When I was a teenager and had a part-time job setting up the salad bar in the Foothills Hospital cafeteria in Calgary, I became very familiar with parsley. Sure, I had seen parsley before, sitting alongside a pile of fish and chips, or nestled between the two triangular halves of a grilled cheese sandwich, but at the hospital, parsley held pride of place. Don’t get me wrong – nobody ate it, at least as far as I’m aware – but it did serve a special function, for when the nooks and crannies that formed around the salad bar’s ceramic tubs were too small for us to shove a piece of decorative kale into, we turned to parsley. We were taught to be thrifty at the hospital, and so at the end of the day, when we washed up the plastic tongs and ladles, and put the cherry tomatoes and bacon bits back into the fridge, we would pick through the parsley and kale, wash off the drops of salad dressing, and put it back in the fridge for another day.
Good old parsley. Now, if you haven’t been able to get an image fixed in your mind, I’m talking about old-skool parsley here, the bright green curly-leafed variety which is known in the halls outside the science lab as petroselinum crispum. Used primarily as a garnish – though it has been known to perk up a boiled potato or two, and had a bit of a heyday, at least in my grandma’s pantry, as a dried herb – it only really made its leap from plate to mouth when its Italian flat-leafed cousin showed up in the mid-eighties. In my house, the eighties were all about romaine lettuce, pasta – as opposed to that boxed Kraft spaghetti that was part of our family’s bold venture into international cuisine – and ratatouille, all of which were given a little haute-cuisine kick by the inclusion of fresh parsley. We mixed it with butter and poured it over our escargot, and for awhile, everything made sense. But then cilantro came along and blew our minds.
Shortly thereafter, parsley was shown the door.
So imagine my surprise, and dare I say, horror, when I turned up for dinner at the apartment of the dashing 20-something bachelor who would one day be my husband, and discovered that parsley was not just on the menu, but a key component in his signature dish: pasta with butter and parsley. Luckily, I had already been won over by this handsome fella who had charmed me on our first date with a package of Walkers shortbread, and later with a plate of babaganooj and pita, the latter of which he had lovingly cut into bite-sized triangles. And so I ate the pasta with parsley, and declared it delicious, though I cannot say for sure whether this was in fact true, or if I was merely being kind, so smitten was I with the gesture of a home-cooked meal, not to mention the boy in the apron.
When you think about it, parsley has had a pretty rough ride considering its manifold health benefits. For instance, did you know that parsley is actually a relative of celery? Celery! Known in particular for its so-called “volatile” oils – such as limonene, myristicin, and eugenol – parsley is full of all kinds of things that are super good for you, even if you have never heard of them or have no idea what they actually do. It also has lots of things that you have heard about like vitamin A, which helps keep your eyes focused and clear, and vitamin C, which keeps you from getting scurvy. Laden with anti-oxidants, free radicals run for cover when it hits the stage, fearing the power of its anti-carcinogen force-field. In fact, like its stalkier kin, parsley has so many physiological benefits, it would be a shame not to take advantage of them.
I have also discovered a new triumvirate of herbal goodness that takes parsley to new heights. Basically, you take your old parsley and mince it up. Then, you add a little fresh mint and fresh cilantro, and put it into or onto pretty much anything you want. Last weekend, I stuffed a few sliced lemons, some salt, and a big bundle of this fragrant mix into a fresh Dorade Grise. There was so much of it, that it almost doubled as a side dish, and went perfectly with the fish. The next day, I did the same thing with a pot full of polenta and some parmesan cheese – perfection. So the next time you walk past that parsley, barely giving it a moment of your attention, do yourself a favour, and give old parsley another try. You won’t regret it.