Have you ever felt overshadowed, your hard work, talents and range going unnoticed while some more ostentatious soul gets promoted, awarded or otherwise heaved into the spotlight? I have. And I’m not alone. Celery, my favorite winter vegetable, also knows the feeling.
Celery selflessly props up other ingredients with its subtly salty bite and savory aroma, unifying with a dish after being sauteed to a docile translucence, essentially disappearing. It’s the kind of ingredient you never single out, but if it weren’t there in your workaday tuna salad or minestrone, your tongue would know that something was missing.
I bet you have a bag of celery in your crisper drawer right now. Most of us do. Soup-making season is upon us, and a vast number of those recipes start with a mirepoix, that stalwart trio of onion, celery and carrots. You need it for meatloaf, chicken stew, pot roast and many other wintry dishes. Celery is cheap and lasts a long time in the refrigerator, so there’s no compelling reason to leave it out.
Without T-shirt slogans promoting it (see: kale) or chefs cooking it like a steak (see: cauliflower), celery languishes in the deep background of our collective culinary unconscious. But it’s time to take a fresh look at this staple vegetable. Really, when was the last time you cooked or ate a celery-forward dish? Give it its moment. Celery earned it.
Stir-fried with dried chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger and garlic, celery really shows you what’s it got. It becomes juicy as it soaks up those bold flavors. The pork in this dish accents the celery without overshadowing it, glossing the crisp vegetable slices with fat. My recipe is inspired by Fuchsia Dunlop’s gong bao chicken in her cookbook “Every Grain of Rice.” I use a simplified version of her stir-fry sauce and pungent spicing, but ditch the chicken in favor of a mountain of sliced celery, some green bell peppers and a little bit of meat, just 2 ounces per serving. I like this stir-fry over steamed white rice and served with a smashed cucumber salad.
In July, a green, leafy salad practically tosses itself. The farmers market overflows with a variety of sweet greens, and even the typical supermarket offers more and better options through the growing season. But now? Bagged greens packed in plastic, and showing signs of decay before you’ve even bought them, do not inspire me to break out the salad bowl. But humble celery can.
When it comes to making celery the base for an appealing cold-weather salad, there are several important things to remember. First and foremost: slicing. You want to cut celery on a bias in thin, almost shaved strips. If possible, use the leafy stalks from the bunch’s inner heart. (Those outer stalks are better in the above-mentioned stir-fry anyway.) Once you turn your stalks into a fragrant, feathery pile of greens, dress them early. Allowing the salt and acid to work on the vegetables will render them crisp-tender in roughly 30 minutes.
Rich, tangy cheese complements the flavor and texture of celery the way few other ingredients can. Think back to the after-school snack of cream-cheese-filled stalks or the cooling bite of spears drenched in blue cheese sauce that are so often enjoyed with hot wings. I call for feta in the recipe here, but a funky, creamy, richly veined blue is also a good idea.
Winter salads need one warm element to entice me on cold days. I like roasted creminis for their meaty, earthy savor. Roasted sweet potato cubes would be good if you wanted to lean in a sweeter direction. And warm, cubed chicken makes this a complaint-proof main course. My hope is less that you make this exact recipe and more that you recognize celery’s stealth star power. It’s easily transformed into a salad base in a way that wrecks baby spinach’s self-esteem.
I’m also giving you a recipe for a cashew-based green goddess dressing, the perfect dip for celery spears. This rich, tangy, herb-hued sauce has myriad applications you likely will discover on your own once you’ve made it. Unlike typical cashew-based versions of green goddess, this one isn’t vegan. Anchovies’ salty punch defines the dressing for me. If you leave them out, you’ll still have a tasty dressing or dip with plenty of fresh-herb flavor.
On your typical crudite platter, the celery is picked last and frequently goes to waste. But just this once, use your Y-peeler to remove that stringy exterior that can make snacking on raw celery a drag. Without that tooth-snarling husk, celery becomes a dream of a dipper: hearty, crisp, light and filling. It just might make you feel guilty for underestimating celery all this time.
CELERY AND PORK STIR-FRY
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Chinkiang black vinegar (may substitute balsamic vinegar)
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
For the stir-fry:
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 dried red chiles, crumbled (seeds discarded if you prefer less spicy heat)
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
5 medium ribs celery, sliced on the diagonal
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
3 large cloves garlic, sliced thin
One 2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced thin
6 scallions, sliced, white and green parts divided
8 ounces ground pork
1/4 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped
For the sauce: Whisk together the water, sugar, Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce, cornstarch and toasted sesame oil in a medium bowl.
For the stir-fry: Heat the oil in a wok or large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns; stir-fry for about 1 minute, until the chiles darken slightly.
Add the celery and green pepper; stir-fry for 3 to 4 minutes, until crisp-tender. Add the garlic, ginger and white parts of the scallion and stir-fry an additional 1 minute, until fragrant. Transfer to a plate.
Add the pork to the skillet and cook, breaking up the meat as you stir-fry, about 5 minutes, until browned. Add the celery mixture and stir to combine. Stir the sauce, add it to the skillet, and stir to coat everything. Sprinkle the peanuts over the top, and season lightly with salt.
Serve right away.
Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories, 14 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 18 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar
CELERY SALAD WITH ROASTED MUSHROOMS, WHITE BEANS AND FETA
Servings: 4 to 6
For the marinated celery:
2 tablespoons minced shallot
2 tablespoons champagne or other white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ribs celery (preferably leafy ones from the heart), sliced very thin on the diagonal
1 cup cooked or canned white beans (rinsed and drained if canned)
For the roasted mushrooms:
12 ounces cremini mushrooms, each cut into quarters
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
3 ounces crumbled feta cheese
For the marinated celery: Whisk together the shallot, vinegar, oil, salt, sugar and black pepper in a large salad bowl until the sugar has dissolved. Add the celery and white beans, toss, and let marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
While the celery marinates, make the roasted mushrooms: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the mushrooms on a rimmed baking sheet, then drizzle with oil, season with salt and toss to coat. Roast (middle rack) for 30 to 40 minutes, until the mushrooms have browned and are tender.
Reserve 2 tablespoons of the mixed herbs to garnish the salad.
To assemble just before serving, toss the rest of the herbs with the celery and white bean mixture. Arrange on a platter. Top with the roasted mushrooms, crumbled feta and reserved herbs. Serve right away.
Nutrition information per serving (based on 6): 190 calories, 7 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 480 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
CASHEW GREEN GODDESS DIP
Servings: 8 (makes 1 1/2 cups)
1 cup raw cashews
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons chopped chives
3 canned anchovies, drained
1 teaspoon honey
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 celery stalks, peeled and cut into spears, for serving
Combine the cashews, water, parsley, lemon juice, tarragon, chives, anchovies, honey, garlic and salt in a blender. Puree until smooth. Chill before serving with the celery spears.
Nutrition information per serving: 110 calories, 4 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 240 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar