In Season: Snap to it and discover the wonders of celery
02/19/2014 12:00 AM
10/06/2014 9:29 PM
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.
Nutrition: Considered the perfect diet food, celery takes a lot of crunching to get many calories. One long stalk contains 6 calories. That’s 16 calories for 100 grams. Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K (which helps maintain bone mass) and is a good source of potassium, sodium, calcium, manganese and magnesium. It also contains many beneficial compounds and antioxidants that promote health. Of course, it packs a lot of dietary fiber, too.
Selection: Look for bright green leaves and crisp-looking stalks. Choose compact bunches without cracks or blemishes. Avoid any that look brown or bruised with dry, yellow or spoiled leaves. Porous or brown ends mean the celery was trimmed quite a while ago and may be past its prime.
Storage: Celery will keep at least 7 to 10 days in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Wrap the bunch in a paper towel, then zip it inside a plastic bag.
Preparation: Celery is most often eaten fresh or added to soups and stock for flavor. Older celery develops strong (and sometimes tough) fibers. To remove these strings, snap a small piece from the narrow end of the rib and pull backwards towards the broad (root) end. The strings pull away from the rib.
Don’t throw away the leaves; they contain many nutrients as well as a lot of herbal flavor. Add them to salads, soups, stews and stalks or as a substitute for Italian parsley.
Get back that snap: After harvest, celery can lose some of its firmness as it ages. To crisp, wash and trim the ribs, then submerge them in a bowl of ice and cold water. Refrigerate in the ice water for two hours.
Allergy warning: Like peanuts, celery contains an allergen that can provoke severe reactions, even death, in some people. Celery allergies are most prevalent in central Europe. Food packaged in the European Union must be clearly marked if it contains celery.
Stalks vs. ribs: Technically, the whole bunch of celery is called a “stalk” and one piece is a “rib,” but most consumers and cooks refer to stalks and ribs interchangeably.
Italian roots: Native to the Mediterranean, celery – a member of the carrot family — started as a wild herb with strong, pungent flavor and scent. The ancient Romans wore a wreath of celery to ward off hangovers.
The mild-flavored celery we enjoy now comes from a cultivated variety developed by 16th century Italians during the Renaissance. It was used as a natural breath sweetener as well as a flavoring in soups, stews and sauces.
The name celery comes from the French celeri and Italian seleri, derived the ancient Greek word for parsley, celery’s close cousin.
– Debbie Arrington
Baked celery and leeks
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Serves 3 to 4 as a side dish
Recipe adapted from one in “The Savory Way” (Bantam, $22.95, 443 pages) by Deborah Madison, who notes that this recipe is also excellent made with fennel.
6 celery stalks, cut into 3-inch lengths
3 leeks, white parts only, halved lengthwise and cut into 3-inch lengths
1 tablespoon butter, plus a little for the baking dish
2 to 3 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the celery and leeks as suggested. Scrape the celery with a vegetable peeler if the stalks are rough and thoroughly wash the leeks. Tie the leeks together in a little bundle.
Bring a large pan of water to a boil; add salt to taste and the celery. Parboil for 3 minutes; then add the leeks and boil for another 2 minutes. Remove the celery and leeks from the pan and drain them, reserving 1 to 2 tablespoons of the cooking liquid. Remove the strings from the leeks.
Lightly butter a baking dish that will comfortably hold the vegetables. Add the vegetables; dot with the butter, sprinkle with the cheese, and season with pepper. Add the reserved cooking liquid, cover with foil, and bake for 25 minutes.
Serve hot or let cool slightly and serve tepid.
Pasta with chickpeas, celery and parsley
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 18 minutes
Regardless of the season, use the freshest celery you can find, and don't be shy about adding lots of parsley to finish. Recipe from The Washington Post.
