Saturday, October 04, 2008

They Love Me, They Love Me Not

There will always be onions and garlic hale and pungent, for safe and sensible measure- a few carrots too. But in darker regions below the belt, like those closed refrigerator bins which promise secrecy as well as crisp veggies, things are not so pristine. Barely hanging onto its dignity head bowed low, there is celery; meek and pallid, gasping towards yellow. While it is a reliable participant within the kitchen community showing its soulful side within a mirepoix, the holy trinity or Italianized sofrito too, I fear these stringed from within stalks are sort of an underdog too often considered for supporting roles only.

What a shame, according to Wikipedia, “celery is widely eaten by guinea pigs, dogs, horses, birds, squirrels, and small rodents”. Even this two legged once upon a time, enjoyed plunging three inch nibs of barely green crunch into a thick unapologetic shag of blue cheese. How could I know that within a dingy hole of a dive, hot and addictive Buffalo bar food would become the magic key to the glorious vista of this otherwise overlooked vegetable, where staccato like chomps would serve as quenching counterpoint to every bone sucking gnaw of hot from the fryer wing. For a short time heaven existed in a small central NY town and I don’t mind saying, that celery was a big part of it.

But it hasn’t always held such a lofty position. Surely some of the blame must fall upon those dreaded vegetable platters hauled out at confirmation parties, fad diets, and the oft felt fear of looking foolish in public places. For a time in junior high, most girls I knew munched their way towards thinner thighs by consuming veggie sticks, cottage cheese and Crystal Light. By high school we had actual science behind us to prove that digesting celery creates negative calories at least if no chicken wings are involved. Sure desiccated crudités sprinkled with salt might eventually gain one access into a smaller pair of jeans, but they’ll never end up on anyone’s last meal list. And how many times have I been poking about the buffet table, avoiding radishes and the always ponderous cauliflower only to pick up a celery stick and then be hopelessly stalled into talking to someone I don’t know well? Conveniently at hand, celery stick will serve as an impromptu mix of security blanket, pointer, and party food whereby buoyed by an unusual sense of ease I will gesticulate about and absentmindedly whittle away at my edible talisman causing doom in the form of an unflattering jute-like piece of stalk now hanging from my embarrassed face. It takes years to recover from that kind of food shame, years.

Yet in spite of these personal set backs and experiences, I know what food adventurers before have known, that is Apium graveolens has a wild earthy flavor coupled with a rousing aromatic reputation which makes it an indispensible seasoning in the kitchen. Lest we continue to view these pale petioles as rather insipid consider the fact that the entire plant has been used medicinally since ancient times and the leaves were once associated with the under world and fashioned into crowns for the dead, even making an appearance in King Tut’s tomb. While some of the offensive coarseness has been cultivated out over time, the ever popular Pascal celery has a crisp slightly sweet taste that is perfect for palate cleansing, but retains a tint of salty bitterness that allows it to stand up to assertive partners. As food in its own right I find celery to be absolutely refreshing, even spritely, and who wouldn’t want that in a dinner companion?

Still, stacked up against it in my mental pro and con list, are bothersome facts like: all bunches look alike, it’s just indiscriminately diced and thrown into every picnic salad type food, and even- it has little sex appeal. For these rather sad reasons and the reality of plain forgetting about the ever present bunch hidden in my drawers, I miss out. But something about the slow plunge towards winter makes me want to hold up a graceful wand of celeri in defiance, before the sweaty stews and bakes take hold. It is finally time to take a stand for the love that has always been there, and be rewarded with percussive nibbles of joyful exuberance that our dear steadfast friend provides.

Ode to Celery Salad, servings infinitely variable- If I were a Top Chef contestant and had to modernize blue cheese and celery sticks, this would be my take on "the classic". I was inspired by the clean and contrasting flavors/textures of carpaccio too.

Thin (1/16”-1/8”) slices of cleaned and dry celery stalk
Your best extra virgin olive oil/ walnut oil
Parmesan cheese
Fresh cracked pepper
Fresh thyme leaves/ tarragon/chervil

Directions: Look to use light green even stalks which have the most “meat” on their ribs. Leave the one in the crisper drawer for your hamster or some future stock. Slice your celery into cross sections as thin as possible. The point is to reduce the “chaw” factor and just leave behind the delicate effervescent crunch. Find your prettiest circular plate and if time allows begin to arrange your celery slices into a floral pattern. Yes, I’m quite serious. Begin in the center by arranging 2 pieces, ends touching to create a circle. Build the next layer by encircling the center piece, end-side pointing inward. Keep going, patience! If the concentric circle design is too frustrating, rows of slices pointing the same direction a la fish scales would also provide effective drama. Next dress your masterpiece with lusty splashes of good oil, scatter about nice shards of your parmesan, and scatter about some pepper and herbs. I have no doubt that a few toasted walnuts/ pomegranate arils would be nice, but after such a long wait in the wings, I think celery deserves to steal the show- don't you?


