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Alan Tangren: Seasonal celery

Celery is a staple on produce shelves year-round, but we have two seasons in California when it is freshest and most abundant; midsummer and then, because of our mild climate, from late fall through the winter.
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Dear Alan: I like to use celery when I’m making a stock or stew, but I can’t always use it before it goes bad. I’d love some new ideas.

Alan: Celery is one of those staples that can keep on giving. Use the tough outer stalks, along with the traditional mirepoix ingredients of carrots and onions in stocks, soups and stews, especially those made with vegetables, fish or poultry.

I also use the inner stalks that have the leaves attached for a bouquet garni. The tender green stalks add a nice crunch to an hors d’oeuvre plate with olives and cheese.



But what about the rest? My vintage cookbooks all have recipes for deep-fried celery — lengths of celery stalks, par-boiled until tender, then dipped in batter and fried.

Alan Tangren

I’ve never tried deep-frying the stalks, but I do like to deep-fry the tender leaves, just rinsed and patted dry and fried without batter. They make a savory topping for grilled or baked fish.



For a refreshing winter salad toss together thin-sliced fennel, Belgian endive and celery. Season with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Or make a salad with diced leftover chicken or turkey and sliced celery and apples with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise.

Don’t forget about the old standby, Waldorf salad. You don’t need a recipe, just combine diced apples and celery with homemade or store-bought mayonnaise and a handful of chopped, lightly toasted walnuts.

Celery is a staple on produce shelves year-round, but we have two seasons in California when it is freshest and most abundant; midsummer and then, because of our mild climate, from late fall through the winter.

Wild celery is native to southern Europe, where it was first used medicinally. It wasn’t used as a food plant until the 17tth century, and then only for seasoning. Wild celery has thin wiry stalks and very tough strings.

Eventually plant breeders produced the celery we know today, with its thick tender stalks and fewer strings.

At any time of the year, spotting good celery in the market is pretty easy. Look for bunches with medium green outer stalks; they will be the most tender. Outer stalks that are dark green or thin will likely be tough and stringy.

If you can, peek into the center of the bunch. The interior leaves should be fresh-looking and the insides of the stalks should be smooth, not rough or puffy.

Keep celery in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for a week or two. Shave a bit off the base and the tops every few days.

If stored celery begins to wilt, it is still useable. A soak in ice water will revive limp celery stalks.

Rinse celery stalks just before using, especially at the bottom where soil may have lodged while growing in the field. Trim the top and bottom. You can peel the outermost stalks if they are stringy and you want to use them raw or in a stir-fry.

I like to braise celery hearts with other aromatics and a flavorful stock. Treated this way it tastes like a completely different vegetable.

It can be served warm, as a side dish, or chilled and dressed with olive oil and vinegar, anchovy or red pepper strips, when it becomes celery Victor. Serve as a lunch dish or a dinner first course.

Braised Celery

Serves 6

¼ cup each, finely diced onion, carrot and celery (from the outer stalks)

2 Tablespoons butter plus more for the baking dish

¼ teaspoon dried thyme or ½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

2 or 3 bunches celery

1 cup or more vegetable stock, chicken stock, or water

Salt and pepper

2 to 3 Tablespoons butter, optional

Melt 2 Tablespoons butter in a small pan over medium heat. Add the diced vegetables and reduce the heat. Slowly sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the thyme and continue cooking for a few more minutes until the vegetables are tender. Add a little water if the vegetables start to brown. Set aside.

Remove the outer stalks of the celery, stopping when you get to the pale, tender ones. Cut off the tops to make the hearts about 8 inches long. Carefully shave off any discolored parts of the root ends, leaving all the stalks attached.

Cut the hearts lengthwise into halves, thirds or quarters, depending on the size. Run cold water over the hearts to rinse.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter a flame-proof baking dish that will hold all the celery in one crowded layer. Spread half of the diced vegetables in the bottom of the dish. Arrange the celery cut side up over them, season with salt and pepper and spread the rest of the diced vegetables over the celery.

Heat the stock or water to a simmer in a small saucepan and pour enough into the baking dish to come 1/3 of the way up the celery. Lay over a piece of buttered waxed paper and cover tightly with foil.

Bake for 40 minutes or more, until celery is very tender, but still holds its shape. Baste with the liquid in the dish from time to time.

Remove the celery to a serving dish and rapidly boil down the cooking juices until almost syrupy. Swirl in the optional butter and pour over the celery.

To serve cold, boil down the cooking juices, cool and use to make a vinaigrette sauce. Pour the reduced cooking liquid into a bowl and whisk in mustard, wine vinegar, minced shallots and olive oil to taste.

Spoon over chilled celery and top with your choice of any or all of anchovies, chopped capers and parsley, chopped hard-cooked egg, or strips of roasted red bell pepper.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.

 


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