When you start learning how to cook in college, one of the first things you’ll make is braised celery. I remember being staggered at the sheer blandness of the whole dish and dismissed celery as a basic stock ingredient and very little else.
It was only when I fell in love with Italian cooking that I learned to appreciate the sultry, earthiness of celery. In Italy the celery is dark, green with lush, wild leaves and has an intense herbal flavour. Celery also forms part of a “sofrito” in Italian cooking which combines it with onions, garlic and carrot and is the base for many iconic dishes. When you slowly melt this quartet of aromats in butter, the result is magical.
Celery is also very nutritious and is rich in Vitamin A, flavonoid antioxidants, folic acid and potassium. Celery has been on my shopping list a lot lately because of a current juicing craze ( it won’t last!). It’s probably in my head, but I do feel a lot more energetic after a glass of pulverised vegetables.
Also celery, along with beetroot, will help lower blood pressure and is low in calories. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said celery could calm the nerves, and I’m inclined to agree with him.
Eddie Attwell is a chef from Antrim who trained in top class restaurants in England and has now returned to Northern Ireland to take the reins as head chef at Ardtara House in Upperlands.
I had dinner there recently and among the many highlight dishes was one with slow cooked pork with a cream of celery and lovage. I could have eaten a two litre bowl of this elixir.
The combination of lovage and celery is a sensible one – they’re closely related but the rich herb brings out sweetness in the celery. Eddie gets his celery from Slemish Market Garden in Ballymena and it’s as near to the Italian variety as you’ll get. You can also buy lovage plants there and this herb gives an intensity of flavour that’ll you’ll never find tortured into a plastic bag in a supermarket. Even I can grow it, so it must be hardy. At the back of the famous country house, Eddie has a polytunnel full of vegetables, like courgettes, cucumbers, corn, radishes and cabbages. that he uses to produce his amazing food. Outside the tunnel the surrounding space is packed with herbs, more vegetables and a 90 year old rhubarb crowns passed through his family, via his grandfather. He gave me a hyssop that I’m currently nurturing and praying for its survival.
I’ve taken the combination of celery and lovage and used it for a dressing for a chicken salad with crunchy celery, almonds, apple and grapes. The celery leaves are often overlooked but they’re delicious and should be celebrated and work well in this salad.
My other recipe is for braised celery but without the budgetary constraints of catering school. After braising, cream, cheese and smoked bacon is added before baking with crumbs to provide a crunchy foil for the soft, creamy vegetable.
Celery shouldn’t just be for soup – it’s too good to ignore.