Celery is that dieter’s darling - an edible that burns more calories in the digesting of it than it delivers in the eating of it. But it’s a vegetable that doesn’t inspire much respect, although a ‘mirepoix’ or ‘soffrito’ would be lost without it. Combined with finely diced onion and carrot, celery provides that foundation flavouring to so many braised dishes, from soups to stews.
And yet, even while being patronised, celery has proudly survived many decades of food fashion as its own self. From the 1830s to early 1900s, it was such an expensive vegetable, because of the care and attention it demanded in its cultivation, that wealthy families displayed it on the dining table in water like flowers in ‘celery vases’, intricate glass pieces now part of museum collections.
In a not too distant decade past, soft blue cheese was smeared down each stalk’s gutter for passing around with wicked cocktails. In the US, it has always been served - incongruously but oh-so-rightly - with spicy-hot chicken wings. Jamie Oliver gave it pizzazz when he took a whole head and sliced it finely right across in thin half moons, dressing it with vinaigrette as a new kind of refreshing salad to which, in Jamie lingo, you could add ‘other pukka stuff’.
You can’t make elegant Waldorf salad without a head of celery. A chicken salad of yesterday’s roast mixed up in a generous blanketing of mustardy mayonnaise with handfuls of toasted walnuts and capers is cranked up more than a notch by a folding in of copious amounts of sliced celery.
Celery, Apium graveolens var. graveolens, is not to be confused with celeriac, Apium graveolens var. Rapaceum, of which more another time. It’s been around f-o-r-e-v-e-r. (What decent vegetable hasn’t?) It was originally a marshland plant, which may explain why you might be finding it hard to cultivate in the hot and dry south west France. It was found around the Mediterranean in salty, marshy soil near the coast. It isn’t too happy in soil that lacks a salt content or isn’t constantly damp.
Like leeks, it needs earthing up as it grows, in order to develop that white stalk. Celery that has been left unearthed to its own wayward devices in the potager develops a bitter and emphatic flavour hard to welcome in the mouth.
But let that tangle go on to flower, and you’ll have seeds to use as a spice and, if you are homeopathically inclined, to apply in various cures. Back in time, celery seeds were employed by Ayurvedic practitioners in India to treat colds, flu, arthritis, some diseases of the liver and spleen, and against water retention. This versatile seed is still used as a diuretic. It promises a number of other medical benefits, all of which tend to be prefaced by the ambivalent ‘hedge-your-bets’ verb: ‘May’.
Why should the poor maligned head of celery be held responsible for so much? It’s deliciously crunchy, it’s a healthy snack, it makes your slow-braised recipes taste good - what more do you want? It’s not celery’s fault it cooks out limp and grey.
Here’s a more colourful use for it, which goes well with roast meats and with game, and makes a delicious vegetarian dish or supper dish served with no more than a crusty baguette and perhaps a salad on the side.
Braised celery with dried cèpes
- 200ml chicken stock
- 10g dried cèpes
- 70g butter
- 4 whole bunches of celery, outer stalks peeled with a potato peeler
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 1 small clove garlic, bruised
- 2 tablespoons capers
- 50ml vin de noix or Madeira
- Salt and freshly milled white pepper
- 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 180C.
Pour hot chicken stock over dried cèpes and leave to soak 15 minutes.
Melt butter in an ovenproof dish. Peel off the fibers from the outer stalks of the celery hearts with a potato peeler. Halve each celery heart down the middle or tie stalks together and cut heart across its middle, reserving remaining loose stalks for other use. Gently stew in butter till colouring lightly then add vinegar. Reduce liquid at a bubbling simmer to nearly nothing then add stock and cèpes. Bring to the boil and add garlic, capers, vin de noix or Madeira and season.
Cover dish with foil and bake 40-60 minutes. Check once or twice. If liquid is drying out, add a little more stock and lower heat. If there is too much, remove dish to stovetop and boil down over high heat. The celery and sauce should be syrupy and golden. Remove the garlic, sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Hint: To remove the tough fibres from the outer stalks of a bunch of celery, hold the bunch of celery hearts in one hand and run the potato peeler with the other hand down each of the outer stalks.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the October 2019 edition of The Bugle.