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more the cooking water
1 1/2 cups celery pieces, cut on the diagonal 1/4-inch wide (first cut vertically if the ribs are especially wide)
8 ounces dried pasta, preferably penne or another short, tubular shape
1/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed, then chopped
2 dried arbol chili peppers, seeded and broken into small pieces
1 1/2 cups cooked or canned no-salt-added chickpeas (if using canned, drain and rinse)
1/4 cup packed, coarsely chopped parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt, then add the celery; cook/blanch for 1 or 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon or Chinese skimmer to transfer the celery to a colander, and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking. Drain.
Once the water in the pot returns to a boil, add the pasta and cook according to the package directions.
When the pasta is about 5 minutes from being al dente, heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic (to taste) and dried arbol peppers; cook, stirring every minute or so, until the garlic is almost golden and the peppers are starting to brown. Stir in the blanched celery and cook for 2 to 3 minutes; it should be tender yet retain a little resistance.
Stir in the chickpeas, season with the 1 teaspoon of salt and with black pepper to taste, and warm through.
Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of its cooking water. Add the pasta, the parsley and a few tablespoons of the cooking water to the pan, stirring to incorporate the ingredients and dislodge any bits of garlic or peppers stuck to the bottom of the pan.
If the mixture seems dry, add more of the reserved cooking water.
Ladle the mixture into individual wide, shallow bowls. Drizzle 1 teaspoon of the remaining oil over each portion. Serve right away, offering grinds of black pepper at the table.
Per serving: 470 calories; 21 g fat (3 g sat.); 0 chol.; 570 mg sodium; 61g carb.; 8 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 13 g protein.
Shaved celery and sardines on blue cheese toast
Prep time: 20 minutes
This dish, based on an appetizer at Prune restaurant in New York City, plays with the classic pairing of blue cheese and celery, and adds sardines to make it a meal.
Cambozola is a creamy cow’s-milk blend of Camembert and Gorgonzola cheeses.
3 ribs celery
1 clove garlic, minced
Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lemon (2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
1 ounce Cambozola or other mild blue cheese, at room temperature (see headnote)
4 diagonally cut baguette slices, toasted (may substitute 2 larger slices of a bread of your choice)
2 ounces olive-oil-packed sardines, drained
Trim the celery by shaving off the thick skin and strings with a vegetable peeler. Cut crosswise into very thin slices, preferably using a small mandoline.
Combine the celery, garlic, lemon juice, oil and salt to taste in a small bowl, making sure the celery is well coated.
Divide the cheese into four equal pieces and spread on the baguette slices. Top with the dressed celery.
Place equal portions of the sardines on each baguette slice, and eat.
Cold celery soup with apple and blue cheese
Prep time: 25 minutes plus chill time
Cook time: 25 minutes
Serves 4 (about 5 1/3 cups)
1 bunch (about 11/2 pounds) celery (with leaves), rinsed, bottom ends trimmed, ribs separated, then cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large shallot lobes, chopped
4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
1/2 cup nonfat plain Greek-style yogurt (may substitute low-fat or whole-milk yogurt)
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped, for garnish
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese, for garnish
Combine the celery and its leaves, the shallots and broth in a soup pot over medium-high heat, stirring to submerge the solids as much as possible; bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so the liquid is gently bubbling. Cover and cook until the celery is tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
Use a hand-held immersion (stick) blender to purée until smooth. Cool to room temperature, then transfer to an airtight container. Refrigerate until well chilled.
When the soup is cold, stir in the yogurt. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide among individual bowls (or store the remaining soup as described in the headnote). Top each portion with some of the chopped apple and a tablespoon of the blue cheese, and serve.
Per serving (without garnishes): 90 calories; 0 g fat; 0 chol.; 18 g carb.; 3 g fiber; 10g sugar; 5 g protein
Braised celery hearts
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Celery hearts are the inner, most tender part of the bunch. This dish makes a fine accompaniment to roast poultry or pork. Recipe adapted from “The Classic Vegetable Cookbook” by Ruth Spear (Harper & Row).
