If you’re visiting for the first time, this column explores the nature, history, medicinal and culinary uses of herbs in cuisine in general, and in Italian recipes. If you’re a regular, welcome back to The Herb Garden! Today we investigate parsley, or, as it is known in Italian, prezzemolo.
Anyone born before the 90’s will remember the ubiquitous use of curly parsley as a garnish—in fact, it was sometimes hard to find the flat leaf, “Italian” variety in America. Curly parsley is not in fashion these days, but you can still find it in many grocery stores.
In ancient times, parsley had many negative connotations—most often, parsley was associated with death. The Romans, for instance, did not regularly consume it. Throughout many cultures, the herb was seen as a sign of bad luck, but it was often used to make wreaths to ward off misfortune.
Parsley was also thought to be beneficial for sheep and goats, and so farmers would plant it in the fields. In fact, the herb can help make milk from these animals sweeter.
Parsley was once thought to be a remedy for baldness. It was also thought that parsley was an antidote against poison, although we wouldn’t suggest trying that. A poultice made from the crushed herb was once used to draw the poison out from venomous bites.
Parsley is also rich in vitamins A and C, as well as folic acid, which does many good things for the body. Vitamin A is beneficial for vision, and Vitamin C is an anti-inflammatory. Folic acid can help reduce the risk of developing certain cancers.
Parsley might be seen as a little bit “old fashioned” today, but its flavor is indispensable in a variety of dishes. Spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) would be almost unrecognizable without a flurry of chopped green on top. The bright, green flavor cuts through the richness and pairs well with the sweetness of the clams. Similarly, spaghetti aglio e olio is sometimes topped with the herby (though not always). Whole parsley leaves can also be added to fresh pasta dough, which creates a beautiful stamped effect.
Parsley is crucial in a wide variety of Italian sauces. Gremolata, which adds vibrancy to a number of dishes, including vegetables and fish, is a mixture of equal parts chopped garlic, parsley, and lemon peel. In salsa verde (green sauce), prezzemolo is crushed along with capers, anchovies, and spices to make a savory topping for meat dishes. Bagna cauda, the Piemontese vegetable dipping sauce, often has the herb added along with oil, butter, and garlic. This mixture is heated and used as a “hot bath” for raw vegetables such as carrots, celery, fennel and artichoke.
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Julia Terranova is a Brooklyn born, Italian-American student with a love of Rome and all things Italy. She spends her time cooking for friends and reading as many cookbooks as she can find.