Veggie of the Week - Celery
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Celery is something we tend to associate with crudités, those platters of dismembered raw vegetables laid out around a bowl, or several bowls, of stuff with a consistency designed to adhere to the vegetable and a flavor generally designed to mask it, all with the intent of making you forget you're not actually being given something to eat - we'll pass over the often complex sociology surrounding appetizers in general. Celery can be turned into a more substantial snack, such as Ants on a Log (though I remember it as 'ant' free) by stuffing it with peanut butter: the celery's shape is perfect for this, supporting the peanut butter and minimizing its contact with other surfaces, making it lunch bag packable, while the texture, flavor and water content of the vegetable make it possible to eat, and even enjoy, a couple of tablespoons of nutty stickiness. But celery has more serious aspirations.
Celery steps into history over three thousand years ago, appearing in Egyptian architectural decorations and being grazed by Achilles' horsemen's steeds in the meadows under Troy. The plant at this time would have been pretty scrawny relative to today's, but with the same feathery bouquet of leaves and delicate umbellae of strong scented seed at the end of the season. It also would've had the same heady herbal, almost savoury scent as celery does in the field - but which is largely lost after trimming and refrigeration for the trip to the supermarket. The scent and the beauty of the leaves made them appropriate for victors' garlands at Greek athletic games, just as equally pungent and pretty bay laurel was.
Like laurel, the leaves (and seeds) of primitive celery would hve been used as an herb, just as they can today, adding a slightly bitter flavor with predominant new-mown hay and strong suggestions of aged cider. Celery tops are, I suspect, one of the more neglected vegetable parts around, though they're very useful in soups, even in large quantities, and in smaller amounts, finely chopped, in salads and sandwich fillings.
Celery seems only to have become a 'vegetable' with well-developed fleshy stalks in a tight 'head' - within the last five or six hundred years. Formerly, it was frequently grown blanched, to reduce an objectionable bitterness, but this has been done away with by selective breeding and, at least in our favored climate, deep green varieties are sweet and also now largely without troublesomely tough fibers. Recently there's been a trend towards producing smaller heads of celery, supposedly because changed use patterns, or smaller families, make the pound plus heads of earlier years impractically large. We hope this trend is reversed, since small heads have small stalks, with diminished culinary versatility.
Celery's texture and flavor suit it admirably to soups. Even well-cooked it retains a distinctive crisp-watery texture, contrasting with other possible soupmates such as potato, beans, carrots, rutabega or squash, while the flavor gives depth and bouquet to a vegetable soup, and extends the illusion provided by a soup bone, if you've used one. Celery can also work in a vegetable dish, properly so called. I use it a lot, coarsely chopped, in steamed mixed vegetables (soup without the broth, you might say). It can also be braised, cut julienne and cooked on its own, or with a bit or garlic, or with other things, carrots or parsnips, or other root vegetables, for example. I think I'd be tempted by a sort of hot Waldorf salad: chop the celery and braise it together with medium dice winter squash and parsnips, onions and maybe potatoes, and when tender,
mix these with cubed pears, raisins (possibly hydrated in juice, wine or spirits) and top with lightly toasted walnuts. Go a bit heavy on the potatoes (or serve with wholemeal bread) and nuts, and you've a meal.
From its primitive days celery was also recognized for its medicinal properties. It seems to be an enhanced diuretic, for one thing, being specially good at flushing out uric acid, and so helpful to those prone to gout; in addition, it contains essential oils that provide some antiseptic protection to the urinary tract. The diuretic action also helps reduce blood pressure, as do several other oils which act as relaxants. Celery also contains anti-inflammatory agents which help releive joint pain and tone the arteries. Apart from this, there are the dietary benefits of lots of fiber and potassium.