I’ve loved celery ever since I was a little girl. I have fond memories of snacking on celery sticks smeared with cream cheese and dotted with sultanas or, even better, slathered with peanut butter.
When I was 20, I went to Italy and discovered more sophisticated ways to think about celery. There’s a dish called bagna cauda, a ‘warm bath’ of garlic and anchovies and olive oil, served with an array of fresh vegetables, including celery or even the tiny celery heart. At home, the heart was the bit that went bendy in the bottom of the crisper but it’s actually the best part. Those little hearts are so good: subtle, sweet, pale and tender. I now cherish them, finely slicing them and adding them to salads. The leaves are underappreciated too. I pick them off and add them to salads for a lovely zip. They’re good to sprinkle over pan-seared fish at the last minute, or over potato and leek soup. If you’re prepared to go to a bit more trouble, deep-fried and salted celery leaves add a fantastic textural element to salads or grilled calamari.
Celery is an essential element of mirepoix (French) or soffritto (Italian), the combination of chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic that provides the flavour base for so many cooked dishes. Soups, stews, stocks and braises so often start with soffritto – I’d be lost without it.
When purchasing celery, look for firm, tightly packed bunches with stiff stalks and vibrant leaves. Keep celery in the crisper part of your fridge for up to a week, pulling stalks from the outside of the bunch as you need them, or dismantling the bunch to get to the tender heart.
Celeriac is a variety of celery that’s been developed for its large, bulbous root. It’s not pretty but it’s a fantastic winter vegetable, eaten raw in remoulade (a grated salad of celeriac and mayonnaise), or roasted with chicken, or turned into soup. The smaller celeriacs have a sweeter, milder flavour and less woody texture than the big ones. As you peel and trim them, place celeriac pieces in acidulated water (water with a dash of vinegar or lemon juice), as the cut pieces discolour quickly.