Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

Such is the fate of celery. It’s been relegated to a supporting role in dishes like potato salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, Waldorf salad, stuffing. Celery sticks are French onion dip’s BFF – or maybe that’s potato chips? Anyway, they’re merely the vehicle for the creamy, salty, fatty stuff we actually want to eat. To add insult to injury, these dishes mostly have a quaint 1950s-’60s aura to them, and recipes contain such offhand, lukewarm instructions as “add celery for crunch if desired.”

Admitted, celery plays a consequential part in mirepoix, the French mix of diced carrots, onions and celery that form the backbone of countless soups and stews. But celery as star? Celery at the top of the marquee? Dream on.

In a quick, unscientific check for recipes or commentary in the cookbooks on my shelves, celery barely registered. Patricia Wells’ 324-page “Vegetable Harvest” included but a single recipe – and it shared the billing with cabbage and carrots in a slaw. In “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” Alice Waters grudgingly admitted to using it raw “as an element in a mid-winter salad,” but “Because celery tastes so strong and herbaceous, especially the leaves, it is used rather cautiously in the Chez Panisse kitchen, most frequently as part of a bouquet garni to flavor a meat or a poultry stock.” She goes on to give three recipes, all for celeriac, or celery root, bunch celery’s trendier, foodie-er cousin. And OK, I didn’t really expect to find celery listed in the pages of Edward Behr’s “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” but Behr includes cabbage, for Pete’s sake.

Last September, I arrived at the Portland Farmers’ Market late one Saturday, just as farmers were boxing up unsold vegetables and breaking down booths. I bought a bag of poblano peppers. As I reached into my handbag for my wallet, the farmer thrust a bushy bouquet of gorgeous, green celery leaves, still on the stems, at me. “Here. Take them,” he said. “I’ve had them here all summer and I’ve only sold a single bunch.”

Celery, sums up Matt Ginn, chef at Evo in Portland’s Old Port and a vegetable — and celery — fanatic, is “wildly misunderstood.”

Where did it go wrong?

According to Alan Davidson in “The Penguin Companion to Food,” celery is mentioned in Homer’s “Odyssey.” The Romans crowned themselves with wreaths of celery leaves as protection from hangovers, Waverly Root wrote in “Food.” In his “Historia Plantarum,” 17th-century British horticulturalist John Ray observed that in Italy and France, celery leaves and stalks are “esteemed as delicacies, eaten with oil and pepper.”

Fast forward to my suburban Philadelphia childhood in 1960s and ’70s America. I remember well those tuna/Waldorf/chicken/macaroni salads with celery. Also, ants on a log. My mother’s more sophisticated snack (and her mother’s favorite appetizer) was celery sticks spread with cream cheese topped with a neat row of sliced green olives with pimento. The Southern celery snack of choice, according to a colleague of my partner from Kentucky, is celery sticks with pimento cheese. Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Celery Soup was everywhere, scraped straight from the can into the era’s ubiquitous casseroles.

For dieters, there were plates of celery with scoops of cottage cheese, Melba toast and out-of-season cantaloupe. Celery, it’s been said, is a “negative calorie food,” requiring more calories to chew and digest than one gains from eating it. It has a virtuous (punishing?) quality, probably why it seems appropriate to be publishing this story in January, the month of clean-living resolutions after a presumed holiday season of over-indulgence.

While I still like celery sticks with peanut butter, and that pimento cheese riff sounds excellent, on the whole, celery acquired a patina – a stain really – of bad, regrettable, 20th-century Pre-Foodie America. But given the many long-thought unsexy, irredeemable vegetables that have been rehabilitated in the last decade – Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage, to name a few – maybe all celery needs is a re-brand.

The makeover

I called up Sean Wilkinson of Might & Main (“bringing brand visions to life through insightful strategy and beautiful design”) in Portland. How might he design a marketing campaign for this underappreciated vegetable?

I am not the first person to have thought of this. Sketch comedy series “Portlandia” took it on with its usual genius in a hilarious episode in 2014 in which Steve Buscemi plays Marty, a hapless celery brand manager at a produce sales conference meeting who tries to persuade his derisive, leopard-skin-pantsuit-wearing boss, played by Carrie Brownstein, to promote celery as “just food. Just the basic stick of celery is good in and of itself.”

