“Tell us again,” we used to shout. So Dad would: the story of how he had a summer job driving an ice-cream van around Manchester, and that was how he met our mum. In the van he had packets of thin, crisp wafers for making ice-cream sandwiches and, as a time-passing snack, he would start at one corner and eat them with a racing-rabbit nibble, an irresistible image and idea if you are a kid. And if you are an adult, too. I am still hardwired to racing-rabbit nibble any wafer I touch, although the fancier the wafer, the less satisfying it is.
Almost as satisfying is a parsley stem nibble. But it has to be a fat, fleshy stem, and you have to nibble hard and fast, otherwise your teeth don’t cut through the cellulose and you send an indented stem down your throat like a doctor’s wooden stick.
The other day, my son pointed out that my stems were smelly. At first I had no idea what he was talking about. Then I realised he was referring to the jar near the sink containing a big bunch of flat-leaf parsley, its gangly stalks like teenage legs, that had been sitting in the same water for so long, the water had turned yellow, smelly and dank. It did cross my mind to bin the whole lot, but then I remembered that stinky stems have a satisfying remedy: a few seconds under a fast, cold tap, a quick trim and back into fresh water results in instant perkiness. If only I could do the same with myself, especially at the moment when I can’t stop saying the same weary expressions to everyone I meet: “suspended”, “stuck”, “will we ever”, “at least it is spring”.
Racing-rabbit nibbles aside, parsley stems are such a good ingredient – and, I would argue, as valuable, if not more so, than the leaves; their sweet-savoury, grassy, herbaceous flavour is powerful and useful. Traditional Roman cooking makes good use of parsley stems, notably chopped or pounded to a paste with cured pork fat, onion and celery for classic battuto (which comes from the verb battere, “to strike”), which is then used as a foundation for countless soups and good-tasting stews.
You wouldn’t know it from my jar neglect, but I love it when parsley or, even better, just parsley stems are talked about as a principal ingredient, rather than an additional herb or afterthought garnish. A friend’s Easter frittata is a lovely example of this: 10 or 12 stems of parsley, ideally fat and fleshy, chopped finely (as with the racing-rabbit nibble, it’s important they’re chopped finely, otherwise they can be stringy) and then softened with spring onions in extra-virgin olive oil. The parsley leaves are also used, along with lots of basil and mint, frilly fennel fronds (if you have them) and just a bit of pecorino.
I am often tempted to add more cheese or another vegetable to this frittata, but I am always glad when I don’t. The herbs really do stand out and their flavours shine, plus it also looks so good: hopeful green speckles suspended in yellow, for Easter breakfast or a sunny lunch.
5 spring onions
1 small handful flat-leaved parsley
A few mint sprigs
A few basil sprigs
Fennel fronds (optional)
4 tbsp olive oil
Salt and black pepper
2 tbsp grated pecorino or parmesan
Thinly slice the white and green parts of the spring onion and the parsley stalks. Chop the parsley leaves, along with the mint and basil leaves, and fennel fronds (if using), and set aside for later.
In a nonstick frying pan over a medium-low heat, soften the onions and parsley stalks in the olive oil with a pinch of salt, until soft and translucent.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a bowl, then add the chopped herbs, cheese and some salt and pepper, and whisk again.
Scrape the soft onion into the egg and stir, then pour back into the frying pan, put back over a low heat and cook gently until set. Lift the edge to see it is golden, then invert and cook until the other side is golden, too.