Celery isn’t sexy.
I get that. Not many people, when asked “What would you like for dinner?,” respond “I don’t care, as long as it has celery.”
But maybe that should change. Celery is a vegetable whose time has come. It is more — far more — than a mere garnish for a bloody mary or a convenient conveyance for hummus.
As it happens, this is the time of year that celery is at its absolute best, tender and sweet. It is just begging to be used in vibrant and exciting ways. And I don’t mean stuffing it with peanut butter.
Not that there is anything wrong with celery with peanut butter. I think we can all agree that celery with peanut butter is the best possible way to eat celery, and maybe peanut butter. It is culinary perfection.
But it is my happy duty to look for other applications of celery that are (nearly) just as stunning, and I found some truly great ones.
Take, for instance, Celery, Blue Cheese and Hazelnut Salad. Already, that sounds better than an ordinary celery dish, right?
It gets better: The hazelnuts are toasted and then glazed with butter, maple syrup and just a pinch of heat from cayenne pepper. Chopped dates — or dried cranberries or cherries — add a pop of chewy sweetness, and the dressing is a simple mixture of olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice.
But all of these accouterments are mere frills, a flamboyant gilding of the lily. The real star of this dish is the combination of celery and blue cheese. Celery goes with blue cheese like Christmas goes with presents. It is very nearly as timeless a combination as celery with peanut butter.
Add some maple-glazed hazelnuts, and you have a salad that transcends all the earthbound limitations of salad.
Next, I used celery to make a dish that I hadn’t had in so long I had completely forgotten about it: cream of celery soup.
Why has this extraordinary dish fallen out of favor? Celery goes with stock and cream every bit as well as mushrooms do. A bit of potato adds depth to the mix, and an onion brings the flavor into focus.
But what really makes it stand out is a hefty portion of dill, which acts as a brilliant, sharp counterpoint to the earthy celery.
I puréed my soup for at least a minute and strained it well, extracting as much liquid as I could while discarding the fibrous parts. The result was a soup that was silken, with just enough cream to make it glide across the tongue but not so much as to be too rich.
It is an elegant and sophisticated soup, and would be perfectly proper as the first course of a fancy dinner party — or for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Your guests will never guess that it costs just a dollar a serving.
Celery is braised in many parts of the world, and it is high time we did it more here, too. Celery that is braised still tastes like celery, but its sharp edges have been smoothed over; it has a warmer and deeper flavor.
It is also almost impossibly easy to make, though it takes a little longer (15 minutes) than you might expect. All you have to do is sauté celery in butter with salt and pepper for about five minutes, until it starts to become tender. Then you let it simmer in a small amount of beef broth until the broth becomes like a glaze.
It’s so easy, yet the results are spectacular. As a side dish, it would enliven any kind of meal.
Although it is inspired by Asian cooking, celery stir fry is also universal in its appeal. And it is actually easier to make than the braised celery.
All you have to do is stir-fry julienned celery with a little bit of crushed red pepper and soy sauce. A few drops of sesame oil when you’re done only make it better.
This dish was a revelation: I had never realized just how well celery is a natural match for soy sauce.
I made one last dish, a drink that is a favorite at New York delicatessens: celery soda.
I had never actually had celery soda before. I’d had two responses to the idea every time I saw it at the deli — “ick” and “why?” But I knew that it was hugely popular, especially as an accompaniment to corned beef sandwiches, or pastrami.
Now that I’ve made it, I totally get the appeal. Celery soda is light, surprisingly mild and wonderfully refreshing. It would be great not only with heavy and fatty meats such as corned beef, it would also be an excellent choice for basically any sandwich.
With celery soda, I think it is the unexpected flavors that make it shine. It doesn’t just have celery in it, though that is the main ingredient. The syrup is also made with black peppercorns for a hint of a bite that is necessary to tame the celery, and also crushed cardamom pods for a spicy, herbal undertone.
The juice of a lemon tempers the sweetness, making it a lovely beverage for adults. It’s the kind of drink that makes you realize that celery isn’t blah — it’s kind of great.