosclerosis or diabetic heart disease. Folic acid is also a critical nutrient for proper cell division and is vitally important for cancer prevention in two areas of the body that contain rapidly dividing cells - the colon, and the cervix.
I really do use parsley in just about everything. Typically I add it towards the end of cooking or sprinkle it on just before serving a dish, because it’s really best eaten raw. I love it in soups, or stews - anything with an Italian, North American or European feel. I like it sprinkled on salads, or used in certain Middle Eastern dishes like Tabbouleh. It’s great in tomato sauce, it’s great in alfredo sauce. It’s perfect in horseradish cream sauce to ladle over tofu. It makes a great pesto, it’s fantastic blended into salad dressings. It works fantastically with grilled or broiled cauliflower, and I love it paired with chickpeas. Really it’s hard to go wrong with parsley so the next time you’re at hte market pick up a bunch or two and don’t be afraid to use it. Experiment and enjoy, that’s what cooking’s all about!