I hate to make assumptions, but I feel confident in saying that no one would admit to celery being their favorite vegetable. I certainly wouldn’t, and I’ve never heard anyone else ever express much affection for it either. It’s weird then, that celery has existed for thousands of years. Wouldn’t it just fade out of existence if no one really likes it? Or are Bloody Marys more popular than I think?
Although people have eaten celery since the Greek and Roman eras, and well before that in ancient China for medicinal purposes, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that celery was grown commercially in America. It was new and exotic at the time, especially when the idea of eating raw vegetables was a fresh concept.
Celery became a Thanksgiving dinner staple in the early 1900s and was commonly paired with my least favorite food: olives. Both celery and olives became available to Americans at about the same time and oddly, they were paired between courses as a palate cleanser. I can think of many ways to cleanse my palate, none of which would include celery or olives. Nevertheless, celery became a highlight of the Thanksgiving menu.
The popularity of celery continued to take off, and it remained a star for several decades, thanks to some effective marketing. And, unfortunately, mayonnaise. Celery lingered in popularity, as all food fads do, by an exaggeration of its health benefits. Some were led to believe that celery was a miracle cure for all that ailed them. It’s not all that unlike how many view coconut oil and turmeric today. Yet, I guess if kale and Brussels sprouts can become fashionable vegetables, it’s only fair that celery should have had its day too.
It wasn’t until after World War II, when access to a wider variety of produce became available, that celery started to decline in popularity. I’m not sure it has ever peaked since then, except as a popular diet food, due to the few calories that celery possesses.
I may pick unwelcome chunks of celery out of salads and convince myself to eat celery stalks by filling them with peanut butter, but I understand there is culinary value to the vegetable. Celery is an important part of the mirepoix, the French term for the pairing of celery, onions and carrots that is often cooked as a base for many soups and stews. Creole or Cajun cuisine combines celery, onions and bell peppers for the base of many dishes as well. The bitter and grassy seeds of celery plants are also a common seasoning, and they’re used in everything from poultry blends to pickle brine.
The thing is, I’m not opposed to liking celery. I’ve overcome my aversion to many foods I once disliked, so why not celery as well? That’s why I planted some in my garden this year. Each year, I aim to try growing at least one new vegetable. Celery made the cut.
Of course, it grew wonderfully. Unlike commercial varieties, the celery I grew is a darker green and quite leafy. The stalks are more narrow and amazingly crisp, while the leaves look similar to its relative, parsley. Yet, I had no plan for how to use any of the celery I grew. I’ve cut a few stalks here and there from for the occasional soup. You can cut it as you need it, which makes it handy for growing at home. There’s no need to use it up all at once.
Celery can also tolerate a light frost, so I’m in no rush to dig it all up either. I know I will use it as we get into soup, roast and stew season. Or at Thanksgiving, of course. I may not serve it as a palate cleanser, but I will always use it when making stuffing.
Yet, there has to be more to do with celery. Despite searching for ideas that might finally have me liking it, I didn’t come across many interesting dishes. But there was one salad that I found intriguing from Bon Appetit that paired fresh, thinly sliced pieces of celery with dates, Parmesan and roasted almonds in a simple lemon and olive oil dressing. The contrast of sweet, salty, sour was compelling, especially since celery was the star of the dish.
I served the salad at a recent dinner party and knew this was a game changer when one friend commented, “I usually don’t like celery, but this is really good.” Another friend thought it was a variation on Caesar salad, not even noticing that the crunchy greens he was eating were celery. The key is to slice the celery at an angle and as thin as possible. Try to find celery with the leaves still attached, as they’re also useful in the salad. Otherwise, parsley is a good substitute.
Celery and apple salad with dates, almonds and Parmesan Servings: 4 – 6
8 celery stalks with leaves attached ½ cup roasted almonds 6 dates 1 medium green apple
4 tablespoons lemon juice 3 ounce block of Parmesan
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh pepper
Thinly slice the celery at as much of an angle as possible. Chop the leaves. Put both in a large bowl.
Chop the almonds. Remove and discard the pits from the dates and chop the fruit. Add the almonds and dates to the bowl with the celery.
Halve, then thinly slice the apple, avoiding the pit. Add the apple to the bowl along with the lemon juice. Toss well to coat everything with the lemon juice, especially the apples.
Use a peeler to make shavings of the Parmesan. Toss the cheese, olive oil and salt and pepper, to taste, into the salad. Serve immediately.
Adapted from Bon Appetit