I can recall a time not so long ago when buying a head of celery inspired the sort of anxiety someone new to scuba diving might feel upon submerging themselves underwater for the first time: that they’ve entered a literal race against time.
Perhaps it’s a tad dramatic to compare running out of oxygen to letting a few celery ribs turn floppy, but at this point probably enough celery has gone bad in my crisper drawer to warrant a bit of theater.
Back then I’d buy celery with a single dish in mind (yes, tuna salad), then despair at the sheer size of the remaining stalk. “Why can’t you grow in single ribs?” I’d admonish poor celery. In a few particularly dark moments, I’d call up that myth about celery containing negative calories because it’s so laborious to chew (this is in fact, untrue), as if this gave me some sort of power over the vegetable. “You’re nothing but crunchy, stringy, watery labor!” I spat. “You can’t even provide net-positive sustenance.”
Deep down, celery and I both knew I simply felt inadequate.
The fact is, celery is a beautiful, versatile, flavorful vegetable. When served raw, its tingly crunch lends vibrancy and parsley-like earthiness to salads — whether citrusy or mayo-based, chopped or shaved into slaw. Don’t neglect its leaves, by the way. They make for a beguiling garnish — especially on mustardy salads — and a delicious topper for salami sandwiches. They also yield terrific pesto when mixed with pine nuts, garlic and parsley.
Celery stands up masterfully to pickling, whether quick or long. I’ve been known to dunk it briefly in red wine vinegar and pickled jalapeno brine alongside carrots, cauliflower and red onion before tossing said veggies with feta, basil and olives; I call this giardiniera salad. Celery is also the quintessential aromatic base to soups and stews. (I can’t think of any vegetable that more perfectly complements lentils. I’d also argue that chicken soup and beef stew couldn’t achieve powerhouse comfort food status without it.)
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I’ve punched up many a potato salad with fresh chopped celery, chives and capers. I’ve wok-seared julienned celery with strips of steak, ginger, leeks and tons of black pepper with gorgeous results.
While we’re on the subject of browning, it is a very good idea to hard-sear and braise celery in wine and a little chicken or veg stock with thyme and garlic. Extra points if you cap this luscious melange with grated gruyere and parm then stick it under the broiler for a few minutes before serving it with torn pieces of baguette for lunch.
I still fret about using every rib in that formidable stalk from time to time. But you know what? A panicked five-minute shaved celery, Parmesan and chickpea salad tastes great topped with a fried egg and drizzled with chili crisp. For that matter, soup never cares if celery goes in limp, so long as it imparts that telltale mild, herby sweetness.
Now that I’m scuba-certified in celery usage, though, I relish a little race against time. (Ooh! Pickled celery relish!) Just call me an adrenaline junkie.
Celery and white bean salad with fried garlic
4 fat cloves garlic, sliced ¼-inch thick (inner green sprouts removed)
½ cup grapeseed or vegetable oil
Zest and juice of 1 lemon (about 3 Tbsps juice), plus more as needed
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 large stalks celery, thinly sliced on a bias
½ an avocado, sliced
1 Tbsp torn cilantro leaves, for garnish (parsley works well here too)
Combine the sliced garlic and oil in a small saucepan, and set over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently with a heat-resistant rubber spatula, until garlic begins to bubble steadily, 2 to 3 minutes.
Continue cooking, stirring frequently to keep the garlic from sticking and scorching, until the garlic turns pale golden brown, about 5 minutes longer. Cut the heat, remove the garlic with a slotted spoon, and set on a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle the garlic with salt while it’s still warm. Pour the frying oil into a heat-proof bowl and set aside to cool for at least 15 minutes while you prep the vegetables and beans.
Add the lemon zest and juice to the bottom of a medium bowl along with a good pinch each of salt and black pepper. Whisking constantly, stream in half the reserved garlic oil (saving the rest for another use).
Whisk in about 1 tsp olive oil, then taste and adjust the seasoning or acidity as needed.
Add the beans, celery, avocado, and fried garlic to the bowl with the dressing, and toss gently to combine. Check the seasoning, and adjust as needed with salt, pepper or lemon juice. Garnish with cilantro leaves and a drizzle of olive oil, and serve.
Frying garlic is a finicky business, but oh — is it worth the effort. I find removing the little green sprouts in the middle to be an essential step to preventing burning. Be sure to start the garlic in cold oil, as well.
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