“Really, Marty?” Brownstein hisses at him. “Because I feel like celery is limp!”

What celery needs, Wilkinson suggested, is an influencer. Like Beyonce, who famously gave kale a bounce, he explained, in a 2014 video. It’s dynamite: Beyonce on a high-rise balcony dancing and singing in nothing but her underwear and a Kale sweatshirt – a Yale sweatshirt lookalike. Small wonder kale was hot, hot, hot.

Also, Wilkinson continued, “You could solve a lot of problems with packaging. Why is it still in an open-ended, big plastic bag that gets all wet?” He suggested a “hipper … more bespoke-looking, fancy wrapping job.” Depending on the target shopper, celery could be washed, put in a clamshell and tagged with a higher price. Or sold almost naked, with nothing but an attractive water-proof band with some nice type around each bunch. Or how about leaving on more leaves, the way “at Whole Foods, you’re way more likely get a bunch of carrots that has the tops attached,” a vegetable status marker of sorts.

“Kale also got a national day. There is no national celery day.” He paused. “There might be. Worth researching.” Another pause, as he presumably did some Googling. “Oh. National Celery Month is in March. Wow. I’m glad I found out about it now so I can get ahead of it.”

But Wilkinson soon returned to the idea of a celebrity celery-pusher. “Maybe a feel-good, retro-type celebrity. You haven’t seen him for a long time and now they’re pushing celery. Like Jason Priestley,” who played Brandon Walsh on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” “I think the celebrity endorsement could really turn it around for celery.”

I suggested a cool-kid celebrity chef – say a Bon Appetit cover with a tattooed, play-by-her-own-rules chef brandishing a stalk of celery. Wilkinson was not on board. “Which chef is, with a straight face, going to say how great celery is?” he asked.

Evo chef Matt Ginn’s celery salad, which he had on the menu last summer. Celery, he said, is “a tough sell.” This one did “50-50. It was not the winner on the cold station that night.” Photo by Matt Ginn

Celery-brity chef

In fact, there is a local chef who is more than willing to promote celery with a straight face: Matt Ginn of Evo.

“I LOVE celery. I would definitely push celery,” he said. “I would rather have a nice celery dish than a whole handful of things people think are popular and cool and trendy.”

So why, in the course of my reporting this story, did he think so many people laughed at me when I told them I was writing a pro-celery article?

“The first part of the problem is they are buying the wrong celery,” Ginn said. “The waterlogged, flavorless commodity celery you buy at the grocery store is vastly different from the local in-season celery.”

Ginn was talking so fast, I was struggling to get his exact words down. He told me it was hard for him to slow down because, “I am very passionate about my celery.”

“Nice, beautiful, verdant green celery,” he continued, “is as different from grocery store celery as Maine strawberries in mid-July are from Driscoll strawberries. It’s like, this isn’t the same thing at all. It isn’t even the same vegetable.”

Nice! But how would he persuade a celery skeptic? Ginn drew a word picture of a dish involving, in part, pan-roasted mushrooms, knobs of butter, diced shallots, celery juice poaching liquid, “a nice local white fish,” a pan sauce with more knobs of butter, and was there white wine involved? The whole thing topped with a delicate garnish of celery leaf salad with tarragon. “I would probably not even tell you it’s there,” he said about the celery, “until you said how good it was.”

Hired!

Still, I called another Maine chef who, like Ginn, has a reputation for his way with vegetables, Romann Dumorne from Northern Union in Ogunquit.

“I love celeriac. I despise celery,” Dumorne said. “I do not use it in my kitchen. I do not even allow it in my kitchen.”

He traces his anathema to tuna fish sandwiches his mother used to make him when he was a boy in Brooklyn going to Catholic school. There was the soft tuna and the squishy Wonder bread. “Then you have the crunchy celery.” That’s normally celery’s sole selling point, but for Dumorne, it was a texture thing, and he isn’t over it yet.

