It’s the goofy sidekick to carrots, the straight man to onions, the kitchen’s lovable oddball with strings attached.
Forever cast as a supporting player, celery seldom gets the starring role. Without those slender stalks, potato salad would have no crunch and soup stocks would lack that peppery herbal undertone.
But those same qualities that make celery an essential ingredient also make it a wonderful vegetable to enjoy on its own. It has a distinctive love-it-or-hate-it flavor and interesting texture – super crunchy when fresh or meltingly luscious when tender.
And during these winter months when seasonal vegetables tend to be mostly roots or greens, celery offers something different. It has texture and taste all its own.
In fact, celery sales spike from Thanksgiving through Super Bowl, thanks to seasonal dishes (chopped for turkey stuffing or served alongside Buffalo hot wings) that demand celery. According to market statistics, celery sales peak on Super Bowl weekend when consumers munch 3.5 times the usual amount of celery.
And we eat a lot of celery: 6.1 pounds per person a year. That ranks celery among our favorite vegetables, even if it’s not in a traditional side dish role. California produces about 75 percent of the nation’s crop.
Most Americans think of celery as something to crunch. It’s the perfect weight-loss food; lots of chewing with few calories but many nutrients. (That adds to celery’s January sales when many folks are still sticking to their New Year’s resolution diets.)
As a fun conveyor of anything spreadable or dip-able, celery is the ultimate super-easy mid-century modern appetizer. Crammed with pimento cheese or peanut butter, celery sticks are instant crowd pleasers. Or celery pieces can be dunked into ranch dressing or any assortment of dips, adding snap as a healthy crudité. (Credit the French there.)
When cooked, celery soaks up surrounding flavors and melds them into something greater than the sum of ingredients. That’s what makes celery essential in mirepoix, a major culinary building block that also can be served as a side dish. (Thank those French chefs again.)
Making mirepoix (pronounced “meer-pwah”) is simple and sublime: Dice or thinly slice celery, carrots and onions, then slowly cook the mixture in butter. Use two parts onion to one part carrots and one part celery. When chopping, keep the size uniform so the vegetables cook evenly. In a pan, sauté the mixture in a little butter (seasoned with thyme or other herbs, if you prefer), then cover and cook over low heat until the vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes.
Mirepoix can be served as a side dish or added to soups, stocks and stews. Uncooked mirepoix also can be added to the roasting pan for meats and poultry to boost the entree’s flavor as well as enhance its juices for sauce or gravy.
A variation of mirepoix forms the “holy trinity” of Cajun and Creole cooking; bell pepper is substituted for the carrots but celery and onions remain. That three-vegetable mix creates the backbone of many a Louisiana meal.
There’s so much more to celery than crudité and mirepoix. It can be braised, baked and roasted. Celery adds color as well as taste as the main ingredient in soups and pasta dishes. It counters stronger-tasting ingredients while holding its own distinct place. Sliced on a diagonal, it also looks pretty on the plate.
Celery’s unexpected zippy flavor and scent have made it particularly popular in cocktails – and not just as a Bloody Mary garnish. Mixologists use celery juice to spice up gin; it complements the spirit’s herbal essence. Celery bitters – made from leaves and seed – add a peppery accent.
Celery tonic, variations of health-promoting drinks popular in the 1800s, also has had a resurgence as a mixer and flavoring.
Celery also can make an unexpected and refreshing dessert. That’s put eye-popping green celery sorbet on restaurant dessert menus from New York to San Francisco.
A classic aromatic vegetable, celery also has a distinctive scent; it’s herbal with a peppery note. That scent made celery a favorite breath sweetener in Renaissance Italy. That’s when clever cooks started cultivating celery as a kitchen staple instead of relying on wild parsley-like celery.
The celery we eat today is mostly a variety called Pascal (or its cultivars); it grows straight, strong and uniform. With a shallow rooting system, celery requires consistent moisture in the soil. That makes celery susceptible to drought.
Later this year, California water shortages may drive up the cost of celery, which is grown mostly in the central coast valleys. But right now, it’s still in good supply with good quality and prices the same or close to last year.
That’s something to consider while munching a rib or two.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.