Exploring Celery: Folklore, Facts, and Fun Recipes
Let's Play a Game
I’m thinking of a particular food. How many clues do you need to guess its name? The thing I’m thinking about:
- Is a spice
- Is native to the Mediterranean
- Was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey about 850 B.C.
- Was served on the Titanic along with roast squab and pâté de foie gras
- Is related to parsley
- Is a vegetable that can be eaten raw or cooked
- Is root that can be cooked and mashed
- Is one of the three members of cooking’s “holy trinity”
Give up? Check back to the title of this article. (I'm sorry for making this so difficult.) Yes, celery is all of those things, and much, much more.
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed— Ogden Nash
A Tale of Two Celeries
One had its beginning several thousand years ago in shallow swampy areas of mainland China. The plant was prized for its seed, used medicinally and as a flavoring, and mentioned in the writings of Confucius. This would place it at about 500 B.C. on the world timeline.
A similar plant grew in the Mediterranean. It had a strong aroma (its Latin name means “strongly smelling”) and dark green leaves. The Greeks fashioned wreaths from it to adorn the victors in athletic and musical competitions. The Romans considered deemed it an aphrodisiac. And garlands of the leaves were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Fast-forward to 14th-century Italy where the rich and curious began to selectively cultivate celery. The stalks became fatter and pleasingly crunchy; they paled from intense dark green to a subtle, delicate hue; and the taste evolved from bitter to pleasingly grassy and citrus-like.
You sauté anything with olive oil, and it tastes good— Joe Masabni, horticulturalist at Texas A&M University extension school
When celery lost its flavorful wild side, it also became less rampant. These new strains were fussy and difficult to obtain, which of course made them irresistible to the elite.
By the mid-19th century, celery was so prized by the upper class that serving vases were made specifically for the purpose of displaying it as the centerpiece at fine dinners.
While European epicures were feasting on blanched celery au velouté, American farmers were reveling in how easy it was to cultivate the luxury vegetable in the Great Lakes region. Our ancestors were resourceful, ambitious, and even competitive when it came to growing celery.
As the celery craze was reaching its zenith in the 1870s, Dutch farmers who knew how to handle wetlands began growing the vegetable in the black, marshy soils of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which became known by the catchy name the Celery City. The streets were littered with hucksters peddling celery from street corners and train stations. As American cultivation improved, celery became an everyman’s item. By then, the British upper classes had moved on to French luxuries like truffles and oysters.— Heather Arndt Anderson, “Taste Magazine,” August 23, 2017
We're No. 1
The State of California is the top producer of celery in the United States, and the U.S. is the top producer in the world. Mexico takes second place. In Europe, celeriac is more popular, and India is the top producer of celery seeds for seasoning.
Varieties of Celery
Leaf Celery (aka self-blanching or yellow)
- Apium graveolens var. secalinum
- Originally was hollow and bitter but in 17th-century Italy, it was cultivated to produce solid stalks with a sweet flavor
- Resembles the herb smallage grown in Old World gardens
- Grown mostly for leaves and seeds
- USDA Hardiness Zones 5a through 8b
Pascal (aka green)
- Apium graveolens var. dulce
- USDA Hardiness Zones 2 through 10
- Apium graveoliens var. rapaceum
- Grown for its root
- Can be eaten cooked or raw
- USDA Hardiness Zones 8 and 9
How to Grow
- Needs full sun
- Grows best between 59 and 70 degrees F.
- Intolerant of high temperatures
- Desires moist, well-draining soil. Celery is thirsty; I can’t stress this enough. If not given enough water celery will grow stringy and bitter.
- Needs rich, fertile soil
- Seeds should be started indoors; do not cover with soil but cover pots with plastic wrap to keep in moisture. Germination should occur within one week.
- Plant outdoors when daytime temperatures reach 50 degrees and nights don’t dip below 40 degrees.
- Space seedlings 8 to 10 inches apart.
- Side dress with a 5-10-10 organic fertilizer in the 2nd and 3rd months
- Has a long growing season (130 to 140 days)
- Plant in early spring for a summer crop or in late summer for a winter crop
- Celery can be “blanched” (kept pale rather than dark green) by placing a barrier around the stalks as it grows.
- Contains lots of minerals—calcium, sodium, copper, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium
- Lots of vitamins too—A, K, C, E, D, and the B vitamins
- Excellent source of fiber
- Lowers cholesterol
- Reduces blood pressure
- Has anti-inflammatory properties
- Rich in antioxidants so will help boost your immune system
Simple Celery Soup
Sylvia Fountaine has been in the food industry for 25 years. In 1996 she opened the restaurant Mizuna in downtown Spokane, Washington, near Riverfront Park. Ten years later she sold it and began a catering company. She has retired from the daily operation of catering and now devotes her attention to sharing her knowledge with all of us at the blog Feasting At Home. Her mission is to help us learn to cook nourishing meals from scratch with fresh healthy ingredients. And that she does with this lovely simple celery soup.
Celery Leaf Pesto
Rachel is the self-proclaimed Aussie Keto Queen, and I can't argue with that title. She embraces the keto diet and has developed recipes that are not just keto, they are keto and exciting. Her celery leaf pesto is a perfect example, and she also shares ideas for how to use the recipe in fun keto ways.
Vegetable Bouillon Powder
I like to make my own seasoning mixes; the packets in the grocery store and terribly overpriced, and the sodium levels are frightening. Cindy Newland agrees with my philosophy and has created a recipe for make-your-own vegetable bouillon powder. Nutritional yeast provides the umami flavor, and garlic and onion powders add a bit of heat. Dried parsley, thyme, and (of course) celery seeds lend just the right amount of grassy-herby aroma and taste.
Chicken Apple Slaw
- 3 cups diced cooked chicken
- 1/2 cup celery heart, diced
- 1 cup diced apple
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 4 tsp. minced fresh tarragon
- 1/2 cup smoked almonds, finely chopped
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 teaspoon celery seed
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. black pepper
- 2 cups Chinese cabbage, finely chopped
- Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.
- Cover and chill at least 30 minutes.
- Serve on chilled plates.
Baked Creamy Celeriac and Potato Gratin
If you are a newbie when it comes to tasting celeriac, I would suggest that you begin with this recipe. This gratine of potatoes and celery root is earthy and creamy—perfect comfort food for a cold evening. This would be wonderful with a beef roast or chicken, or as a side dish on the Thanksgiving Day table.
Herb-Roasted Root Vegetables
When summer fades to autumn and the evenings are cold, it seems that foods simmered on the stove or roasted in the oven seem so warm and comforting, right? Maybe that's why we enjoy Thanksgiving Day in November. This dish of oven-roasted vegetables will fill your house with delicious aromas.
Lauren uses just three vegetables—Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and celery root, but I think it would be even better to reduce the amount of squash and substitute in some carrots, red onion wedges, turnips, parsnips, or fingerling potatoes.
© 2020 Linda Lum