It's a ubiquitous ingredient in cooking, but tends to stay out of the spotlight. The eternal supporting player, celery stands out in many ways. Its crisp, juicy stalks with endless fibers pack so much flavor into each juicy bite. It's no wonder it's an essential ingredient in mirepoix, the fragrant base for so many soups, stews and sauces. Celery is commonly found on raw vegetable platters with dip, but this versatile plant varies wildly throughout the world, and has a long history of different uses as well.
Celery has been cultivated as far back as 1000 BC, and is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean. In ancient cultures it was used mostly for medicinal purposes, such as Ayurvedic traditions of treating colds, flus and aches and pains. It was also used medicinally in ancient Egypt, and was notably found as part of garlands adorning King Tutankamen's tomb. The ancient Romans cooked with celery too, in addition to using the plant for garlands and decoration. Italians began domesticating celery in the medieval period. Cultivation spread throughout northern Europe in the 1600-1700s, although celery was still used mostly for medicinal purposes, thought to be too bitter and with too strong an aroma for eating. However, through cultivation practices, the wild celery (also known as "smallage") evolved into the common garden vegetables we find today.
Celery has been selected over the centuries for various preferences, resulting in very different types of the plant that we find today. In the United States, the most common variety with tall, pale green stalks is known as Pascal celery. In Europe, celery is more commonly grown for its edible root, or celeriac. Celery seeds are also harvested from the plant, used as seasoning such as part of pickling spices. In East Asia, the most commonly grown celery (also known as Chinese celery) has much thinner stalks than Pascal celery, and is more pungently flavored. It's commonly used as an addition to stir-fries. Celery leaves are very flavorful and can be used as an herb both fresh and dried, much like parsley leaves (a close relative).
- Celery was thought to be an aphrodisiac in ancient cultures, including the Romans, who dedicated the plant to the goddess of love, Pluto.
- Celery stalks were not typically eaten raw until the 20th century. It was thought to be too bitter or strongly flavored beforehand, and was commonly blanched before serving.
- Celery is also thought to be a hangover helper in folk customs for its refreshing, juicy bite. This may help explain why a stalk of celery is often garnishing that most famous of hangover cures, the Bloody Mary.
- Celery seeds are the basis for the Cel-Ray flavor of soda from Dr. Brown's (originally "Celery Tonic") popular amongst New York City delis in the early to mid 1900's.
Celery is part of the plant family known as Umbelliferae, along with carrots, parsley and parsnips. It's a hardy plant that can withstand frost, and thrives in cool seasons and semi-shade. Commercially-grown Pascal celery is also sometimes "blanched," a process where the stalks are covered with more soil as it grows, prohibiting the production of chloyphyll and resulting in paler stalks. The process reduces the nutritional value of the stalks but also reduces its bitterness, and helps the plant withstand heavy frosts. It's a process similar to growing white asparagus, the delicate-tasting stalks beloved in Europe. Farmers today can also grow "self-blanching" celery seeds, popularly known as "golden celery".
Most of the 1 billion pounds of celery produced in the United States each year are grown in California, Michigan and Florida. The US also imports around 90 million pounds of celery per year, mostly from Mexico. Celery grows best in moist, sandy and clay soils, requiring access to much water during its long growing season. Without enough water, celery stalks can become tough and stringy.
Because it thrives in colder weather, celery is usually sown in spring or fall. It's regarded as a challenging crop and takes about 130-140 days to harvest. Seeds are slow to germinate and are often sown indoors before transplanting to the earth in early spring or late summer to ensure a steadily cool growing season. It's therefore best grown in mild, temperate climates.
Due to its long time to harvest and its inability to withstand very hot temperatures and a lack of adequate water, celery is demanding on its local water supply. Currently suffering the worst drought in 500 years, California grows the largest percentage of domestic celery in the US--along with roughly half of domestically grown produce. The drought is expected to raise the prices of most fruits and vegetables, and may have begun to already. But the drought also calls into question the choice of growing such water-intensive crops in the state, or eating them when there are other food options that require less water. Furthermore, celery "requires" much pesticide use to bring to harvest in commercial farms. Celery has thus been ranked amongst the highest fruits and vegetables carrying pesticide residues by the Environmental Working Group.
