Celery plays a supporting role in many recipes. Any Italian ragù worth its salt begins with a soffritto, a mixture of diced celery, onion, and garlic sautéed in olive oil. In Louisiana Creole and Cajun cuisine, the so-called holy trinity of celery, onion, and bell pepper leads the way to classic gumbos and jambalayas. French cooks call this mixture of aromatic vegetables a mirepoix and usually swap carrot for bell pepper, but the idea is the same: build a flavorful base upon which to add other, more glamorous ingredients. Though celery most often provides a foundational background flavor, it has its own clean, sweet, brightness and deserves a chance in the limelight.
Ancient Romans believed celery had healing powers. A crown of celery leaves was thought to cure headaches, particularly those associated with over imbibing, and the vegetable was often used as a cleansing tonic in early spring. Recent studies have shown that phthalides, the compounds that give celery its distinctive yet subtle aroma, also work to reduce stress hormones and relax muscle walls in arteries, allowing for increased blood flow. This may be news to the West, but traditional Chinese medicine has long valued celery for its ability to lower blood pressure.
The familiar head or bunch celery was first cultivated in Italy during the 15th century. It was bred from a wild, thin-stalked Eurasian herb called smallage that still grows natively in damp habitats near the sea. Today, commercially grown celery ranks high on the list of fruits and vegetables most heavily sprayed with pesticides, so it is important to buy organic celery, if possible. In this case, buying organic won't break the bank. Look for bunches with leafy greens still attached, as these are good indicators that the plant was recently harvested. Also, celery leaves are extraordinarily flavorful and make wonderful additions to salads and omelettes.
To clean a head of celery and get it ready for cooking, I like to soak the stalks in ice water. Not only does this method rid the stalks of any fine dirt that may have collected, it also maximizes their crispness. If you've always thought of celery as nothing more than a basic kitchen staple, let it shine as the star of this salad.
Triple Celery Salad
Celery seeds, leaves, and stalks give this triple celery salad a powerful flavor. It's crunchy and refreshing, and would make a lovely addition to an Easter brunch.
Serves 4 - 6 as a first course
1 bunch celery
1 teaspoon celery seeds
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 bunches small radishes
¼ cup fresh parsley leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Fill the sink or a very large bowl with cold water and ice cubes. Pull the celery bunch apart into individual stalks. Pluck the leaves and place them in a large bowl. Soak the stalks in the ice water for at least 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the celery seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Transfer them to a small bowl and stir in the salt.
In another bowl, combine the sherry vinegar and the zest and juice of the lemon. Add ¼ teaspoon of the celery salt mixture and several grinds of pepper. Whisk in the olive oil. Taste for seasoning, adding another pinch of celery salt, if needed.
Remove the celery stalks from the ice water, thinly slice them crosswise on a diagonal, and toss them into the bowl with the celery leaves. Trim the radishes' root and stem ends, then cut the radishes into quarters, or slice them crosswise if they are very large. Add the sliced radishes, the whole parsley leaves, and half of the dressing to the bowl. Using your hands or two large spoons, toss well to combine.
To serve, divide the salad among small plates. Sprinkle each salad with a pinch of celery salt, and drizzle a spoonful of dressing on top.