I’ve been on a mission lately, looking at the contents of my refrigerator in new and different ways. For the last two posts, in a series I’ve come to call Why Would You Do That?, I’ve taken vegetables one wouldn’t necessarily think of cooking and done just that. I sautéed radishes. What? I braised cucumbers? What what? Much to my surprise, they were both delightful. Surprise surprise. You can learn all kinds of interesting things by turning your regular way of doing things on its ear.
While I was digging around in the crisper drawers, finding yet more things I forgot to eat, I came across a bag of celery. This always happens. I buy celery fairly regularly. I also throw out celery fairly regularly. Do I save it for stock? Hell no. I let it go yellow and limp and sad and then I throw it out. It’s a lifelong pattern. See the picture below? Typical. Two stalks less of a full head and eventually into the trash it goes. I should just take it right from the grocery bag and toss it into the garbage can. It would be so much more efficient. Why can’t I buy just two pieces at grocery stores, since that’s all I ever seem to use? It’s completely unrealistic from a retail point of view but would work so well for me.
This situation annoys me on a monthly basis and it was time to put a stop to this nonsense. I started thinking about what I could do with celery specifically. Every pot of soup begins with a sauté of onions and celery, it is a necessity in chicken noodle soup and pot pie and I throw it into every stir-fry but beyond that ….? Can celery be a legit dish on it’s own? I was about to find out.
I forged ahead but I wasn’t sure I’d like the results. I distinctly remember lifting the lid of a steam table tray in my college cafeteria to find it full of cooked celery. A whole steam table tray of unattractive, pale grey-ish green-ish cooked celery. What the hell was this? I stared at it wondering what I was getting myself into at this University. They were serving us celery? For dinner? Who does that?
With the image still clear in my mind after all these years, I started googling “recipes with celery”. Things didn’t look so bad. There were a lot of salads, diced celery mixed with other stuff and stir fries but I was looking for celery as a legit dish on it’s own, not a component of something else. There was a recipe from Alton Brown that looked promising but upon further reading sounded a little too much like the tray of my college memories. Then I saw it: Sedano e Pomodori Brasati, braised celery and tomato. When Marcella Hazan tells you something is good, you listen.
To my surprise, it was good especially over a bowl of creamy polenta. Go figure. The Italians really have a way with slow cooked vegetables that from any other culture would be an overcooked, mushy mess. A long, slow stovetop braise with some onions and acidic tomatoes gives the celery some deep flavors and brings some needed color to that unattractive pale green. The other good thing is you can make this with as much celery as you have. If, like me, you’re two stalks short of a full stalk then use the quantities below. Less? Cut the recipe appropriately. It’s a great way to use that slowly yellowing bunch in the crisper. You know you have one. I know you have one. The only problem is this isn’t exactly summer food. It’s the dish you crave on a cold night, warming from the inside, stick to your ribs cold weather food. I’ve got my seasons flipped. Oh well.
I’ve learned my lesson. Cooked radishes, cucumbers and celery can be rather nice and a great way to change things up. Though I do prefer these three items in their raw state, they’re not so bad cooked and served warm. I’ll no longer give them the side eye, in fact, I might even cook them on purpose.
STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: C’MON, IT’S A DISH OF CELERY! The feeling is amazing! Using up something before it creeps to the garbage can is a rather empowering. You start to think of yourself as the patron saint of interesting dishes. Or maybe that should be “interesting dishes” as in “my mom served us celery for dinner.” This is stuff of childhood legends. Your kids will tell these stories for years to come, to rounds and rounds of disbelieving friends, and the tales will always end with this part: “And it was pretty delicious. Not like the sad tray I saw once at my college cafeteria.” Who doesn’t want to be that hero?
Other “Why Would You Do That” recipes: Julia’s Braised Cucumbers, Radish Top Pesto with Sautéed Radishes
Seven years ago: Cajun Ginger Cookies
Six years ago: Strawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream
Five years ago: Strawberry Shortcake
Four years ago: Farro Tabbouleh
Three years ago: Passionfruit Chiffon Cake, BBQ Baked Beans
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Onion Rye Berry Bread
BRAISED CELERY AND TOMATO (SEDANO E POMODORI BRASATI) – slightly adapted from this recipe
This recipe is slightly adapted from one that appeared in an October 2011 issue of Saveur Magazine. It, in turn, was based on one from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. The magazine describes it as such: “the recipe produces results that are surprising from celery: creamy, sweet, luscious. The stalks’ stringy fibers, often removed before cooking, here act as a brace to help the vegetable keep its shape through a long simmer.” How delightful does that sound?
2-3 slices thick-cut bacon, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
½ white onion, thinly sliced
1 pound celery stalks, trimmed and diagonally cut into 2” lengths
3 whole plum tomatoes, cored and chopped (about 7 ounces)
¼ cup water
pinch of red chile flakes
kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Heat a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat and cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the fat renders, about 12 minutes. (If the bacon begins to brown too fast, reduce the heat to medium-low.)
- Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain, and set aside.
- Add the olive oil to the pan, and return to medium-high heat.
- Add the onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and light brown, about 10 minutes.
- Add the celery, tomatoes, water and season with salt, pepper and a pinch of red chile flakes.
- Cover pan and cook, stirring every 30 minutes, until celery is very tender, about 1 ½ hours.
- Divide the celery with its juices between serving bowls, and sprinkle with the reserved bacon. Serve hot or at room temperature. The celery is outstanding served over polenta.