The fact that I have chosen Parsley as the herb of the month for December reflects not that it is at its best at this time but how essential this herb is. Dried parsley would be utterly pointless so it is worth making the effort to grow a fresh supply all year round and we are lucky that our climate enables us to do this. Several years of trying to track down parsley as the last remaining item on my Christmas food shopping list taught me the value of growing it year round! I reckon to get through two good-sized bunches over the Christmas period.
Parsley is a biennial herb, but in its second year it tends quickly to run to seed. Nevertheless this stands you in good stead until the current year’s sowing is ready to cut. There is plenty of folklore attached to Parsley, one being that a good harvest is ensured if you sow the seeds on Good Friday. Easter is a moveable feast, but if it happens to be early, so that Good Friday falls in March, I would be happy to go along with the superstition. If Good Friday is not until mid April, I would find it hard to wait so long. Spring sowings are best planted in a semi-shaded position whilst for a late summer sowing (mid July-August), intended for winter consumption, your choice of site will be more concerned with providing protection from cold winds. For overwintering I tend to cover one row of flat-leafed parsley with a cloche whilst curled leaf parsley I sow in pots to keep in the greenhouse.
There are two key things to bear in mind when growing parsley. The first is that it is very deep-rooted. Germination time is very slow – said to be because the seed must first go down to meet the devil and back six times! The second point is not unrelated – that is that it is a very thirsty plant, hence the deep roots that help it search out moisture. With the amount of rain we tend to receive I find it hard to believe that failures in germination in my garden can be caused by a lack of moisture, but perhaps, because of my tendency to sow under the protection of a plastic cloche, this could in fact be the case. The reason for the cover is two-fold, on the one hand it helps warm up the soil early in the season but secondly it protects the seeds from birds, which tend to use my herb bed as a dust-bath. I frequently find parsley that has germinated outside of the row in which it was sown and the birds are, I presume, the reason for this. Parsley seeds can be soaked in warm water overnight before sowing to aid germination, and watering the drill into which they are to be sown is also sensible.
Another bit of folklore – it was said that if parsley was transplanted misfortune would descend the household. I have been saved from finding out by being spectacularly unsuccessful in any attempts to transplant pot grown seedlings to the outside herb bed. I have had occasional success with the curled-leaf variety, but none whatsoever with the flat leaf. So if you are planting in pots, make sure they are deep enough for the roots and just move the entire pot outside when inside protection is no longer required.
As you might imagine there are numerous uses for parsley, the most widely used of all herbs. Firstly there is its role as an essential flavouring in stocks and stews – usually as part of a Bouquet Garni. The stalks are just as flavoursome as the leaves, so use them for this purpose.
Next it is widely used as a garnish. Forget the naff sprig on the side of the plate, but think instead of Italian Gremolata (chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest) used to top meat dishes such as Osso Buco, or the French version Persillade (similar to Gremolata but without the lemon zest), used to garnish meat or vegetables especially lamb and potatoes. Another take on this theme is chopped parsley and shallot – milder than garlic and perfect on top of oysters. Chopped raw parsley freshens and lifts any dish but it is not spoiled by being briefly heated and so is used to finish both hot and cold foods. Deep fried curled parsley is another popular garnish, especially with fish.
Parsley is less frequently the dominant flavouring, although you will note that in the recipe for Tabbouleh, given previously when considering mint, it is actually used in twice the proportion to the mint. A good old fashioned parsley sauce is however one example of where parsley is allowed to shine in its own right. I love it with gammon and broad beans. The trick is not to make the sauce too thick, a velouté – made with half stock and half single cream is better than the traditional British white sauce.
Chewing parsley as a breath freshener is a well known remedy, and the reason it so frequently partners garlic. Less well known are the diuretic properties that make it helpful in treating urinary infections or that it increases mothers’ milk and tones the uterine muscles although should only be taken after birth, not during the pregnancy.
Given the prevalence of head lice nowadays it is also good to known of a natural remedy. Apparently a tea made from crushed parsley seeds, then poured over the head and left, with the head wrapped in a towel for 30 minutes will kill the lice. The hair should then be left to dry naturally.
Apricot, Celery and Walnut Stuffing for Turkey
Parsley, Lemon and Thyme Stuffing for Chicken