The parsley-basil mix-up: coming clean in plain English

The Baltimore Sun

To make me feel better, can we all please agree that chopped fresh basil could easily be mistaken for chopped fresh parsley? Why, you might even say the two green herbs are indistinguishable. Except that parsley tastes like lawn clippings, whereas basil tastes more like leafy yard waste.

Granted, the contestants on Top Chef probably could tell the difference with a simple glance, but these people have spent years differentiating between "I Can't Believe it's Not Butter" and "clarified butter." They think a truffle is a mushroom, when we all know it is expensive chocolate. And if you were to give them a nice rockfish filet, they wouldn't dream of grilling it, or even baking it. No, they would just sprinkle on a little lime juice and serve it to you raw! They would call it ceviche, but I would call it lazy. The higher up you get on the culinary ladder, it seems, the less you cook. But let me not deflect attention from my cooking error by descending further into the denigration of chefs more talented than I. Instead, let me put the message of this column into standard American Politician Apology Format: "A simple, understandable error was made in the area of spice selection, and for that I am truly sorry. I ask my constituents to forgive this momentary judgment lapse."

There, now, what the heck did I just say? Anyone?

Before I have to resign my kitchen privileges in disgrace, let me explain in plain English how the parsley-basil mix-up occurred.

I signed up with some neighbors to make eight meals in about an hour at one of the new local food-preparation businesses. This is a wonderful way to try new gourmet dishes, and it is practically foolproof - provided you are not from Janet's World.

You enter the establishment and put on an apron. Then you walk to any station where one of the recipes you selected is posted, and find all of your ingredients labeled, with the proper measuring spoon or cup conveniently beside them. Following the step-by-step recipe, you assemble your meal, and take it to the "wrapping" station where it is packaged for your freezer at home.

It's not what you do at these meal-prep places that makes the experience so exhilarating - it's what you don't have to do. There's no visceral deboning. No running out to the store because you don't have tarragon vinegar. And absolutely no cleanup. You walk to the next pristine station, and wreak havoc all over again.

But if you are from Janet's World, you are not merely in the mindset to be assembling a gourmet meal. You are having a night out. You are talking with the gal at the next station, asking if she has been here before. Soon, you are chatting about the ages of your kids and who colors your hair. Before you know it, you are dipping a tablespoon into the basil instead of the parsley.

So, who knows how my spinach-and-cheese cannelloni is going to come out, with the dreaded tablespoon of basil in the filling instead of parsley? I'll tell you who will know - 16 high school seniors at a pre-homecoming dinner party.

I'm trying not to get too anxious. After all, these students are not cannelloni connoisseurs. I have known them all for a number of years, and not once engaged any of them in a culinary discussion about the difficulty of procuring sea urchin or the fragility of puff pastry.

Still, they have dined at Pizza Hut, and they may have developed discerning palates when it comes to Italian spices. I will just have to risk it, and serve the cannelloni quickly followed by the dessert - which I will make in solitary confinement at home this week, so I won't forget the vanilla.

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