Celery isn’t sexy.
I get that. Not many people, when asked “What would you like for dinner?,” respond “I don’t care, as long as it has celery.”
But maybe that should change. Celery is a vegetable whose time has come. It is more — far more — than a mere garnish for a bloody mary or a convenient conveyance for hummus.
As it happens, this is the time of year that celery is at its absolute best, tender and sweet. It is just begging to be used in vibrant and exciting ways. And I don’t mean stuffing it with peanut butter.
Not that there is anything wrong with celery with peanut butter. I think we can all agree that celery with peanut butter is the best possible way to eat celery, and maybe peanut butter. It is culinary perfection.
But it is my happy duty to look for other applications of celery that are (nearly) just as stunning, and I found some truly great ones.
Take, for instance, Celery, Blue Cheese and Hazelnut Salad. Already, that sounds better than an ordinary celery dish, right?
It gets better: The hazelnuts are toasted and then glazed with butter, maple syrup and just a pinch of heat from cayenne pepper. Chopped dates — or dried cranberries or cherries — add a pop of chewy sweetness, and the dressing is a simple mixture of olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice.
But all of these accouterments are mere frills, a flamboyant gilding of the lily. The real star of this dish is the combination of celery and blue cheese. Celery goes with blue cheese like Christmas goes with presents. It is very nearly as timeless a combination as celery with peanut butter.
Add some maple-glazed hazelnuts, and you have a salad that transcends all the earthbound limitations of salad.
Next, I used celery to make a dish that I hadn’t had in so long I had completely forgotten about it: cream of celery soup.
Why has this extraordinary dish fallen out of favor? Celery goes with stock and cream every bit as well as mushrooms do. A bit of potato adds depth to the mix, and an onion brings the flavor into focus.
But what really makes it stand out is a hefty portion of dill, which acts as a brilliant, sharp counterpoint to the earthy celery.
I puréed my soup for at least a minute and strained it well, extracting as much liquid as I could while discarding the fibrous parts. The result was a soup that was silken, with just enough cream to make it glide across the tongue but not so much as to be too rich.
It is an elegant and sophisticated soup, and would be perfectly proper as the first course of a fancy dinner party — or for Christmas. Your guests will never guess that it costs just a dollar a serving.
Celery is braised in many parts of the world, and it is high time we did it more here, too. Celery that is braised still tastes like celery, but its sharp edges have been smoothed over; it has a warmer and deeper flavor.
It is also almost impossibly easy to make, though it takes a little longer (15 minutes) than you might expect. All you have to do is sauté celery in butter with salt and pepper for about five minutes, until it starts to become tender. Then you let it simmer in a small amount of beef broth until the broth becomes like a glaze.
It’s so easy, yet the results are spectacular. As a side dish, it would enliven any kind of meal.
Although it is inspired by Asian cooking, celery stir fry is also universal in its appeal. And it is actually easier to make than the braised celery.
All you have to do is stir-fry julienned celery with a little bit of crushed red pepper and soy sauce. A few drops of sesame oil when you’re done only make it better.
This dish was a revelation: I had never realized just how well celery is a natural match for soy sauce.
I made one last dish, a drink that is a favorite at New York delicatessens: celery soda.
I had never actually had celery soda before. I’d had two responses to the idea every time I saw it at the deli — “ick” and “why?” But I knew that it was hugely popular, especially as an accompaniment to corned beef sandwiches, or pastrami.
Now that I’ve made it, I totally get the appeal. Celery soda is light, surprisingly mild and wonderfully refreshing. It would be great not only with heavy and fatty meats such as corned beef, it would also be an excellent choice for basically any sandwich.
With celery soda, I think it is the unexpected flavors that make it shine. It doesn’t just have celery in it, though that is the main ingredient. The syrup is also made with black peppercorns for a hint of a bite that is necessary to tame the celery, and also crushed cardamom pods for a spicy, herbal undertone.
The juice of a lemon tempers the sweetness, making it a lovely beverage for adults. It’s the kind of drink that makes you realize that celery isn’t blah — it’s kind of great.
