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I sing a song of celery, now in your crisper drawer

December 31, 2018

Have you ever felt overshadowed, your hard work, talents and range going unnoticed while some more ostentatious soul gets promoted, awarded or otherwise heaved into the spotlight? I have. And I’m not alone. Celery, my favorite winter vegetable, also knows the feeling.

Celery selflessly props up other ingredients with its subtly salty bite and savory aroma, unifying with a dish after being sautéed to a docile translucence, essentially disappearing. It’s the kind of ingredient you never single out, but if it weren’t there in your workaday tuna salad or minestrone, your tongue would know that something was missing.

I bet you have a bag of celery in your crisper drawer right now. Most of us do. Soup-making season is upon us, and a vast number of those recipes start with a mirepoix, that stalwart trio of onion, celery and carrots. You need it for things like meatloaf, chicken stew, pot roast and many other wintry dishes. Celery is cheap and lasts a long time in the refrigerator, so there’s no compelling reason to leave it out.

Without T-shirt slogans promoting it (see: kale) or chefs cooking it like a steak (see: cauliflower), celery languishes in the deep background of our collective culinary unconscious. But it’s time to take a fresh look at this staple vegetable. Really, when was the last time you cooked or ate a celery-forward dish? Give it its moment. Celery earned it.

Stir-fried with dried chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger and garlic, celery really shows you what’s it got. It becomes juicy as it soaks up those bold flavors. The pork in this dish accents the celery without overshadowing it, glossing the crisp vegetable slices with fat. My recipe is inspired by Fuchsia Dunlop’s gong bao chicken in her cookbook “Every Grain of Rice.” I use a simplified version of her stir-fry sauce and pungent spicing, but ditch the chicken in favor of a mountain of sliced celery, some green bell peppers and a little bit of meat — just 2 ounces per serving. I like this stir-fry over steamed white rice and served with a smashed cucumber salad.

In July, a green, leafy salad practically tosses itself. The farmers market overflows with a variety of sweet greens, and even the typical supermarket offers more and better options through the growing season. But now? Bagged greens packed in plastic — and showing signs of decay before you’ve even bought them — do not inspire me to break out the salad bowl. But humble celery can.

When it comes to making celery the base for an appealing cold-weather salad, there are several important things to remember. First and foremost: Slicing. You want to cut celery on a bias in thin, almost shaved strips. If possible, use the leafy stalks from the bunch’s inner heart. (Those outer stalks are better in the above-mentioned stir-fry anyway.) Once you turn your stalks into a fragrant, feathery pile of greens, dress them early. Allowing the salt and acid to work on the vegetables will render them crisp-tender in roughly 30 minutes.

Rich, tangy cheese complements the flavor and texture of celery the way few other ingredients can. Think back to the after-school snack of cream-cheese-filled stalks or the cooling bite of spears drenched in blue cheese sauce that are so often enjoyed with hot wings. I call for feta in the recipe here, but a funky, creamy, richly veined blue is also a good idea.

Winter salads need one warm element to entice me on cold days. I like roasted creminis for their meaty, earthy savor. Roasted sweet potato cubes would be good if you wanted to lean in a sweeter direction. And warm, cubed chicken makes this a complaint-proof main course. My hope is less that you make this exact recipe and more that you recognize celery’s stealth star power. It’s easily transformed into a salad base in a way that wrecks baby spinach’s self-esteem.

I’m also giving you a recipe for a cashew-based green goddess dressing — the perfect dip for celery spears. This rich, tangy, herb-hued sauce has myriad applications you will likely discover on your own once you’ve made it. Unlike typical cashew-based versions of green goddess, this one isn’t vegan. Anchovies’ salty punch defines the dressing for me. If you leave them out, you’ll still have a tasty dressing or dip with plenty of fresh-herb flavor.

On your typical crudité platter, the celery is picked lasted and frequently ends up going to waste. But it doesn’t have to. Just this once, use your Y-peeler to remove that stringy exterior that can make snacking on raw celery a drag. Without that tooth-snarling husk, celery becomes a dream of a dipper: hearty, crisp, light and filling. It just might make you feel guilty for underestimating celery all this time.

Recipe: Cashew Green Goddess Dip

Recipe: Celery Salad with Roasted Mushrooms, White Beans and Feta

Recipe: Celery and Pork Stir-fry

Joy Manning is a Philadelphia food writer and cookbook author.

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