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IN THE KITCHEN

Rethinking Celery

March 23, 1997|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are vegetables that inspire the imagination. You can't help but be awed by a plush, folded eggplant, a deep crimson tomato, an earthy brown mushroom or a fat spear of asparagus.

Then there's celery.

Celery is the spinster aunt of the vegetable family. It's always invited along, but no one ever pays it much mind. And while the other members of the mirepoix set (the mixture of finely diced onions, garlic and carrots that flavors so many dishes) have their ardent fans, celery cools rather than inflames passions.

It's pale in color, cold by nature, vaguely astringent in flavor and stringy. It's definitive diet food. Not only is it low in calories, it's low in everything else as well. You eat celery and you know you're on a diet.

And although it may be hard to imagine a soup or stew without it, it's even harder to picture a celery cookbook. Until recently I thought that the number of great celery dishes could be counted on one hand, maybe even on one finger. (The only really delicious celery dish I can remember was in "Patricia Wells' Trattoria" [Morrow, 1994]). You cut up raw celery in little sticks, then lightly coat them with a pungent dressing made of pureed anchovies and garlic. Now that is good.)

I think celery has a lot of things in its favor, it's just that its charms are not easily accessible. You can turn celery's negatives on their heads, though, and all of a sudden it will seem like something you might eat in a spirit of something other than penance.

Sure, its color is a little pale, but rather than wan, think delicate, think celadon. That astringency? You can't deny that it's there, but a little bit works wonders when combined with richly flavored foods. It cuts right through the weight, giving your palate some relief. Cold and stringy? Think of it as crisp.

In fact, I think the key to cooking with celery is to think of it not as a regular vegetable but as some kind of macho lettuce. It has all the attributes of lettuce, turned up a notch.

It's no coincidence that it works so well in Wells' dressing. Celery's got the strength--both in flavor and texture--to stand up to all of that anchovy, garlic and oil. Bathe an ordinary leaf in that and you're looking at some soggy greens bent and burdened by an overpowering dressing.

That goes for this salad as well. It's based on something I fixed when visiting some friends out of state this winter. I wanted to serve a salad to accompany an assortment of cheeses, but after taking one look at the lettuce assortment in the grocery store, I knew that wasn't going to work. (Unhappily, the rest of the world is not like California.)

Instead, I got the best of what was there: mushrooms and celery (which, in addition to its other attributes, is practically indestructible). The contrasts seemed interesting--extremely soft and extremely crisp, very bland and very . . . well, astringent. I figured some toasted walnuts would fit right in between.

Although the mushrooms didn't seem to add much, the salad was good, especially with the cheeses, the blue in particular. The next time I tried it, I left out the mushrooms and added some crumbled blue cheese.

The word synergy is terribly misused these days, but the way these three flavors work together is really something. Two of the cooks in our test kitchen immediately said they were going to add it to their "Ten Best" list for the end of the year.

"And you know," one of them said, "I thought I hated celery."

CELERY SALAD WITH WALNUTS AND BLUE CHEESE

I've experimented with different sizes of celery slices and found interesting results. The thicker the slice, the more dominant the celery is. The thinner the slice, the more it blends into the background. I prefer something between a thin slice and the slice pictured here--about 1/4 inch thick. That way, the celery maintains its integrity, but you still get an even distribution of flavors in every bite.

3/4 teaspoon minced shallots

1 tablespoon Sherry vinegar

3/4 cup walnuts

1 bunch celery, bottoms and leafy tops trimmed

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup crumbled blue cheese

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Combine shallots and vinegar in small bowl and set aside.

Toast walnuts on baking sheet in 350-degree oven or over medium heat in small skillet. When walnuts become fragrant, remove from heat. Do not scorch walnuts. Set aside.

Slice celery on bias, making exaggerated V-shaped pieces. Place in large serving bowl.

Whisk together shallots, vinegar and oil in small bowl. (Do not add salt and pepper at this time; many blue cheeses are very salty.)

Coarsely chop walnuts and add to celery. Pour over 1/2 to 2/3 of dressing and toss to coat well. Add more dressing as needed; salad should be moistened, but there shouldn't be leftover dressing in bottom of bowl. Add blue cheese and toss lightly to combine. Taste and add salt, if needed, and pepper to taste.

6 servings. Each serving:

269 calories; 434 mg sodium; 17 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 1.33 grams fiber.

Cassis & Co. French antique reproduction plate from In The House, Beverly Hills, and Chinzia, Santa Monica.

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