Where’ve you been, curly parsley?

The herb long upstaged by its Italian cousin is mounting a heroic culinary comeback

Where've you been, curly parsley?

Food fashion has an uncanny knack of echoing the culture at large. Consider the ephemeral bubbles of the last decade—in economic markets and on plates in the form of subatomic foams, “Powdered Anjou Pigeon” and other overhyped molecular gastronomical concoctions. So there’s some definite cosmic realignment in the fact that the next touted trend is the return of a classic ingredient long sneered at by a crowd looking for the next big “wow.” In its year-end “trends for 2010” issue, Canadian House & Home identified curly parsley as a “hot” gourmet food item, proclaiming the common herb the new “star of high-end cuisine,” with chefs suddenly favouring “its intense flavour over flat-leaf.”

As reversals in culinary conventional wisdom go, this is major. For eons, curly parsley has been regarded as the maraschino cherry of the herb world—a fusty dowager garnish of interest to serious cooks only as an ironic retro touch or when replicating Julia Child recipes to a T. Of course, when Child introduced bouquet garni to North American kitchens in the 1960s, leaf formation wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t until the advent of Emeril, Mario, Jamie, Marcella et al. that flat-leaf or “Italian” parsley eclipsed the WASP staple as the more full-flavoured, “authentic” culinary essential.

Its less-expensive frilly sibling was demoted to vastly inferior species, reflected in a post on the food blog Chowhound by a gourmand stranded with “a HUGE amount of curly parsley instead of the flat-leafed I asked for,” which created a crisis: “I think curly parsley is pretty flavourless, but have got to use this up! Any ideas?” (Responses ranged from chimichurri sauce to the obvious tip it be used in recipes that call for parsley.)

Curly parsley has long been a joke in the food world, says Claire Tansey, Canadian House & Home’s food editor, herself a recent curly-parsley convert. Her eureka moment occurred at New York City’s Bouley Bakery last summer when she ordered a roast beef sandwich with “curly parsley pesto.” A taste test back in Toronto confirmed her hunch: “It was so much more flavourful, in variety of [flavour] notes and lack of cardboardy taste than you can get with fresh herbs.”

But it has also always had its defenders willing to buck conventional wisdom. In How to Cook Everything, published in 1998, author Mark Bittman enthuses about curly parsley’s “bright, clean flavour.” And in the 2004 classic On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Harold McGee explains that curly parsley, like fine wine (and unlike flat-leaf), improves with age: “the flat leaves have a strong parsley flavour when young and later develop a woody note, while curly leaves start out mild and woody and develop the parsley character when more mature.”

Slowly, the crinkly herb is regaining culinary cred. In Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, from the celebrated London, U.K.-based Middle Eastern fusion restaurants, “curly parsley” is called for specifically in many salads and dressings. Acclaimed chef George Mavrothalassitis, the owner of Chef Mavro in Honolulu, is a parsley aficionado who adores the curly kind. Born and trained in France, Mavrothalassitis uses Italian parsley for cooking but prefers “American” parsley, as he calls it, in cold applications such as infused oils and sauces. “It gives better colour and better flavour,” he says (the higher chlorophyll content in curly parsley provides a more vivid emerald hue than the darker flat-leaf). He has his own take on the taste difference: “Uncooked Italian parsley is tart and bitter but American parsley is very smooth; it is more elegant.”

It’s also hardier and long-lasting, says Tansey, who calls curly parsley her new “go-to herb”: “If you put it in a Mason jar in the fridge, you can keep snipping it off for weeks, unlike flat-leaf parsley whose leaves can get stuck together and gluey.” (Adding to its versatility is the fact it contains ascorbic acid, like lemons, and thus can be put in water to stop food like artichokes or apples from going brown after they’ve been cut open.)

Tansey sees curly parsley’s return resonating with an industry-wide reassessment of foods that had been marginalized or viewed as unworthy, noting that potato chips used as a base for hors d’oeuvres is another example. “There’s something wonderful about taking an ugly duckling and turning it into a swan,” she says. Now we just have to figure out how to garnish that swan.