Celery: A Sonata
Meet celery, Apium graveolens var. dulce, that vegetable you may have assigned only to play supporting roles like singing the inner voice that fills out a chicken soup or beef stew with delicate harmony. You may have thought, "No solos for celery." (Unless you grew up in Europe, where celery has a larger and more varied life than we allow in the USA. More about that here.) You may have thought this veggie (16 calories per cup) exists only to add misery to diets. You may value it primarily as a not-too-terrible tasting plank that delivers hummus, peanut butter or pimiento cheese from plate to mouth.
I shared those views until December 13, 2014, when I traveled to Elizabethtown, Kentucky for a Classic Kentucky Meals book signing at Heartland Whole Life Natural Foods, a beautiful new natural foods grocery (an outgrowth of an established, ongoing buying club) in a renovated mercantile building on Elizabethtown's central square. From my post near the cash register that afternoon, I noticed customers buying something green that was nearly a yard long, lightly bundled in two mouth-to-mouth plastic market bags, with dark green leaves poking out of the big gap between the top and bottom bags.
I asked store co-owner Serena Erizer about the greenery, which rivaled, in its intense color, the Christmas pine and holly decorating Elizabethtown's lovely town center. "I should know that vegetable," I thought. Its leaves looked faintly familiar.
Celery, she said. Celery! Celery so green, tall, and leafy I had not recognized it. Farmer Hugh O'Daniel grows it in a hoop house (or high tunnel) in Loretto, Kentucky, about 33 miles from Elizabethtown.
I brought two loooooong bunches back to Lexington.
The celery did not fit in the refrigerator, but winter's big chill on the back porch held it for a couple of days while I waited for time to make a recipe I had just seen in Saveur magazine's 100 noteworthy foods and food ideas for 2015 : Celery Stewed in Olive Oil (Céleri Barigoule.) The word "celery" and the word "stewed" show up together in a recipe touted as one of the year's best? I wondered.
Then I made this unusual recipe with Hugh O'Daniel's extraordinary "Tango" celery. How many ways can celery shine? Only superlatives work. This was the largest, greenest, leafiest, most aromatic, most crisp-tender, least stringy, freshest celery I have ever seen. I took no photos, sadly. I had chopped it into bits and cooked it the requisite 90–120 minutes before I realized I could have photographed the wondrous veg.
The photos above show preparation for a repeat cooking of this dish, using regular ol' organic celery and aromatics—and Campsie thyme, still producing in bitter February. Why make the recipe again? It's one of those dishes that takes familiar ingredients and makes something new and delightful. During the long cooking, the house takes on a scent that would be at home in a small restaurant in the south of France. Then there's the richness and tartness of the finished dish and the soothing satisfaction of the cooked-to-velvet celery, the unexpected star of this dramatic dish—those are some of the reasons.
"Barigoule," a Provençal preparation, originally comprised artichokes braised with other vegetables, broth, wine, and mushrooms—these were known as barigoules. Over time, the term "barigoule" seems to have expanded to include vegetables cooked slowly in a variety of liquids and oils. So says a Food Network online reference based on a print reference, the 2007 edition of The [New] Food Lover's Companion. Saveur's barigoule recipe has its own winding origin story: it is "adapted from one by Curtis Stone of Maude restaurant in Beverly Hills," Curtis Stone being, it appears, an Australian-born celebrity chef.
Hugh O'Daniel grows other vegetables in addition to his genre-bending celery. "Envy" carrots, for one thing, and Brussels sprouts I wish I had known were available. He says people rave about the sprouts. (And I have a built-in Brussels sprouts-meister whose cooking method makes even wilty, tired, long-traveled sprouts taste sweet and fine.)
While working full-time in construction, Hugh adds on the work of cultivating vegetables sustainably. Lucky people who live near him can place orders for his vegetables in mid-week and see those veggies delivered to their doors on Saturday. If you are a Loretto or Lebanon person and don't have his phone number—unlikely—let me know in comments and I have Hugh's permission to share it.
People like Hugh O'Daniel lead the way in transforming Kentucky's health and tastebuds for the better. I am grateful for Hugh and so many other growers who care enough for the earth and what it can produce that they work this hard to provide superb food for us.
This celery amounts to a new food, really. Tasting celery as it can be—as it is meant to be—amounts to the same kind of difference we all recognize between a January hothouse tomato from 1,000 miles away and a warm, ripe Brandywine tomato picked just outside the kitchen door in July. A world of flavor, texture, nutrients and pleasure separates the two experiences. How fortunate we are, at least in some parts of Kentucky, to begin having the chance to choose the much more delicious and nutritious option.
Even those of us who live outside the range of Hugh O'Daniel's fine winter celery can enjoy this vegetable in new ways. Jane Grigson's Celery Soup, a Food52 "Genius" recipe, entered my regular winter soup repertoire this winter, as good left over and cold from the fridge as it is served warm and soothing.
New York Times writers Tara Parker Pope and Martha Rose Shulman suggest five ways to move celery closer to the center of your plate (or soup bowl.) These ideas, from the heart of winter in 2013, may come in handy for Kentuckians searching in the veggie drawer during the big winter storm blowing up outside right now. Who needs milk and bread (all sold out at big stores all over town) when celery is at hand?
And then there is our old friend celery seed, which I confess I had relegated to the category of "quaint" and somewhat aunt-ly, a nice but not necessary addition to coleslaw. Look at this, though, and this: reports based on one little study about celery seed's impact on gout pain and other inflammatory processes get a fair amount of play on the internet.