SOMETIMES it’s the flavors that are right under our noses -- or buried in the crisper drawer -- that are most worth celebrating.
Take celery. Because it’s integral to so many recipes, a dedicated cook always has it around. Celery is one of the triumvirate of aromatic vegetables that forms mirepoix, that all-important combination of diced onion, carrots and celery that’s the basis of so many stocks, sauces and dishes. The leaves go into any self-respecting bouquet garni -- the bundle of herbs that flavors braises and soups.
Yet most of us take celery for granted. You never hear people talking about it at parties, unless they’re debating its merits in a Bloody Mary. You don’t see it touted on menus. And curiously little has been written about its flavor.
Although wild celery, also known as lovage, is strong and bitter, cultivated celery has a delicate flavor that’s alluring but hard to pin down.
The true celery lover looks forward to the post-bouquet garni moment when, after snapping off the leaves that’ll be tied up in cheesecloth with other herbs, you’re left with tender pale white-green stalks of celery heart to munch. This is raw celery at its best: lovely, subtle, elusive flavor with no strings attached. Bite a bit, along with some tender leaves, and you get a white peppery flavor, but fresher, brighter and almost a little salty.
As with other aromatic vegetables, celery is good at imparting its flavor to dishes; that’s why it’s so important to cooks. But who ever spotlights it?
The Chinese do. According to Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” the Chinese had been using wild celery as early as the 5th century, and they later developed cultivated celery -- “thinner, juicier, and more strongly flavored than the European kind.”
Diced celery stalks are a hugely important element of many Chinese stir-fries. In fact, true celery lovers can tolerate even the most mediocre of Chinese restaurants -- we know we’ll find, in the lion’s share of the dishes at those tables, terrific celery flavor and crunch.
You don’t have to stop at stir-fry. Braised celery hearts are fabulous. Trim the bottoms conservatively, so the bunches hold together; trim the tops, leaving hearts that are 5 inches long; and run a peeler up the sides all around, so they’re appealingly smooth. Then quarter the bunches vertically and braise them in chicken stock with a bit of turnip and carrot. Simmer till the liquid reduces almost to a syrup, which glazes them nicely.
Or whip up a light cream of celery soup that really isolates and elevates the fresh celery flavor. Just simmer lots of sliced celery in chicken stock with a little onion and potato until the vegetables are tender. Puree, then push the mixture through a strainer for a super silky soup. Stir in a touch of cream -- just a touch -- and you have something truly elegant.
Raw celery stalks have uses beyond tuna salad, the crudite plate and the annual Thanksgiving relish tray. Dice a generous amount and combine it with Dungeness crabmeat, diced radishes, celery leaves, homemade mayonnaise and a little Meyer lemon juice for a compelling winter-into-spring salad.
And then there’s the root, celeriac, which has an earthier version of celery flavor and a completely different texture. Ever meet a French person who hates celeri remoulade? Many of them do: It’s a fact little-known outside of French culture that the salad of julienned raw celery root dressed in mustard sauce is served ubiquitously in school cafeterias. So to the French, celeri remoulade is cafeteria food -- ick. We know better: A good remoulade is a marvelous thing.
Many celery root lovers look no further than remoulade, but they should. Deep-fried celery root adds intrigue to a fritto misto. Or peel celery root and carve it into large olive shapes. Drop the pieces into boiling salt water, blanch for about 2 minutes and drain. Heat some butter and add the blanched celery root, tossing to coat. Add a little stock -- veal, chicken or beef. Cook uncovered, shaking the pan, until most of the liquid is gone and the root pieces are just cooked through and nicely glazed. With salt and freshly ground pepper, you’re good to go.
And celery root puree is a revelation. You can simply simmer the root in chicken stock then puree it in a food processor, and that’s delicious. Daniel Boulud, chef-owner of Daniel in New York, likes to puree the root with Yukon Gold potatoes in milk, then add a goodly amount of butter, puree it into creamy richness and serve it with braised celery, as a duo.
At the restaurant he has served saucy, red wine braised short ribs plated atop the celery root puree with braised celery alongside. But it’s also great with black pepper crusted fish such as arctic char or wild sea bass. Just make a little pan sauce by deglazing the pan with white wine or fish stock, and pour that over the fish and celery root, which have an amazing affinity for each other.
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Note: Adapted from “Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud Cookbook.” For the braised celery, it’s best to use celery hearts. The celery root puree and the celery can be made up to six hours ahead, refrigerated and reheated at serving time.
