Until I started shopping regularly at my farmers’ market I was never a big fan of celery. Sure, it’s important as an aromatic vegetable to build a flavor base for soups or sauces, but on it’s own I always found it pretty insipid; pale and watery in both appearance and flavor. All that changed when I bought my first farmers’ market celery. I had a little trouble finding it at first because it looked completely different! Instead of the almost white stuff you get in the supermarket, this was a deep dark green and smelled delicious. I actually felt like just pulling off a stalk and eating it right there. When I got home, I did try some, and from that day on, I was a converted celery lover. The farmers’ market celery takes you on a flavor journey with each bite. It starts with a bright, wet sweetness, moving into a deep satisfying earthy green taste and then finishing with a little cleansing bitterness. The stalks are narrower than supermarket celery and it is a little stringier, but if that’s a problem, you can peel it a bit with a vegetable peeler.
In addition to handling all of the usual celery duties, this celery makes the best cream of celery soup I’ve ever had, try Julia Child’s recipe, it’s a little fussy but you won’t be disappointed. I was inspired to seek out more recipes starring celery and in my research I found a bunch of braised celery recipes. In the past, I had always wondered why anyone would braise celery, I could only imagine that it would become completely flavorless. But with my new best friend, farmers’ market celery, braising made a lot more sense.
So how did this happen? Obviously, if people were braising celery in the past, then it can’t have always been so wimpy tasting as the stuff we get in the grocery store. Celery leaves were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (d. 1323, BCE), so it has a long history with humans. The word in English comes originally from the Ancient Greek selinon which actually means parsley. This makes sense because celery and parsley are botanically related. In ancient times, celery was mainly used as a medicine, and some believed it to be an aphrodisiac. As with many plants taken up for cultivation by humans, we started out with the wild variety of celery, also known as smallage. It was quite bitter which may account for its primary use in medicine. I guess they’ve always thought medicine should be hard to swallow.
In the 16th Century French and Italian gardeners began to grow it, and cooks used it as an herb to flavor dishes. By the 17th and 18th Centuries growers had created a slightly less bitter version through selective breeding, but it wasn’t really until the 19th Century that celery came into its own as a vegetable. Gardeners continued to breed for a sweeter varietal, but more importantly, they discovered that if soil was banked around the base of the plant as it grew, it would “blanch.” Covering up the plants caused them to form much less chlorophyll and so they were a much lighter green and they tasted sweeter.
We’re not sure exactly when celery came to America, but in 1856 a Scottish immigrant named Taylor, brought celery to Kalamazoo, Michigan. At first, it wasn’t too popular, but then a Dutchman named Cornelius De Bruin, began growing it in the rich bottom lands of the Kalamazoo river. He is also said to have made some improvements through breeding to the original variety that Taylor had brought from England. Whatever Mr. De Bruin did, it worked, celery took off and after that Kalamazoo was known as Celery City.
I recently tried to contact the farm from which I buy my super-green, delicious celery, to ask what variety they are growing and if they bank their plants, but I haven’t heard back yet. I suspect their celery is not banked, otherwise it wouldn’t be so green. Have our palates changed since the 19th Century when celery was considered too bitter and had to be made pale and sweet in order to be tolerable? We certainly eat more “bitter greens” like arugula, endive and broccoli rabe, than we did say, 20 years ago. If you think celery is boring, I urge you to find some of the strong dark green stuff and try it out. Below is a fairly simple braised celery recipe from Italian food maven, Marcella Hazen. It reminds me of concentrated bites of cream of celery soup, but with pancetta and Parmesan cheese — far from boring.
Braised and Grantinéed Celery Stalks with Parmesan Cheese
Adapted from Marcella Hazen
2 bunches fresh celery (use the good dark green stuff)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup chopped pancetta or prosciutto
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade chicken stock or low sodium store bought stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat your oven to 400 F.
Separate the stalks from the base of the celery and cut off the leafy tops. If you like, save the leaves and use them as you would parsley.
If you find the celery too stringy, use a vegetable peeler to peel the outside layer. Cut the stalks into pieces about 3 inches long.
In a saucepan bring 2-3 quarts of water to a boil, add the celery and allow the water to return to a boil, after one minute of boiling, remove the celery and set it aside to drain.
In a large skillet or saute pan, saute the onion in the butter until it becomes translucent, add the chopped pancetta or prosciutto. Cook for about 1 minute. Add the celery, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the chicken broth, and bring to a slow simmer. Cover the pan and simmer until the celery begins to become tender but is still a little firm when pierced, about 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pan, turn the heat up, bringing the liquid to a boil. Cook in this manner until all of the liquid has evaporated.
Use tongs to gently move the celery to a baking dish, then spoon the onion and meat mixture over the top of the celery. Finally, sprinkle on the grated Parmesan. Bake it in the upper part of your oven until the cheese melts and turns a little brown and crusty. Remove from the oven, let stand for 3-5 minutes and then serve.