Unctuous. Creamy. Undisputed flavor king. Those are some of the things that celery has been called by those who know, and just the start of why you should reconsider this unsung vegetable in 2019.
The idea of resolutions in the new year isn’t a new thing; Babylonians were making promises to their gods each January more than 4,000 years ago. It’s human nature. But here’s an addition to all your other hopeful intentions for 2019: Eat more celery.
Yes, you read that right. Celery. I know you’ve got it, hidden away in your fridge, just waiting to be schmeared with peanut butter or sliced for your crudité platter. You’ll no doubt be adding it to carrot and onion to start your chicken noodle soup, as celery is one of the key components of mirepoix, a flavor base that combines the three ingredients and serves as the basis for many soups and sauces. But there is so much more to celery than just mirepoix and childhood snacks.
Celery is available year-round, but if you pay attention it does change in the market. It’s really a summer vegetable, and when it’s in season locally the stalks are smaller and lighter, the ribs less pronounced. It’s quite a thirsty vegetable, so not as appealing for farmers to grow as less water-intensive crops, but always keep an eye out for celery at the farmers market, where it’s less bitter and fibrous.
Still, no matter the time of year it’s completely edible from the stalks to the leaves, although each has a different flavor. The outer stalks tend to be more robust, while the inner ribs are more delicate with a softer crunch. Leaves can be used like herbs to flavor salads as well as a garnish for soups and a finishing touch to any stir-fry or dish with celery as an ingredient.
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Celery sometimes gets a bad rep as nutrient-neutral diet food — mostly a vehicle for things like peanut butter or hummus — but it’s actually a great source of fiber. It also serves as a good source of vitamins K and A, and potassium. The carbohydrates in celery are from fiber — so if going paleo or doing a “Whole 30” is in your resolution list, celery is your friend.
In his 2017 cookbook “Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables,” Portland-based chef Joshua McFadden calls celery “the undisputed flavor king.” A line drawing of the green stalks graces not only the cover, but the page preceding the title page. He offers seven recipes for the crunchy green vegetable, extolling the juicy flavor and delicate crunch.
And he’s not the only one. One of my favorite books in the kitchen is 2008’s “Flavor Bible,” written by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. It breaks down ingredients by seasonality, flavor profiles and what each ingredient pairs well with.
The listing for celery spans two pages; under technique it recommends boil, braise, cream, sauté, steam, or stir-fry (how’s that for versatile?). Celery’s flavor friends run the gamut from beets and butter to black truffles, tomatoes and turnips.
Daniel Humm, chef at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, is quoted as saying that if he could have any vegetable in a mirepoix, he would pick celery. “I love its earthy flavor.”
In 2011, Lesley Porcelli wrote in Saveur magazine of braised celery, calling it “unctuous” and “creamy.”
Again, yes. Celery. If you don’t believe me, just try picturing your chicken soup without it and then go even further. The next time you make a stir-fry, shot through with chili flakes, salted peanuts and ginger, whatever you do don’t forget the celery.
Looking for a winter pick-me-up? Chop up a few stalks — grab those tender, inner ribs complete with leaves — and add a handful of chopped dates, a few curls of fresh Parmesan cheese and toasted almonds. Dress with a squeeze of lemon juice and a glug of olive oil.
And that unctuous braise? That recipe below is courtesy of legendary Italian chef Marcella Hazan. Her recipe for sedano e pomodori brasati (braised celery and tomato) ran in that same 2011 issue of Saveur. It’s also listed on Food 52 as a “genius recipe,” meaning a recipe that can be simple or surprising; one that just might change the way you cook. (One familiar genius recipe from Hazan is her three-ingredient tomato sauce, combining a can of Roma tomatoes with a knob of butter and a white onion.)
The headnotes for the braised-celery recipe suggest serving it with everything from chicken and lamb to polenta and a crisp-edged fried egg.
Or nothing at all.
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking”
Makes 4-6 servings
The recipe combines celery with onion, pancetta and plum tomatoes and a cook time of nearly two hours to ensure the transformation of crunch to creamy. The pancetta is mostly used for fat, and is added as a garnish at the end, so I chose to omit it altogether, instead adding a can of Great Northern beans and olive oil.
If your celery is particularly stringy, use a peeler to strip away the top layer. Keeping them could lengthen the cooking time, but some say keeping the strings keeps the celery together.
This dish is soulful and warming, perfect as a side to chicken roasted with fresh fennel and cheesy polenta or nutty farro.
2 heads celery (about 2 pounds)
¼ cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly
1 cup whole peeled canned Roma or plum tomatoes with juice
1 can Great Northern or butter beans, drained and rinsed
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1. Clean dirt from celery ribs, remove leaves and save for a future use (or as a garnish). If desired, remove stringy ribs with a vegetable peeler. Slice into 3-inch sections and set aside.
2. In a large saucepan heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and let cook for one minute. Add garlic, and sauté both until they start to turn golden brown. Crush the tomatoes and their juices with your hands directly over the pan. Add celery, season with salt and pepper and stir to combine.
3. Cover and let cook for one hour, stirring occasionally. Mixture should be bubbling, but not rapidly boiling. If liquid looks too low, add a little tomato juice.
4. After one hour, add beans and stir again. Cook an additional 20-30 minutes or until celery is very soft. Check seasoning, add salt or pepper to taste. Serve.