He’s willing to concede local celery in season might be good. “I think because I’ve been cooking for so long without it, it’s just part of my thing. I just don’t use it.” Except once, he recalls: It was in 2015, just after Northern Union opened. His sous-chef needed celery. He ordered it, the restaurant’s owner went to pick it up. Instead of a single bunch, she returned with a case. “I completely passed the buck,” Dumorne recalls. “I told my sous chef, ‘Do something with this. I don’t care what. Just get rid of it.’ She made a soup with it, a celery and curry soup, which honestly was really good. It was great, actually. But even with that, I still don’t use it. That was the last time we had it in the restaurant and that was the last time we had it on the menu.”

Um, celery has a season?

This is the part where I confess that, although I think of myself as a home cook who is closely attuned to the seasons, before writing this article, I was more than a bit wobbly on the whole celery season thing. If anything, I thought of celery as a wintertime food, a welcome break from turnips, broccoli and rutabaga. For the record, celery season in Maine is early fall, September and October. I am probably too busy fondling the last of the local tomatoes to notice.

“I think you are overlooking it,” Ginn said. “There’s not an abundance of celery (at the Portland Farmers’ Market) because of its lack of popularity. If you go in mid-August, you have to look for the celery. But the people who know, know. I’ll be at the market early in the morning, because my kids wake me up, and I’ll get it before you do.”

It’s a paradox – a vegetable so mundane we overlook it at the same time offers a fruitful niche market for some local farmers.

Nate Drummond and his wife, Gabrielle Gosselin, at Six River Farm in Bowdoinham grow “a fair amount of celery, at least for a Maine farm,” Drummond said. That’s three-quarters of an acre a year, which yields about 15,000 heads. They sell it at farmers markets, farm stands, local natural food stores and a few Hannaford locations.

Not terribly long ago, in the 1800s and early 1900s, celery was one of the more common vegetables to eat cooked, Drummond said. “If you look into old cookbooks, there is no shortage of celery braises and celery gratins and celery soups. It used to be a big crop in Massachusetts, New York state, the Northeast.” Today, no surprise, California produces most of it.

Which is funny, Drummond said, because, “They don’t have enough water in California, yet they ship tons and tons of celery water.” Celery, as anyone who has ever crunched on it could figure out, is a thirsty crop with a high water content.

“One of the things we really love about celery is that there is so much more to the plant than what you see in the grocery store,” he said. “Growing in the field, it’s a big, dark green plant with a lot of leaves. All these leaves on tops of stalks and coming out of smaller stalks on the sides. When you look at what happens to celery from a large farm that goes into industrial food complex, so much is wasted, is trimmed off and just left in the field. What we try to do is use as much as we can is leave as much as we can, so people are getting those leaves and those little outer stalks. They are tasty and incredibly useful.

“We even had, a couple years ago, a produce person at a Hannaford say, ‘What is this? I don’t know what’s in this case we just got.’ ‘That’s celery!’ It’s both sweeter and stronger when fresh and local. As a local farmer, it’s always exciting when you feel really confident that what you are selling has a special flavor.”

So much more

Ginn can sound almost like a poet when he talks about cooking with celery, tenderly describing salads of peeled, thinly shaved or quickly blanched celery, with pancetta, fresh basil, and the celery leaves, too. Or sautés of celery with mushrooms. Or fish dishes inflected with celery and given splashes of Champagne vinegar. “Celery goes lovely with fish,” he said. “It’s so much more than sticking it in peanut butter.”

In fact, poems have been written about celery. Or at least a poem, by Ogden Nash.

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

OK, enough of that.

I’ve used celery to star in Asian stir-fries of all sorts and in rich, savory Christmasy tarts with blue cheese. A favorite salad of mine pairs celery with cannellini beans, almonds and golden raisins. I like it as the star of braises, soups and gratins, too. And I have my eye on a Mark Bittman recipe for Chinese Marinated Celery. That sophisticated peanut butter tart topped with celery sorbet that was briefly a thing when I lived in New York City? That I never tried (but I definitely would). Meanwhile, I am waiting for the day when local farmers resurrect heirloom varieties. I may need patience.