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

A neighbor brought me some cutting celery earlier this week. It was quite bitter compared to regular celery; also th estalks were thinner and leaves more broad and dark green. Interesting flavor, but not something I'll gravitate towards again.

Gattina said...

Calli, you are just terrific! The only thing I may worry, the celery cappacio is just too pretty to eat :) :)
Celery we bought (in the States or in Asia) is always cut off the top (the leaves). The very first time I bought one in Barcelona I almost couldn't recongize it... since they don't cut off the leaves/top... the bunches can be as long as my whole arm :D

Callipygia said...

lydia- Take heart, I think this kind is more similar to the original wild celery that was only used for seasoning/medicine.

gattina- Of course you should know I cheated, no geometric design for me (but you would excel at this I'm sure!). Yes US celery looks so bland eh? I've seen the real stuff grown from a garden and it is frighteningly lanky.

Anh said...

I love celery in everything. I dip them with hummus often but your salad seems a very nice thing to do :)

judyyb said...

Have you ever had celery sauteed with beef? You sautee beef w/ alittle garlic and ginger and then throw in celery thinly sliced, it is so delicious, the rich caramelly yumminess of the beef (flank steak) and then the crisp watery celery. Delicious.
I think someone should bottle the smell of cut celery, it is so fresh. When I used to volunteer at GLWD, we had to cut a heap of celery and nothing smelled more awesome than a room full of cut celery and the crunch crunch crunch of the knives going thru bunches of stalk. Thanks for yet another wonderful post!

Vivian said...

This sounds so refreshing and pretty!!

Callipygia said...

anh- Yes hummus is good, peanut butter too!

judyb- yup you're right the smell of celery tho paired with lemon I think (sometimes it is a bit skunky)would make a swanky fragrance!

vivian- pretty and worth every bit of effort, tho just as nice heaping it in the center of a plate.

Freya said...

I am so glad that you are still writing your intensely brilliant pieces on overlooked or "never even heard of" foods...
Celery is much despised in the UK and for no good reason other than the stringiness. I love the flavour and find that braised it becomes so delicate and fragrant.
This salad is stunning too!

Lucy said...

Such joyful, noisy nibbles!

Beautiful plate of pale greenery. Much under-rated indeed. There is no crunch like that herbal crunch.

Love me a celery pointer at a party, I do.

miragee said...

You remind me of my once trying to lose weight by eating celery sticks dipped in mayonnaise. I'd say it's better with Buffalo wings:-)

ask the booth said...

This is a great blogspot! I will be stopping by more frequently!

Gattina said...

another thing... can you remember how big (or normal to espanola) a bottle of evoo in Barcelona? I should let these gorgeous celery slices smim in evoo but still, it may take me a year to finish the bottle :) :) And what's cooking in your side today? I can't find whole turkey (no surprise) and cranberry sauce... wondering if raspberry marmalade can be a substitue. Happy Thanksgiving's Day Calli!

Anonymous said...

Miss your posts. Happy Holidays!

jess said...

Hi, I would like to ask you a question regarding a old post from Sherrys blog. I had just discovered it a few days ago and tonight looked at the main page and saw she had passed. I was sorry to read that. I was actually going to send her a question on a post of hers, and saw she had passed.

In the post here:

You made a comment about these cookies, and I wondered if you made them? My sister tried to make these but the dough was real sticky and we were wondering if thats how it was supposed to be after coming out of the freezer?

If you have a chance and can reply I'd appreciate it, thanks.

Jess said...

Sorry the whole url did mot show up, its the post titled Accident Prone Almond Wafers posted Mrach 25th, 2008.

Accident Prone Almond cookies

Callipygia said...

Hi Jess- No, I didn't make Sher's recipe. Is it possible your sister left the log in the freezer for just 10 min, she may have mistaken the bake time for freeze time? Should you want, I have a recipe that is similar to a windmill cookie that freezes and bakes beautifully and addictively crisp. Let me know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recipe. Sounds terrific!

A little recommendation, I found these to be so delicious and useful in my kitchen: