Using celery as a main ingredient

October 6, 2017

Since we planned to be away for a few days, I decided to clear out the refrigerator. Most of what I found was either unopened and well before its expiry date (yogurt and cheese) or leftovers we could make into meals before we left. The biggest challenge was a huge bunch of celery, clearly on the brink of becoming a soggy mess.

I’d likely bought it last month because I needed just one stalk as an ingredient in a recipe, then promptly forgot and left it languishing in the crisper drawer. Thanks to the slight chill in the air, cream of celery soup came to mind as an ideal destination for the still-edible vegetable.

For those of you interested in the botanical connections between your foods, celery is a member of the parsley family, which also includes water hemlock, famously known as the ingredient responsible for killing Socrates. Celery is characterized by tall, pale-green stalks topped with small leaves. The interior stalks are smaller, thinner and lighter in color than the outer ones.

The type of celery most commonly sold in this country is pascal celery. This is a brighter green than golden celery, which is grown under a layer of soil to prevent the development of chlorophyll and its characteristic green color. This latter type is leafier and more often seen in Asian dishes, while pascal celery is found in American and European recipes.

Although wild celery is native to the Mediterranean region, its presence can be traced as far back as the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Chinese. Originally, celery was chosen for its medicinal value, helpful in curing hangovers or serving as an aphrodisiac (not proven in any recent clinical trials). Celery leaves were also favored in victory crowns for athletes, as well as in a wreath found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Most historians agree the culinary cultivation of celery began in the 1600s in Italy and France. Here, the crunchy stalks worked as a filler to stretch a soup or stew to feed a larger group. In this country, Michigan is reported as the first site of celery production in the late 1800s. A combination of mild summers and Dutch immigrant farmers helped the crop gain popularity.

Not only are the crisp celery stalks featured in recipes, but its seeds are also valued. The perfume and pharmaceutical industries are markets for the volatile oil from celery seeds. Ground or whole seeds appear as a seasoning and spice, for example in Bloody Mary cocktails and Old Bay Seafood Seasoning. 

In Creole and Cajun cuisine, chopped celery, onions and bell peppers are key ingredients called the holy trinity found in many signature recipes. The French base for sauces and soups known as mirepoix is made of finely diced celery, onion and carrots. Health food enthusiasts have long admired celery for its high water and fiber content, low calorie count and beneficial vitamin C.        

Another positive feature of celery is that unlike many vegetables, it does not lose its nutritional benefits when cooked. In the recipe here for cream of celery soup (nothing close to the red can of Campbell's you may recall from childhood) I add an extra step. Instead of sprinkling flour over sautéed onions and celery as a thickener, I use a separate pan to make a roux from butter and flour.

This way, the flour is less likely to form lumps when added to the soup, and cooking it with the butter will eliminate any unpleasant “doughy” flavor. In the photo, snipped and whole celery leaves are seen as a garnish, but bright-green chives would work just as well. Save any leftover cream of celery soup as a perfect liquid base for a rich chicken pot pie filling. If you need a recipe for any of the celery that didn’t make it into the soup, try this quick pickle. Chop the pickles into your next batch of chicken or tuna salad for a sassy crunch.

Cream of Celery Soup

2 T butter, separated
1 lb celery ribs

1 large onion
2 garlic cloves
1 T flour
4 C chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1/2 C half & half
1 t lemon juice
2 dashes tabasco
salt & pepper, to taste

Melt 1 T butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Cut the celery into a small dice and add to the pan. Chop the onion and stir into the pan. Press or mince the garlic and add. While the vegetables cook slowly to soften, melt the remaining 1T butter in another small skillet. Add the flour and cook, stirring often, until golden. Pour the chicken stock into the saucepan with the vegetables, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer the roux to the saucepan and stir to completely dissolve. Add bay leaf, cover and simmer over low for 30 minutes. Discard bay leaf and stir in remaining ingredients over very low heat. When completely heated through, ladle into shallow bowls and garnish with celery leaves or snipped chives.

Quick Pickled Celery

8 celery stalks
1 C white vinegar

1/4 C sugar
1 T salt
4 crushed garlic cloves
1 T mustard seeds
1/2 t red pepper flakes
1 T cracked peppercorns

Sterilize a glass mason jar and a tight-fitting lid; set aside. Trim the ends from the celery stalks and cut into pieces that will fit (standing up) in the sterilized jar. In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil, stirring until dissolved. Remove pan from heat and stir in garlic, mustard seed, red pepper and cracked peppercorns. Place the celery pieces in the jar and pour in the brine; cover tightly. Allow to cool to room temperature, shaking the jar from time to time to disperse the seasonings.