The great about celery is that it is two vegetables and one spice all in one.
The large familiar swollen stems are actually greatly enlarged leaf stalks and make up most of the plant visible above the soil. The celery we know and love was selectively bred in 14th century Italy from the wild plant that is “rank, coarse, and…poisonous” according to the celery expert Theophilus Roessle. It is these stalks that join onions and carrots to produce the trinity of stock vegetables – indeed it is for stock, or for salads, that celery is commonly used, but it does make a great vegetable on its own. It was very popular to serve celery sauces with poultry, or served covered in a cream sauce with pheasant.
In Good Things, Jane Grigson gives us two valuable pieces of advice: firstly, that celery is a seasonal vegetable that is at its best from November and December. We have lost this seasonality and it is a shame, I expect few of us have eaten prime celery improved by the ‘first frost’. The second piece of advice is how to eat the vegetable raw; once you have procured your first-frosted celery, you should trim it and spread down the curved length of the stem good butter. Next, sprinkle with sea salt. “Avoid embellishments”, she says “a good way to start a meal.” To prepare celery for eating, it is often a good idea to string it – this is particularly important if it is to be cooked. It’s very simple to do because the strings are quite near the surface of the stalk; take a vegetable peeler to its curved underside and peel the strings away. Easy.
If allowed to flower, the seeds produce a spice which was used to make celery vinegar, a popular condiment in the 18th century. It is also the part of the plant that is used to make celery salt, an ingredient in a classic Bloody Mary cocktail. To make it, just grind up some celery seeds and mix with double the amount of good quality sea salt.
Celery plant showing off its stalks and root
It might surprise you to know that celery is a member of the carrot family, but if you look beneath the soil surface you will find a large swollen root, though it doesn’t look very much like a carrot; it is round, creamy and white and covered in small knobbly roots. This is celeriac, sometimes just called celery root. It goes really well with game and can be roasted like parsnips or pureed with some potatoes. Raw, it is an excellent ingredient in coleslaw.
Here are a couple of recipes that show the celery stems off at their very best. Both can be made from one head of celery.
This is my favourite way of cooking celery and it is also very simple – the most difficult bit is remembering to take it out of the oven! It requires the inside stalks of a head of celery – don’t throw away those outer sticks, you use them to make celery soup (see below). It is best made with beef stock and served with roast beef or game, in particular pheasant.
one head of celery, outer 8 stems removed
2 oz of butter
8 fl oz beef, chicken or vegetable stock
salt and pepper
Separate the sticks of celery, string those that need it and slice them in half and place spread out in a single layer in a shallow ovenproof dish. Dot with the butter and pour over the stock. Season with salt and pepper. Cover tightly with a well-fitting lid or some foil. Bake in the oven at 160⁰C (325⁰F) for 2 ½ hours.
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This is the best way of using up the really stringy outer stalks on a head of celery. It’s pretty low-fat (you could swap the butter for olive oil) but has a nice ‘cream of…’ look and feel but without the actual cream. To achieve this, all you need to do is to stir in a couple of fluid ounces of milk after the soup has been liquidised. One of my favourite soups.
2 oz butter
1 bay leaf
¼ tsp allspice
8 sticks of celery including the leaves, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium potato, diced
1 pint of vegetable or light chicken stock
2 fl oz milk
good pinch of ground white pepper
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, when it stops bubbling add the bay leaf and allspice. Cook in the butter for 30 seconds or so before adding the celery, onion and potato. Mix well to coat the vegetables with the butter. Turn the heat down to low-medium and cover the pan. Let the m cook gently for 20 minutes until the vegetables have softened. Add the vegetable stock, bring to a boil and simmer gently for a further 30 minutes. Let the soup cool a little before liquidising in a blender. Push through a sieve if you like your soup super smooth. Add the milk and a good seasoning of white pepper and salt; the amounts are up to you, but I use around 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 of a teaspoon of pepper.