Why You Should Never Throw Away Parsley and Cilantro Stems
Every week, the same ignominious bundle of herbs looks back at me from its shelf in the refrigerator. Loosely wrapped in paper or plastic, it goes goth-black even as I look at it. The excitement of buying the biggest, freshest bunch a few days ago is matched by my disappointment in wasting its verdant potential
I try to reduce my food waste for environmental reasons and economic ones, but still, week after week, herbs seemed to elude me. I could freeze them in ice cube trays, but I never seem to do so. I like to use them when they’re fresh, it seems.
Thus, the day I realized I could toss all my cilantro stems into my blender to make green goddess dressings and marinades for pork shoulder was a glorious day indeed. Even better, a Thai chef recently told me that cilantro roots are considered one of the “three sisters” of his native cuisine. (The herb’s stems are an approximation of the booming flavor the roots contain.) I’d been doing it all wrong.
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Parsley and cilantro stems are key to many different dishes. As cookbook author Tamar Adler writes in An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, “Save all parsley stems. You need them to make any soup or pot of beans worth its weight in water… Every recipe wants parsley stems.” Adler also uses them in fish stock, for flavoring oil, and for frying fish. I’ve taken to dropping a bundle in every soup stock I make, in the Instant Pot or on the stovetop, and it adds a green, softly savory note.
Adler’s not alone in her desire to get us using parsley stems. The soft stems nearer the leaves can work well, as Alison Roman writes in her cookbook Dining In, for herby, spicy bread crumbs; Italian salsa verde; and green “romesco” with almonds and chiles.
As for cilantro stems, I use them almost interchangeably with parsley stems. I’ll drop them into stocks when I don’t have parsley stems to spare, and simply label the stock “cilantro” so I am more likely to use it for the appropriate cuisines. (Cilantro is a major player in Mexican, Vietnamese, and Indian dishes, among others.) I’ve taken to chopping them up finely for the base of stir-fries and curries, frying them along with dried red chiles, garlic, and onions. They’re the base of my marinade for pernil, a slow-simmering Puerto Rican pork roast. Into the blender they go for my riff on a green goddess dressing. And now that I’ve fallen for zhoug, a spicy cilantro-based Yemeni sauce, I imagine I’ll make my own using—you guessed it!—the stems.
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I’m not alone in re-using my cilantro stems. Roman employs them for her roasted pork shoulder with garlic and citrus. Adler writes, “I like to add cilantro, chopped roughly, stems included, to cooking leek, cabbage, or stewing tomatoes. It’s nice to add an herb to a dish twice, once while it’s cooking and then again raw, on top, once it’s cooked.
I couldn’t agree more with that. If you’re using the stems fresh—parsley stems do take nicely to freezing—be sure to reserve a few leaves, if possible, to dot the finished dish. Cilantro leaves take a curry from intensely orange to pleasantly orange-and-green, and are just the thing to finish homemade tacos. Parsley leaves and sprigs can garnish nearly any Italian dish under the sun. Just try to use the whole bunch, if you can, chopping off any gnarly, tough or blackened bits that seem like they won’t add much, flavor-wise.
And feel fantastic about being a good environmentalist.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.