Celery gets a totally undeserved bum rap. Need proof? Grow your own from heirloom seeds this year – you can thank me later. Still not convinced? Think of it this way – If we judged all apples by the qualities of the red delicious, we’d think they all sucked, too.
Celery has been around for a long time, though it’s changed quite a bit from its wild roots. Celery cultivation likely began in the Mediterranean, around three thousand years ago. It’s found and cultivated widely around the globe today, (which doesn’t sound like a loser crop to me). The name derives from a late Latin word, celenon. Apium graveolens is the official moniker.
While we can plant celery and eat it in the same growing season, wild celery is a biennial plant – it flowers and seeds only in its second year.
Called Smallage, wild celery is a marshland plant up to three feet tall, with small, tough stalks and broad, spade shaped leaves. The stalks are generally not eaten, as they’re rather acidic, but the leaves are used as an herb and the seeds are the ones you want as a spice. Wild celery has a notably earthier and more potent flavor profile than its domesticated cousins.
Celery cultivars are generally hearty things that will do well in a bunch of zones and seasons. There’s 8” of snow on the ground as I write this, with temps in the high teens, and ours is merrily growing away out in the garden. Back before big Agra, it was planted as a winter to early spring crop, sewn in September and lasting until April. Celery likes moist to wet nutrient rich soils, with a little salt content.
Now, about that bad rap – First and foremost is the charge that celery has no taste. Fact is, it has tons of taste, but you won’t find it in the grocery store. Here in the states, the über dominant commercial celery cultivar is one version of Pascal, and it’s frankly boring – again, think red delicious. Big Agra commercial pascal is not grown for flavor, it’s grown for durability and longevity in transport and on store counters.
Find locally grown stuff from a CSA or farmer’s market, or better yet, grow your own from a wide choice of cultivars, and you’ll find the flavor.
Next, use the leaves – when I post pics of cooking with fresh celery leaf, bunches of folks take note – as well they should. The leaves are where the signature flavors of celery really are at – good celery is earthy and complex, and those leaves will add a delightfully herbaceous, peppery note to stews, soup, stir fries, braises, and bakes.
The second charge is to the effect that celery has zero nutritional value – that old saw about burning more calories chewing it than it delivers. Again, if you’re eating shitty grocery store celery, it’s probably all true – but not if you choose wisely.
A hundred grams of good celery will give you just shy of 18 Kcals, about 4 grams of carbs, and a gram of protein. You’ll also get decent shots of vitamins K, A, C, as well as follate, manganese, potassium, and calcium – so there.
What can you grow? Over a dozen cultivars – there’re stalk, leaf, and root bulb versions to try. USDA Zones 2 to 10 are good to go for much of this stuff. Choose a spot with indirect sunlight and make sure to water regularly, and fertilize once a month – it takes about 60 to 90 days for celery to mature, but once it does, it’s generally hearty and prolific.
For stalk celery, there are some dandy Pascal variants – Monterey is deep green, with really lovely flavor, complex and peppery. Tall Utah has good flavor and big, juicy stalks. Conquistador is early maturing, great for zones with a short growing season. And if you like color, Red Stalk is a zesty cultivar from the early 18th century.
Leaf celery varieties generally have thinner stalks and notably more flavor in the leaf – they’re sometimes packaged as Chinese celery. Safir is my fave, with a crisp leaf and an excellent, peppery flavor, Par Cel is another great choice – it’s another delightful 18th century heirloom cultivar.
In Europe, celeriac gets far more use than it does here, and we’d be wise to join the team. It’s the root bulb, or hypocotyl that’s eaten with this one, cooked or raw. There are a bunch of varieties to try, though celeriac will only thrive in zones 7 – 9. Find the Tom Thumb variety, and you’ll have a great choice for small gardens – and maybe steer clear of Giant Prague and Early Erfurt unless you’ve got a big garden – they grow humongous roots in the 2 to 3 pounds range.
What to cook with your celery? First off, any and every aromatic base mix that employs celery will be far superior with good stuff in the mix, as will the soups, stews you make from them.
When you discover that there really is flavor to go with the legendary crunch, something as simple as fresh butter and sea salt on stalks just out of the garden are pretty sublime – or maybe work up a compound cream cheese or three.
The leaves dry well and will maintain their potency for several months, but the real joy of growing your own is having fresh available whenever the spirit moves you – I probably use celery leaf more often than I do cilantro, and I like cilantro a lot.
Cold celery-based salads also rock – how about something with Thai Basil, cilantro, and carrot, with a spicy vinaigrette, or a celery and dried cranberry salad with nuts? Celeriac and apple salad with a creamy dressing is sublime.
The great thing is that once your taste buds have been alerted to the true nature of this under-sung veggie, the sky’s the limit for your creativity.