Unjustly unappreciated, celery is one of the most wonderful vegetables I know. I loved it as a child when a special jug of crisp stalks would appear without fail for Sunday tea. As an adult, I love the earthy aroma that caresses the nostrils when removing the root or ripping away the strings. I appreciate the crisp texture and the nutty, sharp, slightly sweet flavour. I’m especially fond of chopped stalks in meaty stews and sludgy soups, and I like using the leaves to magically enliven salads and sandwiches.
Most supermarkets tend to sell imported green celery, neatly trimmed and incarcerated in plastic. That said, soil-encrusted heads of what I call proper celery occasionally appear on the shelves. It has impressively fat stalks and a sweeping crown of leaves. Also worth looking for is organic celery – it has a stronger earthier flavour than regular celery.
Celery is essential for well-flavoured stock. This is where the fibrous outer stalks come in handy – use a couple chopped into big chunks, along with an onion and one or two carrots. Moving inwards, medium-sized stalks, thinly sliced, add crunch to a salad. How about an autumnal combination of crisp celery, juicy pears, crumbled blue cheese and new season wet walnuts? Best of all is the heart with its virginal tightly packed stalks. They’re lovely to nibble on, dipped in sea salt with a platter of cheese, and just right for muddling a Bloody Mary cocktail.
Cooked celery is another matter. (Those of a certain age will shudder at the memory of waterlogged braised celery, inevitably served at old-fashioned hotels.) For inspiration we need to look to Italy where cooked celery is considered a delicacy. Destringed, chopped and lightly steamed green stalks add texture and subtle colour to a risotto. The chopped leaves and diced inner stalks are good sizzled with anchovies or pancetta, garlic and a little chopped chilli – use as a lively garnish for soup or pasta. Celery is also essential in soffrito, an aromatic mix of celery, onions, carrots and herbs simmered in oil that forms the base of so many Italian dishes.
I like celery sliced diagonally and steamed with spinach. The contrast in colour and texture is particularly pleasing. It is also an excellent partner to barley in my recipe for Celery and Barley Soup with Seeds, a sludge-coloured but fortifying soup brought to life by a shower of greenery and tasty seeds. It puts to good use an entire bunch of celery, including the coarse outer stalks.
This is the time of year when die-hard celery lovers like me celebrate Fenland celery. This is a crisp white variety dating back to Victorian times when it was grown especially for London’s Christmas markets. It is meticulously cultivated using traditional methods and, as such, has been awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status from the European Commission, joining the ranks of Italian Parma Ham and French Champagne. Fenland celery is available for just eight short weeks between October and December, so now is the time to get crunching.
© Christine McFadden, November 2021