The Milkweed Diaries

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stalking the Red Stalk, or: How I Learned to Love Celery

Some years back, I was stocking up on local produce at the downtown tailgate market when a strange thing happened. I bought some celery.

Although I am not a picky eater, there are a few things I have just never liked. Celery was always near the top of that short list. There were a few situations in which I found celery tolerable, maybe even necessary (making dressing at Thanksgiving time comes to mind), but for the most part, I shunned this humble vegetable.

For some reason--maybe it was nearing Thanksgiving, or maybe I was intrigued by the unusual appearance of this particular celery--I purchased a bunch of celery from farmer Anne Gaines. This celery looked almost nothing like the ubiquitous pale, watery celery we all know so well -- the stalks were slender, red, and downright beautiful. Enticed by their loveliness, and bolstered by Anne's encouragement, I decided to try some.

You can probably tell where this story is headed. Anne's red celery tasted nothing like any other celery I had ever tasted. Not only did I come to love this particular celery, but I began to look forward to the time of year when Anne would have it for sale, and eventually I started growing it myself.

For the past two years, we have grown both Red Stalk and heirloom green varieties, and celery has become a staple of my garden and kitchen.

I attribute the transformation of my relationship with celery to several factors. I want to share them here, not because I think the world cares about my personal relationship with celery, but because this small transformation seems to me somehow a microcosm of a wider process of transforming individual and cultural relationships to food.

First: This was the first time I had ever eaten celery that had not been wrapped in plastic and driven or flown from god-knows-where, becoming less and less fresh with every mile of transport.

Second: Red Stalk Celery is an heirloom variety, and as is often the case with heirlooms, it just tastes better than the typical agribuisness grocery store variety.

Third: I would never have discovered this heirloom variety if I had not been shopping for vegetables at the farmers market, and I bought it based on the recommendation of a farmer I trusted. This is how heirlooms are passed on, from one person's hands to the next, treasures shared and multiplied through webs of relationship. This is how food has been shared forever, until recently, when marketing and merchandising began to mediate our relationship with food, and we began to choose provisions for our kitchens largely without the benefit of individual relationships. Through my relationship with a farmer from whom I bought vegetables week after week, I came to appreciate a food that I would never have tried otherwise.

And finally: When I bought my first bunch of Red Stalk celery from Anne, I saw that there was literally more to celery than I had previously known -- there were more edible parts in the bunch of celery that I bought from Anne than in the chopped and packaged celery log I was used to. Namely: leaves! Celery is a leafy green! Who knew? When I started to grow celery myself, I found that cooking with the leaves was my favorite everyday use of celery--I found the flavor of the leaves less bitter and more earthy than the stalks.

As a sidenote: I also discovered by growing celery myself that pretty much all celery you see in the grocery store has been blanched -- grown in trenches and mounded to prevent the stalks from being exposed to sunlight. That is why standard celery is paler, milder, and more tender than the celery Anne was selling. There is nothing inherently wrong with blanching, and it is a low-tech, ancient technique. However, in the case of celery, it prevents the dark leafy greens from proliferating, and that is the part of the plant that I find most delicious and most useful.

Red Stalk celery is an 18th Century English heirloom with a very strong celery flavor -- it is great for cooking and seasoning, but not really meant to be eaten the way celery is commonly eaten in the US these days (that being on a tray full of unappetizing, dry, and chemical-laden raw vegetable morsels with ranch dressing on the side, or in large raw chunks coated with peanut butter). It's not really a snacking celery.

What it is great for is hearty fall soups, especially with onions. Coarsely chopped leaves and finely chopped stalks make dressing at Thanksgiving a transcendent experience, and for the past few years I have made large pots of soup stock with the greens and stalks to use throughout the winter. It can be harvested at any time from its very young days onward, and it can be harvested a stalk at a time, rather than pulling the whole bunch, which is useful since its flavor is so strong. I use the leaves, finely chopped, in potato salad and to season refrigerator pickled cucumbers.

Red Stalk celery is a beautiful, hearty plant in the garden. The stalks are not just red, but many shades of red and green, with hot pink streaks appearing frequently at the base of the bunch. Vegetables sporting hot pink flourishes get extra points with me.

Celery flourishes in cool fall weather, and can last through winter solstice or so here with light protection. We covered our celery bed with Reemay last year, and were able to have fresh celery for cooking on Christmas Day.

Seeds of Change sells seeds for Red Stalk Celery, and probably some other seed companies do too.

So here's to my now-beloved celery, and to trying new things. And to micro- and macro- transformation of our relationships to food!

Celery on Foodista: Celery on Foodista


Aimee said...

Although I have never seen red-stalk celery (it's beautiful!) I always grow celery in my garden because it is one of those crops where there is such a gigantic difference between store-bought and homegrown. My garden celery, even grown from the most ubiquitous, standard seed, is greener, stronger flavored, and more toothsome than grocery store. There is really no comparison. I use celery a lot: it is one third of a standard mirepoix (onion, carrot, ad celery) and one third of a standard creole sauté (onion, celery, and bell pepper). Try using a peeler to cut it onto long, noodle-like strips instead of chopping it. Try combining it with apples and walnuts in a waldorf salad. Try roasting it in a slow oven with olive oil and sea salt.

Dana said...

I, too love the home grown celery. My celery plant (singular, and in a plastic pot) was the only "crop" that survived the hailstorm out in Shelton Laurel. This post is making me hungry to go out and harvest it this weekend and stew me a soup. Love to you and Topher.

Wendy Parris said...

I think your blog is the best I have ever seen, its is so informative, easy to get around and filled with interesting and usefull facts.
We have 4.5 hr which are organic and love it.

Well done, keep going.
Wendy Parris
South Africa