Cream of Celery Soup
Adapted from Bon Appetit; serves 6
1 head celery, ribs chopped, leaves reserved
1 large waxy potato, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
3 cups chicken broth
Scant 1/4 cup fresh dill
1/2 cup heavy cream
Olive oil for serving
Combine celery, potato, onion and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat; season with salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion is tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Add broth; simmer until potatoes are tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Purée in a blender with dill. Strain. Stir in cream. To serve, top with reserved celery leaves and a light drizzle of oil.
Celery, Blue Cheese and Hazelnut Salad
Recipe by Simply Recipes; serves 4-8
6 ounces blue cheese
3/4 cup hazelnuts
2 to 3 heads celery, tops removed
1 tablespoon butter
Pinch cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil (or hazelnut oil, if you have it)
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
Handful of dried cherries, dried cranberries or chopped dates
Allow cheese to come to room temperature. Meanwhile, roast hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet in a 300-degree oven for 30 minutes.
While the hazelnuts are roasting, use a vegetable peeler to peel away the tough outer strings of the celery. Slice the celery ribs on the diagonal into 1/4-inch thick slices.
Remove hazelnuts from oven and let cool a few minutes. Rub together in a clean dish towel to remove as much of the dark outer skin as you can.
Melt butter in a small skillet; add pinch of cayenne and salt. Add the roasted hazelnuts to the pan and cook on low heat for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in the maple syrup. Leave in pan to cool.
In a small jar, mix together the olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice. Add salt and black pepper to taste. Shake to combine.
To assemble, layer a shallow platter or dish first with the sliced celery, then cherries, then crumble the blue cheese over it and sprinkle with glazed hazelnuts (you may have to use a wooden spoon to scrape them out of the pan). Just before serving, pour dressing over top.
Recipe by Alton Brown via Food Network; serves 4
8 ribs of celery, rinsed and trimmed, leaves chopped and reserved
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Pinch kosher salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup good quality beef stock or broth
Peel any of the fibrous outer stalks of celery with a vegetable peeler and slice into 1-inch pieces on the bias.
Heat the butter in a 10-inch saute pan over medium heat. Once melted, add the celery, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes until just beginning to soften slightly.
Add the beef broth and stir to combine. Cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook until the celery is tender but not mushy, approximately 5 minutes. Uncover and allow the celery to continue to cook for an additional 5 minutes or until the liquid has been reduced to a glaze. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the reserved leaves.
Recipe by Simply Recipes; serves 6
2 tablespoons canola oil or other cooking oil
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper or 3 small dried chile peppers, broken in half
4 cups julienned celery, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce, to taste
A few drops of dark sesame oil, optional
Heat the oil and the pepper flakes in a wok or frying pan over high heat until fragrant, about 60 to 90 seconds. Add the celery and stir-fry for 3 minutes. Add the soy sauce and stir-fry 1 minute more. Remove from the heat and add the sesame oil, if desired. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Adapted from a recipe by food52.com; serves 8
7 or 8 large ribs of celery, about 3/4 pound, plus inner ribs for garnish
1 large lemon
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
8 green cardamom pods
11/4 cups water
1 cup granulated sugar
2 quarts soda water
Clean and thinly slice the celery. It should measure about 3 cups when firmly packed into a measuring cup. Set aside.
Remove the zest in strips from half of the lemon. Lightly crush the peppercorns and cardamom pods. Set aside.
Bring water and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan. Once it reaches a boil, add the sliced celery and return it to a boil for about 1 minute. Stir once or twice in the process. Remove from the heat.
Add the lemon zest, pepper and cardamom to the celery mixture. Stir to combine, then cover the pan and allow to cool to room temperature.
Strain the celery syrup through a fine mesh strainer into a jar or other suitable storage container. Feel free to nibble on the candied celery, if you like. Juice the lemon and add it to the syrup. Stir to combine. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To serve, add 1/4 cup syrup to a glass, add 1 cup of soda water and top with ice. Garnish with a tender inner celery rib, if desired.