6 whole celery hearts (from 6 bunches of celery)
2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 cup beef or chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
To make celery hearts: Remove all but the inner 4 or 5 ribs from a bunch of celery. (For this recipe, you will need six bunches.) Trim remaining stems to about 5 inches long. (Reserve the trimmings for soups, stocks or other uses.) Cut off the discolored base, but not so deeply to separate the ribs.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Blanch celery hearts in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.
Over medium heat on the stovetop, heat oil or butter in an ovenproof casserole. Add carrot, onion, garlic and bay leaf. Cook for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is lightly golden. Stir in stock and season with salt and pepper. Add the celery.
Cover and bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the hearts are very tender. Remove the celery from the casserole dish and cut hearts lengthwise into halves. Arrange on a heated serving dish.
Remove and discard the bay leaf. On top of the stove, boil down the remaining juices for a few minutes until they reach a consistency that will coat the celery. Pour juices over the celery. Sprinkle with parsley.
Celery sorbet or granita
Serves 8 to 10 (makes about 6 cups)
This is an excellent palate cleanser for a dinner party menu. Recipe adapted from The New York Times.
1 1/2 cups sugar, or more as needed
1 1/2 pounds celery, roughly chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Put the sugar and 11/2 cups water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Cool. (The syrup can be made in advance; cover and refrigerate for up to a week.)
Working in two batches, put the syrup in a blender with the celery, lime juice and a large pinch of salt. Blend for 1 to 2 minutes. Refrigerate for 30 minutes, then press through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth to remove the solids. (Or, if you have a juicer, juice the celery and combine in a bowl with the syrup, lime juice and salt.) Taste and add more sugar if you like.
To make sorbet, freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. To make granita, pour into a shallow glass or ceramic pan and freeze for at least 2 hours, stirring to break up the crystals every 30 minutes or so.
Prep time: 15 minutes
4 ounces cream cheese
1/4 cup French dressing
1 tablespoon grated onion
1 tablespoon chopped pickle
3 tablespoons chopped stuffed green olives
Twelve 4-inch lengths celery
Chopped fresh parsley, to garnish
Celery leaves, to garnish
In a small bowl, mix together the cream cheese, French dressing, grated onion, chopped pickle and chopped olives. Spoon the mixture into each of the celery ribs, then arrange them on a serving platter. Garnish with parsley and celery leaves.
Per serving: 60 calories; 50 calories from fat (80 percent of total calories); 6 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 10 mg cholesterol; 3 g carbohydrate; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber; 150 mg sodium.
This dish was famously created by Victor Hirtzler, the chef at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, early in the 20th century. Anchovies reputedly were not part of the original dish, but most versions now incorporate them.
1 small carrot, cut in thin coins
1 small onion, quartered
4 tender (innermost) celery hearts, bases trimmed, or coarse outer stalks from 3 celery hearts
2 cups beef or chicken stock (or enough to come at least 2/3 of the way up the sides of the celery)
1 bay leaf
6 or 8 peppercorns
For the dressing and garnish:
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons tarragon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced fresh or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
Pinch of white pepper
One 2-ounce can anchovy filets, drained
2 hard-boiled eggs, cut in thin slices
Scatter the carrot and onion in a shallow pan just large enough to hold the celery in one layer. Arrange the celery on top. Pour in the broth and add the bay leaf and peppercorns.
Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the celery is just tender when tested with a knife point, usually about 20 minutes. Let it cool in the broth. The goal is to have the celery soft enough to cut with a fork, firm enough to be pleasant. Don't forget it will continue cooking for a little while in the hot liquid even after it's off the stove.
Drain the celery thoroughly, saving the broth, then pat it dry with paper towels. Beat together the oil, vinegar, tarragon, parsley and pepper and marinate the celery in the mixture, turning once or twice for 15 to 20 minutes.
Drain again and arrange attractively on small plates. Make pleasing patterns over the top with the anchovies and eggs and serve at once. Makes four appetizer or side-dish portions.
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