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
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?