Whenever I am cooking with parsley, I automatically start humming the line “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” from the song Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel. In the song’s lyrics, a young man lists the herbs he would like his girl to grow for him, among many other things he would like her to do for him (eyeroll!). These herbs, commonly used in cooking in medieval times, are symbolic of love and remembrance.
Parsley is associated with new beginnings, sage with wisdom and longevity, rosemary with remembrance, and thyme with courage. The 1966 song is utterly hummable even in 2023.
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that parsley had the power to bring the dead back to life and used it to adorn graves. There is no documentation of parsley in traditional Indian cooking, although other herbs and spices, such as fennel, dill and cumin from the same family, Apiaceae, are commonly used. Over the last decade or so, herbs like parsley, basil, rosemary, etc., have become regulars in the Indian kitchen, to flavour dishes from international cuisines.
There are two kinds of fresh parsley—curly and flat leaf. Curly parsley has frilly ruffled leaves, less power-packed with flavour than flat-leaf parsley. It is used mainly as a garnish. Flat-leaf parsley is also known as Italian parsley, more robust in flavour, and has flat leaves. Flat-leaf parsley is used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. The popular Middle Eastern salad tabbouleh has tons of finely chopped mint and parsley as the main greens of the salad; no lettuce is needed. Falafels are also chockful of herbs such as parsley, coriander and sometimes, mint. Parsley is a hardy herb and withstands longer cooking times in stews and soups.
It took me a few tries to grow parsley from seed in my kitchen garden. Once it took off a year ago, I have had a few bunches of flat-leaf parsley thriving in all weather conditions in Bengaluru. It is useful to have easy access to this flavoursome herb, be it for garnish, use in salads, to make herb oil or to throw handfuls into a simple pasta dish. Stuff a small bunch of parsley in a glass bottle. Cover with lightly heated olive oil. Screw the lid and let this sit in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks to have a beautiful parsley-scented olive oil to cook with. The aroma of parsley complements the grassy flavour of good extra virgin olive oil. Parsley leaves can also be blended with olive oil to get a vibrant parsley oil to drizzle on pasta, pizza, bread or even salads.
Aside from these, there are some much loved condiments in the culinary world, with parsley as the star ingredient, that you can try out at home.
Gremolata is a classic Italian herb mixture made with parsley, lemon zest and garlic. It is often used as a topping for dishes like osso buco and fish. This also tastes amazing on simple roasted potatoes or on toasted sourdough.
In French cooking, there’s persillade, a mixture of parsley, garlic and lemon that is used as a seasoning for meats, fish and vegetables. Spoon some of this mixture on quiches and savoury tarts.
Salsa verde in Spanish cuisine is a green salsa made with parsley, capers, anchovies and olive oil. In Mexican cuisine, coriander, jalapeños and tomatillos can also be used in salsa verde, adding to its bright green colour. Serve this along with tortilla chips or nachos.
Chimichurri is a popular Argentinean sauce made with parsley, garlic, olive oil and red wine vinegar. I love to use this as a salad dressing, on roasted vegetables and fire-roasted corn on the cob.
In his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain, the late American chef, television personality and author, lists chiffonaded parsley under the topic “how to cook like the pros” as one of the ingredients that separates food at home from food in a restaurant. “Dip the picked sprigs in cold water, shake off excess, allow to dry for a few minutes, and slice the stuff, as thinly as you can, with that sexy new chef’s knife I inspired you to buy. I promise you, sprinkled over or around your plate it’ll give your chow that striking professional touch it’s been missing.”
Roasted carrots topped with Chimichurri sauce
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
For the sauce
1 cup parsley leaves
A handful of coriander leaves
3-4 cloves garlic
1 tbsp red wine vinegar (or use apple cider vinegar)
Half tsp chilli flakes
Half tsp salt
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 190-200 degrees Celsius. Peel and chop the carrots into batons. Toss in salt, pepper and olive oil. Spread out in a single layer on a baking tray. Bake at 190 degrees for 20-25 minutes until cooked through.
Meanwhile, prepare the chimichurri sauce. In a mixer jar, blend all the ingredients for the sauce except the oil until finely ground. Stream the oil while the mixer is running or blend it together to get a sauce. Remove the roasted carrots on a platter and top with the sauce.
Parsley Pesto Pasta
1 cup penne pasta (dry)
3 tbsp grated Parmesan for garnish
Half cup fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
Quarter cup nuts (almonds, walnuts)
Quarter cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves of garlic, minced
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cook pasta and keep it aside. In a food processor, pulse all the pesto ingredients until well combined. Toss the pasta in the pesto. Garnish with Parmesan. Serve warm or cold.
You can also make a salad with the pesto pasta by adding chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes, chopped hard-boiled eggs and some crumbled feta.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). @saffrontrail on Instagram and Twitter.