Celery root puree
1 quart whole milk
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
2 pounds celery root, peeled and cut into 8 pieces
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in half
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1. Put the milk, 4 cups of water, the coarse salt, celery root and potatoes in a large pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat and cook at a simmer until the vegetables can be easily pierced with the point of a knife, 20 to 25 minutes. Skim off foam as necessary. Drain the vegetables and return them to the pan.
2. Put the pan back over low heat and toss the vegetables just enough to cook off their excess moisture, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to the work bowl of a food processor. Add the butter and pulse, taking care not to overwork the mixture, just until the puree is smooth and creamy. Season with salt and pepper. Keep the puree warm in the top of a double boiler over simmering water.
2 bunches celery
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 carrot, peeled, trimmed and quartered
1 turnip, peeled, trimmed and quartered
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or good-quality purchased chicken broth
1. Trim the bottom of each bunch of celery but make certain the stalks remain together. Measure 5 to 6 inches up from the bottom and cut the celery top off at that point (you’ll be using the bottom part). Remove and discard the 3 or 4 tough outer stalks. Run a vegetable peeler over the exterior of the outer celery stalks to remove the stringy part of the vegetable, then cut each bunch of celery lengthwise into quarters. Keep close at hand.
2. Warm the oil in a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the carrot, turnip and celery quarters, season with salt and pepper, and cook, without coloring the vegetables, for 3 minutes. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat so that the stock simmers steadily and cook the vegetables for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until they can be pierced with the point of a knife. When the vegetables are tender, the liquid should be just about gone, so that you should have tender vegetables lightly glazed with the stock. Remove and discard the carrots and turnips.
3. Serve the celery immediately on a large heated platter, spooning the puree on one half and the celery onto the other.
Each serving: 222 calories; 6 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 12 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 26 mg. cholesterol; 588 mg. sodium.
Cream of celery soup
Total time: 50 minutes
3 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 Idaho potato (about 3/4 pound), peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch dice (a scant 2 cups diced)
10 stalks celery, trimmed and cut into 1/2 -inch slices (about 6 cups sliced)
5 cups homemade chicken stock or good-quality purchased chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)
Celery leaves for garnish
1. Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the onions and cook over medium heat until translucent, about 7 or 8 minutes.
2. Add the potato, celery and chicken stock or broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes and celery are very tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Puree in a food processor or blender (you’ll need to do this in two or three batches), then pass the soup through a medium sieve, pressing the solids with the back of a wooden spoon.
4. Pour into a clean pot, add the salt and pepper to taste, then stir in the cream, if desired. The soup may be kept warm on low heat until ready to serve.
5. Cut the celery leaves into chiffonade and garnish the soup before serving.
Each serving: 212 calories; 8 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 23 mg. cholesterol; 275 mg. sodium.
Dungeness crab and celery salad
Total time: 45 minutes
Note: Choose a Dungeness crab that feels heavy for its weight and ask your fishmonger to clean it and crack it for you. Discard any tough, outer stalks of celery. Regular lemon juice may be substituted for the Meyer lemon juice.
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tablespoon white wine
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 cup canola oil
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, the vinegar and the mustard until pale yellow. Whisking constantly, add the oil drop by drop at first, until the mixture begins to thicken.
2. Still whisking constantly, continue adding the oil, pouring now in a slow stream, until all the oil is incorporated. If the mixture begins to break, you can add a few drops of water to bring it back together. Season with salt to taste. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to two days. Makes 1 1/3 cups.
Salad and assembly
1 cooked Dungeness crab, about 2 pounds (about 1 3/4 cups crab meat)
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice
5 stalks celery, trimmed
4 large or 5 medium radishes
2 tablespoons snipped chives
2 tablespoons chopped tender celery leaves, plus additional whole leaves for garnish
5 tablespoons homemade mayonnaise
Freshly ground black pepper
8 butter lettuce leaves
1. Remove the crab from the shells. Sprinkle with Meyer lemon juice. Set aside.
2. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the celery, then cut it into quarter-inch slices. Trim the radishes and cut them into half-inch dice.
3. In a large bowl, combine the crab meat, celery, radishes, chives, chopped celery leaves, mayonnaise and salt and pepper to taste.
4. To serve, place two butter lettuce leaves on each of four salad plates. Spoon a quarter of the crab and celery salad atop each. Garnish with a few whole celery leaves.
Each serving: 206 calories; 14 grams protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 15 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 69 mg. cholesterol; 264 mg. sodium.