Celery gets an undeservedly bad rap. David Lebovitz has said, rather harshly, I think, that ‘it’s like eating green water held together with a lot of fibres.’ It’s either considered a sad dietary punishment or merely a vehicle for peanut butter or cream cheese (sprinkle with raisins and you have that questionable childhood standard Ants on a Log.) It’s rarely the main event, the star of the show, but that can’t take away its intrinsic culinary value. What would a mirepoix or sofrito be without its sweet earthy flavour contributing to the whole? A stock, stew or braise without celery? Unthinkable.
Unsurprisingly related to other “aromatics” – carrots and parsley specifically – celery, no less than onions and garlic, is a true kitchen workhorse. I always have celery on hand. Its usefulness goes beyond stock or stew. Forget the riotous carnival cluster of everything from sausages to French fries – a graceful leafy inner stalk of celery, a wedge of lime and a celery-salted rim are the quintessential garnishes for the perfect Bloody Mary or Bloody Caesar. Nothing provides that bright crunch in a couscous or bulgar salad like celery, and sometimes a particularly crunchy sweet stalk is just the thing to keep one away from those leftover Christmas cookies… at least for a while.
When purchasing celery, look for bunches with sturdy upright stalks without bruising or blemishes. The leaves should be crisp and bright and, of course, always use the very flavourful leaves in whatever you’re preparing; it’s a cardinal kitchen sin to throw them out. Levels of calcium, potassium and vitamin C are highest in the leaves. At the very least, they should go into the pending stock bucket in the freezer. Try not to prep celery too far in advance of using, chopped celery loses nutrients rapidly.
A favourite winter salad, especially if the celery is sweet, is a cabbage and celery slaw with an Asian twist. Finely cut a good quantity of white and red cabbage and toss into a large bowl. Cut plenty of celery stalks on the diagonal (to get longer slices) and add to cabbage with julienned carrots and red bell pepper, 3-4 sliced shallots and 1 minced garlic clove. Toss well with a dressing of lime juice, peanut oil, soy sauce, a few drops of sesame oil, a dash each of Tabasco and Worcestershire, grated fresh ginger, honey, and freshly ground black pepper. Add a protein in the form of cooked chicken, salmon or shrimp, sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs. Dinner is served.
Now we come to celeriac or celery root. Less known than the ubiquitous celery, it’s easy to pass by in a supermarket or farmers’ market. At its best, it’s still an unattractive lumpy sphere, often sporting tendrils and a bit of the dirt it was grown in. Don’t be put off. With a little simple preparation, this ungainly vegetable will easily become a favourite. The size of a softball is ideal. Choose celeriac that is heavy in the hand and relatively smooth with few rootlets and no soft spots or obvious blemishes. The leaves, if there are any, should be fresh and green. To peel, which you must, slice top and bottom, placing the ball, flat end down, on the cutting board. Drawing your knife down from top to bottom, peel away the exterior until you are left with a white-ish round. Celeriac, like raw potato, will discolour when exposed to air, so have a bowl of acidulated water nearby to immerse the pieces in.
The next time you make mashed potatoes, try this. Start with 4-5 medium potatoes (peeled or not, as you prefer) cut into pieces and put into plenty of well-salted boiling water. Add 2-3 whole, peeled garlic cloves and half a celery root, cut into chunks slightly larger than the potatoes. Cook until potato, garlic and celeriac are soft, easily pierced with a knife, but not disintegrating. Drain, reserving the flavourful liquid for stock, and return to the pot. Over low heat, add whole milk, butter and sour cream or crème fraiche and mash. Season with salt, pepper, and a grating of nutmeg.
A classic preparation for celery root is a remoulade, a kind of gallic slaw. It’s lovely served with chilled poached shrimp or fish. With a bowl of ice water and lemon juice at hand, proceed to peel and julienne a whole celery root. Let the matchstick-sized pieces stay in the ice water for a few minutes to get good and crisp. Drain and dry well with paper towels. Toss with a dressing made with mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, white balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and plenty of chopped fresh herbs. Tarragon is typical, but parsley, chives, or dill, alone or together, work wonderfully too. Chill well before serving.
And just in case you’re still thinking that celery isn’t exactly the sexiest of vegetables, consider this: Celery contains androsterone, which, according to some researchers, acts as a pheromone. Giacomo Casanova was said to have eaten celery to maintain his, well, amorous endeavours. Calypso was even thought to have kept Odysseus busy for five years with the help of a celery-centric diet. Whether credible or not, what’s the harm? After all, it’s only celery.