by Sarah West
As a word, celery is delightful: smooth, translucent, bright, like the ample water its juicy bite unleashes. In today’s kitchens, celery is best known for its fibrous, overgrown stems, sliced into stock or slathered with peanut butter to mellow their robust flavor. In celery’s culinary history, those juicy, blanched stalks are an anomaly. Nearly every other part of the plant was used as medicine and (less commonly) food for thousands of years before the proverbial ants took a seat on the log and we shelved all but an inkling of celery.
The eternal background singer, few recipes feature celery outright, choosing its sturdy, harmonizing nature over the full aromatic experience. Celery, of course, is bitter and much of its breeding since the 1600’s, when European cooks began to recognize its culinary value, has been dedicated to taming that quality. Though in the United States we have sequestered our celery usage to almost exclusively the stalks, French cuisine in particular embraced a whole plant approach early on, using leaves, stalk, and root, a tradition that helped drive the development of different cultivars highlighting the best each of these plant segments have to offer.
Celery’s wild range circled the Mediterranean Sea. Called selinon by the ancient Greeks, it was of great medicinal and cultural importance, described often in literature as an esteemed wild plant. Winners of the Nemean Games (a sporting event held the years before and after the ancient Olympic Games) were presented with a wreath of wild celery. Garlands of selinon were commonly used to decorate the departed and wild celery had a symbolic connection to death; leaves and flowers of the plant were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, suggesting the tradition was adopted from across the Sea.
This wild celery is known today as ‘smallage,’ a corruption of the Old French word for celery: ache (pronounced “ash”). Small ache became smallage, a word that now refers both to wild celery and a group of selected varieties also known as ‘cutting celery.’ Even cultivated smallage is only a sidestep from its wild origins; small plants (1-2 ft high) with narrow, often hollow stalks too fibrous to eat raw, and leaves that range from astringent to strongly aromatic. Not commonly eaten raw, smallage leaves are added to soups (a practice in both European and Asian cuisines), where the broth is used to mellow their bite with slow cooking or give a backbone to the refreshing zest of leaves added raw just before serving.
Perhaps no part of celery’s taxonomy is so revered as its root. Called knob celery, turnip-rooted celery, or, as we know it here, celeriac, the root is celery’s most accessible segment, which is ironic, because if the thought of a celery-flavored root vegetable doesn’t turn a shopper away, its bulbous, knotted appearance almost certainly will. While celeriac is a celery-flavored root, centuries of selection have unearthed a satiny, slightly nutty, mild-mannered, delightfully versatile celery-flavored root.
A French classic, celerie remoulade dresses fine slivers of raw celeriac in mustardy mayonnaise. Steamed and mashed, celeriac makes a creamy puree similar to mashed potatoes, or, when thinned with broth, a rich, elegant soup. Edible raw or cooked, celeriac is an alluring fall salad ingredient—one of the best preparations I’ve had was celeriac slightly steamed and dressed with hazelnut oil on a bed of butter lettuces. Leeks, shallots, and garlic make fine companions, as do herbs like thyme, sage, and smallage, creamy sauces, or nutty oils. Consider a salad of celeries: sliced celeriac, shaved stalks, and aromatic leaves. October is celeriac’s month, when they are pulled fresh from their long tenure in the soil (celeriacs at market now were planted in early spring). Though they will keep a few months in good storage conditions, they are their most refreshing now as our palates shift from sweet summer fruits to earthy autumn roots.
All parts of the celery plant have distinctive mineral coolness and an assertive aroma we tend to label medicinal. To me, their blend of flavors matches this season’s transitional nature: bright sun with a façade of warmth, turning cool in the shadows and cold after sunset. Celery starts with a punch then fades to an afterthought, but it’s the punch that gives the afterthought its flavor.