Underrated Celery

Garden Celery andMushroom Soup_1

 

 

 

 

 

 

I keep a short list of underrated vegetables, and celery reigns among the top two or three. How can this aromatic vegetable that provides such depth, aroma and core flavor to so many dishes be so grossly overlooked? Well, the supermarket representation certainly doesn’t help. It doesn’t look, smell, or taste like the recently harvested garden or local farm variety of celery.  I’m just now using both leaves and stalks from my garden in soups, stews, and salads. They are far darker and leafier, as well as more fragrant, than the offerings available during the rest of the year.

Chefs often use intensely flavored celery leaves in raw dishes and in cooking, but it’s far rarer among home cooks. Instead of throwing them away and only using the stalks, treat celery leaves like an herb: Toss a handful into mixed green salads, stir into a soup or stew just before serving, add to salsas and dips, and blend into smoothies and juices.

As for the stalks, along with carrots and onions, they are a key ingredient in building and layering flavor in so many cultural dishes. Along with a little fat, they are ‘sweated’, while gently tossed or stirred over moderate heat, until they become soft and scented. Then into the saucepan goes the herbs, spices, and perhaps grains and meat/s. A French mirepoix, and Italian soffritto, or a Portuguese refogada all add up the same thing: building the character of a dish. Celery is a key player in making this happens.

Cheryl Paff, Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market Manager, tells me that they’re anticipating celery in the upcoming weeks from Migliorelli Farm and Letterbox Farm Collective, a growing group of young farmers in Hudson, NY, has celery leaves and lovage, an herbaceous leafy perennial with flavor very similar to celery. She adds, “I’m glad you’re writing about it; totally agree it deserves a spotlight.”

One of my favorite combinations is celery and mushrooms, whether sautéed with into a ragu or blended into a soup, the earthiness of the mushrooms with the herbal flavor and natural saltiness of the celery truly hits high notes. If you don’t want to or don’t know where to forage mushrooms, Gary Wiltbank’s (Wiltbank Farm, Saugerties, NY) shitake and oyster mushrooms deliciously and conveniently meet the bill. Gary’s oyster mushrooms are cultivated in pasteurized, straw-filled sacks and the shitake mushrooms sprout from a sterilized sawdust blocks. Wiltbank Farm mushrooms are sold directly at local farmers markets, health food stores, and to grateful restaurant throughout the Hudson Valley.
Not only does celery does not get its due merit in the culinary arena, it is also nutritionally underestimated. Never do you here about celery being a star among the superfoods.  Not only very low in calories, celery contains well-known antioxidants like vitamin C and flavonoids, and scientists more recently identified a variety of other types of antioxidant phytonutrients as well as anti-inflammatory compounds in celery.

My last pitch for celery is this: check out one of your favorite cookbooks, I would wager that celery appears in at least 20% of the recipes. There’s a very good reason.

Garden Celery & Mushroom Soup

When fresh from the garden or farm, celery leaves can lend amazing flavor to soups, stews and salads. Also consider frying these aromatic leaves into ‘chips’… a very tasty garnish.

Makes 6 to 8 servings (about 10 cups)

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 celery stalks, thinly sliced
2 leeks, cleaned and thinly sliced
1 cup loosely packed celery leaves + 18 leaves for frying (optional garnish)
leaves from 3 fresh thyme sprigs
leaves from 2 fresh tarragon sprigs
1 ½ pound Wiltbank Farm oyster and shitake mushrooms, brushed clean, stems chopped, caps sliced
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
¼ cup dry white wine
9 cups water
½ cup heavy cream (optional)

In a medium, heavy duty casserole, over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the celery stalks and leeks, and saute over medium heat, stirring often, until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Stack the celery leaves and cut into thin ribbons. Add half of them to the vegetables along with the thyme and tarragon. Cook, stirring frequently, another 2 to 3 minutes, then add the remaining olive oil and butter. Increase the heat to medium-high and stir in the mushrooms. Cook, stirring here and there, until the mushrooms have softened and just begining to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and pour in the white wine; stir, and cook until mostly evaporated. Add the water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. During the last few minutes of cooking, add the remaining sliced celery leaves. Let cool slightly then carefully puree, in batches, in a blender or with a food processor. Clean the cooking pot and return the puree back to it. Bring the pureed soup to a low boil, add the cream (if using), and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish: Heat ¼ cup of olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. When almost smoking, add the intact 18 celery leaves. Fry until they ‘pop’ and darken in color. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate and season with salt.

