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.