“One of the challenges is that to some degree people aren’t even really ready for heritage celery varieties,” Drummond said. “We find if we are growing the darkest green, biggest variety we can find, that offers enough of a surprise for people. Offering a red variety (100 years ago, there were such, he said) is more than people can handle or are ready for.”

Are you ready for celery?

Portland Press Herald Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky serves the celery soup. Give celery a chance! Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Celery Soup with Walnuts and Blue Cheese

The recipe comes from “Bonnie Stern’s Essentials of Home Cooking.” Celery’s bracing quality is nicely offset by the creamy, salty cheese and toasted walnuts. Stern suggests Cambozola, mild Gorgonzola or Bleu de Bresse for the cheese. She also calls for thyme, but I happened to have fresh dill around when I made it so I used that instead — delicious.

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
1 onion, chopped
8 to 12 stalks celery, sliced (about 1 lb.)
3 potatoes, peeled and chopped (about 1 lb.)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, or water
1 teaspoon chopped, fresh thyme or pinch dried or a generous handful of chopped, fresh dill
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
½ cup chopped, toasted walnuts
½ cup crumbled mild blue cheese, rind removed

Heat the oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven on medium heat. Add onion and cook a few minutes until tender.

Add the celery and cook for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes, stock, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook gently, covered, for 30 minutes.

Puree soup. Strain the celery for a more elegant soup; leave as is for a more rustic one. If the soup is too thick, add a little more stock or water. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

Divvy the soup up among bowls and sprinkle each serving with the walnuts and cheese.

Shaved Celery Salad with Medjool Dates, Feta and Walnuts. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Shaved Celery with Medjool Dates, Feta and Walnuts

The recipe comes from “Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks” by Linda Carucci. I usually use lemon juice, which I always have around, instead of white balsamic vinegar (called for in the original), which I rarely do. The recipe requires very little work and yields a delicious interplay of textures and flavors. Use a mandolin to slice the celery if you’ve got one; it’ll speed the task. 

Serves 6 to 8

6 large celery stalks, cut very thinly on the diagonal to yield 4 cups
1 cup loosely packed celery leaves, very coarsely chopped
1 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley, very coarsely chopped
A generous tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup bold-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces feta cheese, preferably French, crumbled to yield 1 1/2 cups
About 10 pitted Medjool dates, cut into quarters (or eighths if large)
¾ cup chopped toasted walnuts

Combine the sliced celery, celery leaves and parsley in a medium bowl. Combine the lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl, then whisk in the olive oil. Pour the dressing over the celery mixture; start slowly, as you may not need all of it. Toss to combine. Add the feta and toss lightly. Top with the dates and walnuts when serving.

Braised Celery

This recipe, adapted from the Food Network’s Alton Brown, is very versatile. Try substituting thinly sliced fennel for some of the celery, adding chopped fresh thyme with the broth, folding in sliced mushrooms, sprinkling the braised celery with chopped chives or toasted bread crumbs when you serve it. You could also change up the flavors – skip the lemon zest, cheese and pine nuts, for instance, and instead incorporate soy sauce, garlic and minced ginger root. Add to these, the stove-top version given here could also be made in the oven. 

Serves 4

8 stalks celery, rinsed and trimmed, leaves chopped and reserved
1-2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Pinch salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
2-3 scallions, whites in 1-inch slices, greens in 1/8-inch slices
½ cup good-quality chicken broth
Zest of half a lemon
Shaved Parmesan cheese
Toasted pine nuts
Slice celery into equal-sized 1-inch pieces on the bias.

Heat the butter in a 10-inch sauté pan over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add the celery, salt and pepper and cook for 5 to 10 minutes until the celery is just beginning to soften slightly, adding the white parts of the scallion in the last minute. Add the chicken broth and lemon zest. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to low. Cook until the celery is tender but not mushy, another 5 to 10 minutes. Uncover and let the celery cook for another 5 minutes or until the liquid has been reduced to a glaze and the celery is softened but still retrains its shape. Stir in the scallion greens.

While the mixture is cooking, use a vegetable peeler to peel ribbons of Parmesan cheese.

Transfer the celery to a serving dish and garnish with the reserved celery leaves, the Parmesan ribbons and the toasted pine nuts.


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