End of Season Abundance!

butternut, white bean, poblano and sausage stew

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyone who enjoys gardening, cooking, or just enjoying plain ol’ straight from the farm  seasonal Hudson Valley eating has a fall 2014 dilemma,  the dizzying local harvest! The shift from summer into fall typically has an overlap, but this year it is especially profound.  After a punishing winter, we were gifted with a lovely, slow, gradual summer. The rains came, and they were torrential, the sun graced us more days than not, but the heat never fully turned on.

Finally tomatoes and peppers and in full swing, but so are harvest squash, onions, dark leafy braising greens, and cruciferous or “cabbage family”, vegetables (bok choy, broccoli, broccoli rabe, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage)! All are among the natural superstars of New York’s Hudson Valley harvest. The delectable combinations that present are, without question, different from year to year. As I prepare catering menus weeks, if not months, in advance, and the Gigi Trattoria Team and I shift from summer to fall menus, I’m always thinking about what will really be at peak on a particular date in the future. A huge advantage about moving into fall harvest and related cooking decisions is that the tea leaves can be read by the season that passed. Being flexible in your ingredient selections and cooking techniques can help you adapt to the gifts of never ending variables in working with the local/seasonal harvest.

Olivia Kirby, co-manager of the Farm at Locust on Hudson, tells me that the summer’s heavy down pours mixed with drier cooler sunny days has led to a mix mash of harvests.  Too much water all at once has shortened the tomato harvest –  they’ll be pulling the last in the upcoming weeks to prevent rot. Megan Reynolds, a Woodstock ‘Green Girl’ and committee member of the Woodstock Farmer’s Market adds, “The slow season has resulted in shorter spans to enjoy fruits like local cherries, which came and left in a blink, but some harvest fruit more typical of August  is trailing into fall.” Think about combining peaches and plums with the apples, pears, and Concord grapes that just now hitting harvest.

And hail to Kale! It’s just one of the delights of early autumn that can be thrown into the stew pot. Yes, you hear me, turn of the grill and turn on the stove top! It’s time to sauté, steam, braise, stew, and roast! So what to do with the crossover harvest? It’s not yet time to fully embrace winter cookery – heavier dishes that pair well with substantial red wines. Contemplate a mixture of late summer peppers, end of season tomatoes, harvest squash and garden herbs…

Some pantry staples can help enhance the flavor, texture, and nutritional profile of this unique season of cooking. Delicate braising beans, local meats, including sausage from Towne & Country in Hudson, NY, and no-nitrate bacon from Mountain Smokehouse in Lagrangeville, NY, as well as savory herbs like the sage and rosemary help layer the flavors. The nutritional profile of cooking in this season is well rounded, too. Here are the highlights: the vibrant golds and oranges of harvest squash provide huge levels of beta-carotene as well as innumerable other carotenoid antioxidants, deep dark leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses filled with vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, peppers lend enormous quantities of vitamin C with every bite, and the cabbage family vegetables serve up substantial amounts of fiber, vitamin C, folate, as well as isothiocynates and glucosinolates, natural compounds, that tamp down inflammation, serve as antimicrobials, and offer up cancer fighting properties.

Late Summer Butternut, Poblano and Sausage Stew

I’ve been cooking this stew from onions, peppers, butternut squash, and herbs from my garden. The sausage is optional – this can easily become a vegetarian, or even vegan, dish. Add the last bit of butternut squash towards the end of cooking for great color and texture. The earlier addition will have ‘melted’ and added creamy flavor to the stew.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
4 poblano peppers, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 pound Towne & Country Merguez sausage, removed from casing, crumbled
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into approximately 1-2 inch cubes
½ pound cannellini or navy beans (dried)
2 to 3 fresh rosemary springs
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
7 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
2 ounces shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese

In a medium-large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and peppers, and cook, stirring often, until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, stirring frequently, for another 2 to 4 minutes, or until fat is released, juiced reduced, and the sausage begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Add three quarters of the butternut squash, the beans and herbs, and cook another 3 to 4 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until most liquid is reduced/evaporated. Add the broth or water, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer until the beans are tender and the stew is thick, about 1 ½ hours. If necessary add a bit more liquid, ½ cup at a time, to continue cooking and keep stew moist until beans are fully cooked. During the last 20 minutes of cooking add the remaining butternut squash. Remove the rosemary stems and serve topped with shaving of Parmesan if desired.

