The Comfort Food Diaries: Celery Is My Star

Zac Overman

Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad, year after year. We hope these essays will remind you of the simple pleasures that even the most humble of foods can bring, and provide both comfort and joy in the year to come.

It's rare to meet another person who feels as passionate about celery as I do. Most people see the crunchy, long-ribbed vegetable as nothing more than a supporting ingredient. But it's more than that. Much more. It's beyond the tried-and-true companion to sage in a Thanksgiving stuffing. It's definitely way better than a prop to gussy up a Bloody Mary. To me, celery is a star.

I love its tart, watery-sweet flavor. I swoon over its snappy, crisp texture. As a recipe developer, I get almost giddy masterminding new recipes to cook with it. And I fall in love all over again each time I do. I even love digging up celery's lesser-known facts: that it's a close cousin to parsley; that it's not to be confused with tuber-like celeriac, or celery root—that its lovely long stalks and leaves make for some of the best damn casseroles I've ever tasted. I wish more people would get this about celery. I wish more people would love it even half as much as I do.

Perhaps everyone needs an eye-opening moment. Mine happened several years ago at Gabrielle Hamilton's East Village restaurant, Prune. I was with my friends Joe and Rachel, and we were in the mood for something light, so much so that we ordered a starter that featured celery as its main ingredient. Soon after, a plate of just-warm, garlicky celery arrived at the table with a slab of cool, creamy Maytag blue cheese and a thick piece of grilled, olive oil–coated country toast. We marveled at how soft yet conspicuous the celery was, nestled atop the bread and cheese. To my surprise, I reveled in every bite. We all did. Ever since that moment of culinary kismet, I've been transfixed by celery. I want to eat it every single day.

Julia Child celebrated celery, too. She extolled the deliciousness of celery ribs braised in rich chicken stock, French butter, and a few good splashes of aromatic Sancerre. Last year, for the holidays, I riffed on Julia's beloved celery braising technique, blending in good sweet butter, heavy cream, and salty cheese. (I should mention that I come from a line of dairy farmers.) The result was a golden, bubbling celery and Gruyère gratin that brought celery center stage and held its own next to the mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.

My respect for celery deepened last year while I explored the organic vegetable fields with Rodney Braga on his family farm in Soledad, California. My eyes ballooned as we came upon the lush rows of celery. And my heart fluttered the moment I ran my fingers through the gorgeous, deep-green leaves; they were parsley-like in shape, but two, maybe even three times bigger than what I usually saw in the grocery store. When Braga invited me to take a bite, I was instantly smitten by the texture and the flavor of the leaves—vegetal and crisp, and gently bitter. A month later, while cooking with a friend at her Indian bistro in Houston, I noticed that she served fresh celery-leaf salads in gorgeous silver tiffins. From that day forward, I've used celery leaves just like arugula or romaine. My salads have never been the same.

Celery also makes for a darn good drink—and not just as a garnish. I learned this trick a few years back from an Alabama-based mixologist: Take a good handful of finely diced celery and shake it well with Magellan gin, Cocchi Americano (a fortified Italian wine flavored with bitter cinchona bark and citrus), Jack Rudy tonic, and sparkling water to create a liquid stunner. Now it's a staple at any spring or summer brunch I host.

But perhaps the most important thing about celery—the reason I take such comfort in it— is this: It's found a way to tug at the true Southerner in me. A way to a Southerner's heart, of course, is through pimento cheese. (I've been known to slather pimento cheese on pretty much anything, especially my grandmother's buttermilk biscuits, or a pile of Cool Ranch Doritos while drinking bourbon slushes with my buddies.) And celery goes with pimento cheese just like Forrest Gump's peas and Jenny's carrots. The addition of shaved celery to this classic Southern staple turns it into a mouthwatering crunchy and cheesy salad. It's even better when I toss in some toasted pecans and drips of pimento-infused buttermilk dressing. It's a dish that delights even the most stringent Southern-food traditionalist. And it's just another example of how I've managed to incorporate my own favorite comfort food into so many others'.