Pick of the Month, November ’07

For several weeks now, I’ve had in mind to write this month’s Pick post about an herb. Herbs are important in all seasons, and a future post will act as a nicely-worn soapbox for me to elaborate on the subject. I even had a specific herb in mind (I’ll keep you guessing as to which one — gotta keep things spicy around here). But I was just never inspired enough to sit down and write. Last night, as I prepped what turned out to be a delightful pot of chicken and dumplings, I was led to change this month’s subject, to one that is often overlooked, misunderstood, or just plain slandered. Today I will wax on about the wonders of celery.

You heard me. Let’s take a moment, and form in our minds a cartoon image of some nameless sitcom character on a militant diet. While attending a feast of sorts, our TV star is presented with — none other than — a plate containing nothing but a few leafy stalks of celery. This is what we might think of, when presented with today’s subject. That, or the fact that celery is usually the last vegetable left on the party tray, after all the Ranch dressing has been scraped out of the center bowl. How did celery end up this way? How did her reputation drift so low, to the underbelly of the produce department?

Well, I’m guessing that the problem for most people would be flavor and/or texture. And celery is strong in both. I’m the first to admit that, aside from the occasional “Ants on a Log”* snack, I’m rarely anxious to munch on a raw celery stalk (with or without the customary dipping accompaniments). But celery is altogether unique in flavor, and plays an indispensable supporting role in the base of many, many dishes. From soups, stocks, and sauces, to the spicy Bloody Mary. It is usually in season through the winter and early spring months, which is why it is so often found in your soup and stuffing recipes.

Celery is one of a trio of base vegetables in two significant (in their influence on much of what we eat in America) cuisines: Creole and French (not surprising, considering the French influence in the birth of Creole cooking). In creole cooking, the holy trinity consists of celery, onion, and bell pepper. In French cooking, a mirepoix consists of celery, onion, and carrots. In each of these bases, the vegetables are diced and sautéed in fat (usually butter). There are not many fragrances that can rival the scent of a mirepoix cooking in butter. And it couldn’t be that good without the celery.

I’m a big believer in homemade stock for soups — and once again, celery is a must. Throwing in a stalk or two, with leaves (much flavor lives there), to a pot of simmering chicken parts (along with an onion, quartered) — it makes all the difference. Without, you’re just making chicken water. With the addition of two other things, you now have stock. Add noodles, and you have homemade chicken soup. The perfect meal for cold and flu season. And, while celery isn’t a powerhouse of vitamin C, it has anti-toxic properties that do, in fact, seem to lend a hand to the healing powers of that bowl of soup.

For years, I would buy a bunch of celery, use a stalk or two, and watch in disgust as my purchase wasted into a limp, useless, colorless pile of compost in my refrigerator, within just a few days. But I recently read in Cook’s Illustrated about the best method for storing celery: after purchase, remove it from its plastic wrapper, and wrap it tightly (unwashed) in aluminum foil. This worked like a charm — I now can keep a bunch for up to a few weeks, using almost all of it by the time oxidation renders it unusable.

The moral of the story? Yes. You should always buy the celery when making that recipe. The one stalk, chopped, really does matter. If you’re unsure about what to do with the rest, buy an onion and 4 pounds of chicken parts and make a hefty 8 quarts of stock (vegetable stock might be even easier, but read up on it first, it can get strong very quickly). Or, stick a stalk in a glass, and surround it with Vodka, tomato juice, and a shake of tabasco, raising your glass to the beauty of celery.

* The somewhat infamous childhood snack: take a stalk of celery, smear it with peanut butter, and add raisins to the top. It really is good, and some days, totally hits the healthy-snack spot.

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