Brow Beat

Is Garnish a Scam?

Cast iron pan filled with tomato-and-egg dish, surrounded by plates with servings of the same dish, laid out on a blue tablecloth.
Bobbi Lin

“Roughly chopped parsley, for garnish.”

In a recipe’s ingredient list, this line is, without a doubt, the one I always skip. Even in Karen Palmer’s eggs in purgatory—a fiery, comforting “cross between an arrabbiata, known for its chile flakes, and puttanesca, with its briny caper and anchovy flavors.” It’s telling that nowhere in her detailed headnote (the introductory monologue that often precedes a recipe’s ingredients) does she explain why the parsley is there; the only context we get is the clause after the comma in the ingredient’s listing: “for garnish.”

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Don’t get me wrong. I adore the fresh, spring-like flavor of parsley (always flat-leaf, never curly), especially in a rich, buttery pasta, where the herb seems to somehow offset the heaviness of the dish. Or in a green sauce, where a bedrock of parsley offers not only heft, but also water, color, and a blank slate for other herbs and flavors. One time, after a solo trip to New Orleans, where I ate almost exclusively deep-fried or stewy comfort foods, the first thing I cooked when I got home was a risotto with generous heaps of parsley and pureed broccoli rabe folded in—because what my body craved most was that clean, vegetal taste.

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“Parsley has flavor, but it’s often used in lame ways,” Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen agrees. “You can’t just throw parsley on anything and call it a garnish. The flavor of the parsley has to make sense. I like to pair it with lemon juice, to create a bright, acidic, grassy flavor—this can often be used well to contrast rich, fatty meats.”

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Flat-leaf parsley, chopped.
Optional. Bobbi Lin

If I’m buying fresh parsley at the store, it’s never because I need it for garnish, but because a recipe I’m cooking would be, truly, lesser without it. I pride myself in almost never calling for a parsley garnish in any of the recipes featured in my column. If there’s a garnish at all, it’s probably fresh oregano, thyme, or chives, herbs that make a mark. But if you see a parsley leaf, it’s likely because the stylist on the photoshoot needed it for color (and I certainly don’t blame them; the kind of food I like to cook and eat may taste good, but it’s almost certainly never that beautiful to look at).

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“On set at Food52, using fresh herbs is often helpful as a back-pocket way to add color, and to bring something bright to the table,” Food Stylist Anna Billingskog says, “especially when shooting stews and braises in the fall and winter months. While these dishes can be delicious, they also enter a monochromatic brown-town zone.”

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You’d be surprised at how many recipes you read online only call for herbs because a food stylist has added it after the fact (with the recipe developer’s permission, of course). The package you see as a consumer is a product of great collaboration between both cooks and artists.

But the reality is: Most of us in our day to day aren’t cooking and shopping for a photo; we’re feeding ourselves and those around us, wherein a parsley garnish is often just an added expense, not to mention an annoying extra step at the end of a recipe.

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So why should we bother when a recipe calls for “1 tablespoon roughly chopped parsley, for garnish”?

“I hate nonfunctional garnishes,” Josh tells me. “For example, a sprig of thyme might look pretty, but let’s be honest, it’s not going to be eaten; it’s going to be thrown away. A garnish should be eaten, and it should enhance the overall flavor of a dish. If a garnish makes a dish look better, but doesn’t make it taste better, then it doesn’t deserve to be served.”

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To side-step the issue altogether, I like to use whole, unchopped parsley not as an herb, but as a salad leaf in and of itself. I first learned this trick from Nigella Lawson, who dresses the herbs very simply with thinly sliced red onions, salt-packed capers, lemon juice, and olive oil. There’s nothing fresher to serve alongside a gorgeous, fatty roast loin of pork.

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And then there are those of us who enjoy the acrobatic, Food Network–like ceremony of showering a finished dish with chopped parsley. This showmanship can be, in a way, the home-cook equivalent of a hibachi chef’s flaming onion-ring volcano; none of us really want it, but it’s been part of the show for eons, so we accept it. Sometimes the reasons we do the things we do in the privacy of our own kitchens may be less about taste, or even aesthetic—and more about ritual.

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“I personally always garnish when a recipe calls for it and add a final flourish of herbs even if a recipe doesn’t call for it,” Executive Editor Joanna Sciarrino reveals. “My husband hates it.”

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“A friend of mine knows it’s time to go to the grocery store,” Senior Copywriter Maggie Slover tells me, “not when she’s run out of milk or eggs, but when she’s run out of parsley.”

Eggs in Purgatory With Capers & Parsley

Serves 4

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• 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
• 1 pinch chile flakes 1 small onion, diced
• Kosher salt, to taste
• 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
• 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
• 1 tablespoon capers, plus 1 tablespoon of juice from the jar
• Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
• 4 eggs
• ½ cup roughly chopped parsley, for garnish
• Parmesan cheese, for garnish
• Thick-cut toasted bread, for serving

See the full recipe on Food52.

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