Celery: More Than Just Diet Fare?
Photograph by Blake Royer
Celery. Praised by dieters for its "empty calories" (it takes more energy to break down the plant cells than the body derives from digesting), it is also the base of two of the world’s holy sauté trinities. Mixed with bell peppers and onions for the New Orleans holy trinity and with carrots and onions to make mirepoix (don’t worry, we had to look that up). Inconveniently, it’s always sold in large, imposing bunches. Like cilantro and parsley (the latter of which is a cousin of celery), this staple of the produce aisle always goes forgotten in the fridge, then goes limp, then gets trashed. In fact, it's difficult to remember the last time we actually used an entire bunch of celery before it went bad.
Valiant mothers made some progress with the invention of ants on a log, turning humble celery into a vehicle for slathered peanut butter and raisins, which do a pretty good job of canceling out any potential health benefits, not to mention celery's original taste.
It started as a dare. What interesting creations could come from a vegetable which even the most authoritative texts say is best thrown in stock? It's just not that much fun to munch on raw. Unlike a carrots, which help your eyesight, remind you of childhood impressions of Bugs Bunny, and will caramelize nicely, celery doesn't seem that versatile. Unless you're really desperate and on a diet, celery has a stringy, pulpy quality that's kind of unappetizing. Long after the flavor is gone, you're left with a mouthful of shapeless, wet fibers.
But we tried. Using what you buy is important, not to mention economical. For three days in a row we ate celery, trying to showcase the plant itself, rather than burying it under a slew of other ingredients.
First, storage: Celery will last in the fridge for quite a while, but wrapped in aluminum foil, it will last an age. That gave us time to think how best to attack it. And if your celery is already limp, shock it under some cold running water and put it in a glass in the fridge—it will stand at attention within half an hour.
After tooling around with grand ideas, it quickly became apparent that celery soup was the best place to start. The first idea was to jack up the flavor by adding the one ingredient that can make just about anything exciting: bacon. Mix that with tomatoes and a whole gob of celery and things were looking up. The broth was full and flavorful, but, incidentally, those pesky cubes of celery kept getting in the way. We tried picking them out at first, and then threw it all in the blender. We produced a diluted soup full of little threads.
If we didn’t like the fibrous encasing of the celery, then maybe it was time to get rid of it. For awhile there, the U.S. seemed to be in the throes of a juicing craze, or maybe that was just our mothers. But we remember being beat over the head with the extolled virtues of juicing vegetables, which involves a machine that grinds while spinning, essentially separating the pulp from the juice, which carries the nutrients along with it. A pile of carrots, a bunch of kale, a handful of beet roots, and a few grates of ginger, and you've got a glass full of the nutrients of all those vegetables at once. For celery, this works wonders (remember the shapeless, wet fibers?). And you don't need a fancy machine (though it helps)—just a blender. Start with some water in the bottom, add the juice of 1/4 lemon to 1 cup water in the blender. Dice 1 bunch of celery, and roughly grate 1 apple, 1/4 inch of ginger, and 1 small clove of garlic, and dump it all in. Blend until thoroughly mixed. Pour through a strainer, pressing out all the juice from the pulp. Serve immediately, or chill in the freezer for a few minutes.
It tasted a lot like celery, which can be refreshing. You'd have to be a fan of vegetable juice in the first place, like tomato juice, which we are. But unless we had a juicing machine or a butler, we'd probably never make it again.
There had to be an out. It’s of the most ubiquitous of vegetables, and we couldn’t think of anything to highlight its unique identity. Cookbook index after cookbook index led to dead ends and unappealing recipes. Despairing, we turned to that resource which always seems to solve our problems: the cocktail guide.
Perhaps the noblest use of celery in modern cuisine is in the Bloody Mary, a fiery drink originally called the Red Snapper. You can have one before lunch and no one will look at you funny. Thanks to its savory character, it’s also one of the only drinks in which one is enough.
Most of the celery flavor comes from the celery salt, meaning you’ll have to make a lot of these before it will make a dent in your pile. Fortunately, that sounds like a dare we were actually excited about undertaking.
There are numerous variants, of course, but this is the one we turn to.
Photograph by Blake Royer
Pour 2 ounces of vodka, 4 ounces tomato juice, a 1/2 teaspoon horseradish, a dash of worcestershire sauce, a dash of Tabasco, a shake of salt and pepper, and a touch of celery salt into a highball glass, and top with ice. Stir well, and garnish with a lovely stalk of celery.
Any other ideas for what to do with his poor plant?
About the authors: Collectively, Nick Kindelsperger and Blake Royer are the Paupered Chef. For more on frugal but flavorful dining, visit their blog, thepauperedchef.com.
Small celery photograph from iStockPhoto.com