Chemical residue aside for the moment, celery stalks and its leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals, and have numerous health benefits. The crunchy stalks are a good source of antioxidants and B-vitamins, while Vitamin A can be found in its leaves. Celery contains phytochemicals that researchers have found to help prevent, or even kill, cancers. It's known to help aid digestion. And, from ancient times up to today, celery has been recognized for its anti-inflammatory benefits, helpful in treating pains associated with arthritis. Because of its many vitamins and minerals and refreshing water content, celery is a popular choice for juicing raw.
As a natural diuretic, it's advised that those with kidney ailments eat celery in moderation. Because celery ranks so high in pesticide residue, it's widely recommended to buy organic celery to avoid possible side effects of these chemicals.
Pascal celery, the most readily found in the US, has tall, light green stalks that are thick and very crisp. It's commonly sold with few leaves, used primarily for its stalks. Celery features fibrous strands along its length, and has a mild, herbal aroma and slightly sweet flavor. Its distinct flavor is exploited in many savory dishes, often sauteed together with carrots and onions for as part of the French tradition known as mirepoix.
Look for unblemished, firm celery, and keep it refrigerated until use, preferably covered to retain moisture (airtight container is not necessary). If celery becomes limp, simply trim its base and place in a glass of water in the refrigerator until crisp again.
Celery is often eaten raw, cut into sticks. Because its fibrous strands can be tough, celery is often cut smaller or shaved thinly with a mandoline to add to salads raw. Both stalks and its leaves are commonly juiced. If purchasing celery to eat raw, you can retain the leaves and thick bases to add to soup stocks. And of course, you can make numerous soups and stews using celery chopped up along with carrots and other aromatics. Celery is often found as an addition to stuffings this time of year, such as for a Thanksgiving turkey.
Fennel and Celery Salad
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed, some fronds reserved
3 celery ribs, trimmed
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, more to taste
Salt to taste
1⁄4 teaspoon black pepper, more to taste
Freshly shaved Parmesan cheese.
- Cut fennel bulbs in quarters lengthwise, discarding outer layer if it is exceedingly tough. Use a mandoline to slice quarters thinly; slice celery equally thin.
- Put sliced fennel and celery into a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and toss gently to combine. Top with lots of freshly shaved Parmesan and chopped fennel fronds if you like.
Celery and Its Root Soup
(from Not Eating Out In New York)
(makes about 4-6 servings, or 1 quart)
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for drizzling on each bowl)
1 very large celery root (or two small ones), yielding about 1 lb peeled cubes
2 celery stalks, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock (or substitute with water)
salt and white pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
handful celery leaves (for garnish)
1⁄4 cup very finely sliced celery stalks (for garnish)
- Trim the base and the stem from the celery root. Cut away its tough skin with a knife, making sure there's no tough skin left. Chop to a fine dice (about 1⁄2″ ; maximum).
- Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent but not browned, about 6-8 minutes. Add the chopped celery stalks and cook, stirring occasionally, another 2-3 minutes. Add the diced celery root and cook, stirring occasionally, another 2-3 minutes, until very fragrant and the celery root is just softened. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, another 1-2 minutes.
- Heat the stock or water in a separate pot and bring just to a boil. Pour into the pot with the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook at a low simmer for at least 1 hour, or until all the celery root cubes are translucent and appear the texture and color of watermelon rind. Transfer to a blender or food processor (or use an immersion or stick blender) to blend several minutes until completely smooth. Optionally, afterward you may pass the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Return the soup to a pot. Season with salt and white pepper to taste, and stir in the optional tablespoon of butter.
- Ladle soup to individual serving bowls. Top each with the sliced celery stalks and leaves, and a drizzle of the olive oil, and serve immediately.
This post was originally published in October 2014.