Tomatoes!

 

Tomato Gratin_4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To visualize a tomato in your dreams is said to symbolize domestic happiness and life harmony. If you’re so lucky to actually eat a tomato in your dreams, this bliss might be complemented with a forecast for good health and wealth! Very logical interpretations, if you ask me. On the first thought, how much happier can one get than when plucking, sniffing, eating, and even dreaming about a fragrant and juicy tomato? With respect to health, it’s all documented in the science!  More about this later.

The scale of how obscenely delicious, or dreadful, a tomato can be runs from an ‘off the chart’ 10 to a quick zero. Without question, tomato nirvana is tightly framed within the short window that that they’re harvested. For very good reason, many won’t go near a raw tomato ‘off season’.

In our neck of the woods, the tomato Gods can gifts us from mid-late July to end of September. This year a very wet spring and early summer got tomatoes off to a late start, but a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, and colors still grace our gardens and farmer’s market.

Thad Simerly and Kimberly Hart are just completing their second full season owning/operating Starling Yards, a family-operated, sustainable farm at  Echo Valley Farm in Red Hook, NY. They grow up to 150 varieties of 70 different crops, many of them succulent tomatoes. Kimberly tells me that last season they planted three times the amount of tomatoes and far more varieties. This year Thad and Kimberly focused on the “market darlings” plus a few others that especially spoke to them. Kim tells me that, “The Japanese Trifele Black tops my favorites. These pear shaped beauties are sweet and meaty and not too seedy.”  Everyone has a preference, and there are certainly there uses for all. The big beefy style tomatoes, like Beefsteak, Brandy Wine, or Celebrity can grace a Caprese salad or be nicely slipped between two slices of fresh bread. The plum-like tomatoes, such as Roma or the celebrated San Marzano, are our best hope for enjoying tomato flavors throughout the winter. They cook down into deep sauces and ‘jams’ or can be slow roasted with herbs and then stored covered in a flavorful olive oil.

This combination of a cooked tomato and oil is at the very root of one of their immense nutritional highlights. Lycopene, the potent antioxidant that lends their vibrant red color, is best absorbed when the cell walls have been disrupted by cooking and in the presence of fat. Viva la pizza Margherita and pasta al pomodoro! Tomatoes also offer up lutein, another carotenoid (and antioxidant) shown to protect eye heart health. As for the more ’straight up’ nutrients, tomatoes are rich source of vitamins A and C, and also a good source of folic acid. One medium tomato (4 to 5 ounces) offers so much sweet goodness for only about 25 calories and 3 grams of sugar! Seems impossible!

*Starling Yards coordinates pickups  to their CSA Shareholders at Rokeby (845 River Road, Barrytown, NY), from 4 to 7 pm on Tuesdays and Starling Yards (81 Echo Valley Rd, Red Hook) from 5 to 7pm on Fridays. They also sell to select restaurants and the Milan and Red Hook Village Outdoor Farmer’s Markets.
646.831.8311 www.starlingyards.com

Tomato–Goat Cheese Gratin

Adapted from Hudson Valley Mediterranean: The Gigi Good Food Cookbook (HarperCollins/Pensiero 2009)

It’s that time of year that we begin to turn on the oven, yet we can still make great use of the end of summer tomatoes. This delicious dish takes less than 15 minutes of preparation time. Great for everyday or entertaining!

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼ cups coarse bread crumbs from crusty bread (substitute unseasoned breadcrumbs)
1½ pounds large tomatoes (about 3), sliced 1/- inch thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup (4 ounces) crumbled Coach Farm goat cheese
3 tablespoons chopped chives
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

In a small bowl, combine the olive oil and bread crumbs. Set aside.

Arrange ⅓ of the tomato slices, slightly overlapping, in an oiled 9-inch square or oval gratin dish or casserole. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with ⅓ each of the goat cheese, bread crumb mixture, and chives. Repeat with two more layers of tomatoes, toppings, and salt and pepper seasoning. Sprinkle the gratin with the Parmesan.

Bake in the middle of the oven until bubbly and the crumbs are golden, 15 to 20 minutes.

Variations:

* Add pitted olives and or good quality tuna.
* Substitute 4 ounces of your favorite shredded or crumbled cheese. Fresh mozzarella works great.