Celery is what people add to a recipe when they don't know what else to use. It overwhelms tuna salad, underwhelms vegetable soup, and bulks up a stir-fry. Blah. I've had celery on a plate that impressed me -- once. At Picasso in Las Vegas, there were two celery diamonds that added "just a touch" of crunch to a lobster salad. I think of celery the way I think about cigarettes. I recognize the right to light up or crunch, I'd just prefer that the activity not take place in my kitchen or at my table.
Before the word mirepoix (classically, onion, carrot, and celery) bursts forth in a barrage of invectivity, I'll demur to the need for celery as part of many classic sauces and the first stage in making stock. Still, I can say with the luxury of real-world taste-testing that omitting celery from mirepoix generally goes unnoticed; at least if the responses to my chicken soup are any gauge. Celery is a legacy vegetable; it gains entry to the kitchen because of ancestry, not talent.
Be honest: Have you ever recognized the value of celery by serving it as a stand-alone vegetable or salad? Be honest again: When you want peanut butter, celery is just a way to get some into your mouth without bread. The thing is, peanut butter right out of the jar is better without celery; if you want crunch there's that new-fangled chunky peanut butter.
If you want texture and good flavor consider the following celery substitutes:
- In tuna or chicken salad add pomegranate seeds, pepitas, almonds, chopped water chestnuts, or just-chopped apples. Even better, add a handful of crushed potato chips at the last minute for a great tuna salad.
- In stir-fry consider using carrots, water chestnuts, diced daikon radish, jicama, cashews, or slivered green beans added in the last 60 seconds and near the end of cooking. Jicama is my new celery; it's crisp and flavor neutral.
- In mirepoix you might include parsnips, leeks, a whole peeled clove of garlic or two, red bell pepper, and a teaspoon or two of tomato paste.
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In order to be fair and reasonable, and in the interest of peace at tables everywhere, I offer a euphemistic sprig of celery by sharing a recipe -- the proverbial exception that proves the celery-is-boring rule. Braised Celery Gratin is a recipe that actually celebrates the vegetable, in a lesser non-Monday-holiday sort of way.
Braising brings out the best in celery, and Gruyere crumb topping brings out the best in practically anything. It's the culinary equivalent of serving a silk purse when the secret ingredient is a sow's ear.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.