Califonia Bountiful

Celery: Stalk up now

Jan./Feb. 2008 California Country magazine

Many dishes are enhanced by celery's distinctive flavor and crunch.

It's easy to take celery for granted, but that would be a mistake. Consider just how many of your favorite dishes are enhanced by its distinct flavor and crunch.

For example, celery is one-third of the classic French mirepoix—celery, carrots and onions—which is the flavoring backbone of a host of dishes. What's more, celery gives a pleasing crunch to potato, tuna, green, Waldorf and chicken salads, as well as deviled eggs, and adds a subtle flavor to stuffing, tomato sauce, stock, soups and stews. Celery also excels as a "delivery vehicle system"—ideal on a party platter, stuffed with your favorite soft cheese or smeared with sweet butter and sprinkled with kosher salt and paprika. And, at an average of only eight calories per stalk, celery is the perfect diet food or healthy snack.

Chances are, the celery stalks standing at crisp attention at your favorite grocery store or farmers market were grown in the Golden State. California is America's top celery-producing state, providing more than 90 percent of the U.S. crop. This member of the Umbelliferae family is grown here year-round, primarily by farmers in Ventura, Monterey, Santa Barbara, San Benito and San Luis Obispo counties.

When buying celery, look for fresh, firm stalks that are heavy for their size. Bypass woody, wilted or pithy stalks. Store your purchase wrapped in plastic in the crisper of your refrigerator. While celery is fairly hardy, fresher is always better. Trim, wash and place it in cold water for a couple hours in the fridge before using in sticks or as a raw appetizer.

For a novel side dish, sauté 2 cups celery, chopped to 1/2 inch, in olive oil and/or butter over medium-high heat for a couple minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1/4 cup chicken stock or water, salt and pepper, and herb of choice (tarragon or dill are especially nice). Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes or so, jiggling the pan occasionally. Serve alongside any seafood, poultry or pork dish.

What else to do with celery? So glad you asked! Try making a celery slaw, featuring thinly sliced celery with red onions, sour cream and a lemony vinaigrette.

Or, blanch halved bunches of celery in boiling salted water for 10 minutes or so. Drain and dry, then place cut side down in a buttered baking dish. Cover halfway with stock or water and a spritz of lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. Cover celery with parchment paper or buttered waxed paper, then cover the dish with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 90 minutes or until soft when pierced with a fork. Believe me, it will be worth the wait. Serve straight up or sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and run under the broiler to change your family's celery perceptions.


Ripe for the picking for January/February

It's always harvest time in California! Here are a couple of other things to try this time of year:

Avocados California produces about 90 percent of the fruit (it is a fruit) consumed in the United States—primarily the rich, delicious Hass variety. Avocados ripen best off the tree; a ripe Hass will have a very dark skin and yield to gentle pressure.

Beets Winter is a good time for most all of California's root crops. My favorite way to cook is to bake whole, unpeeled beets in a baking dish with olive oil, salt and pepper, covered, at 350 degrees for an hour or until soft when pierced with a fork. Let cool some, then peel. Serve warm with butter and tarragon or cool and dress with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Carrots What's up, doc? Carrots in fields throughout the year in California, which is the nation's No. 1 producer! If you buy carrots with the greens on but don't use them right away, remove the greens before refrigerating in plastic so they don't leach moisture and nutrients away.

Mushrooms Resist the urge to soak them. These morsels—harvested year-round in California—are like sponges and will get soggy. Instead, wipe any dirt off with a damp cloth, slice off the end and you're ready to sauté, whole or sliced.

Parsley Kissing vegetable cousin to both carrots and celery, don't kiss off this ubiquitous garnish so quickly. Make some couscous, then add some plumped-up, dried currants or raisins, toasted slivered almonds and a seriously large quantity of finely chopped parsley. Tasty!

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