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Singing Celery's Praises: Low Cal and Fibrous

Eating Smart

January 04, 1999|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR | Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

Like urban legends and Internet hype, there are some food myths that just will not die. For example, serious dieters often eat toast rather than regular bread. How could toast possibly have fewer calories than the bread it is made from? Toasting only removes the water. Water has no calories. You figure it out.

And what about celery? People continue to talk about celery as a food that contains negative calories. Another myth. No food has negative calories, although celery is extremely low in calories (six calories per 8-inch stalk, in fact).

Like cucumbers and iceberg lettuce, celery is almost entirely water (95%). Four ounces of raw celery have about 13% of the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C, about 10% of the fiber you should eat every day and a pretty good supply of potassium. As vegetables go, celery is fairly high in sodium (35 milligrams per stalk) but not high enough to worry people on low-sodium diets.

Celery can be prepared as a hot vegetable dish by either braising or steaming. Many cooks prefer to use the tender celery hearts, which command a higher price in the store. If you have more time than money, you can make your own by taking a bunch of celery, trimming the stalks to about 5 inches, removing the outer ones and revealing the inner, tender "hearts." If you do this, be sure to save the rest of the bunch, including the leaves and more fibrous outer stalks. They can be used for soup or casseroles that will be cooking for longer periods of time.

Because celery has almost no flavor of its own, you might try seasoning it with some distinctive herbs and spices, like ginger, nutmeg, dill, paprika or cilantro, or cooking it with onions, garlic and other vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli.

When you buy celery, look for a glossy surface and a light green color. Although the darker varieties have more nutrients, they are stringier and less tasty. The leaves on a bunch of celery are a good indicator of its overall condition. They should be green and not wilted. The stalks and the stems of the leaves should be firm and they should not have any cracks or bruises. Look for any areas that appear to have been trimmed off to hide bruises or rotting.

If the celery is damaged, it will not keep very long when you get it home and it is also potentially dangerous because of a natural carcinogen that celery produces in very small quantities. Damaged celery will produce much more of this material and, like all carcinogens, if you are exposed to enough of it over a long period of time, it may have some effect.

When you bring celery home from the store, keep it in a plastic bag in the crisper of your refrigerator. Because of its high water content, it freezes easily, so keep it away from the back and side walls of the refrigerator, where temperatures are the lowest. Under ideal conditions, celery can stay fresh for about two weeks, but it's a good idea to sprinkle it with water occasionally to keep it fresh.

Once you cut off one of the stalks, the rest of the celery begins to wilt. But you can freshen it up again by standing the bunch up in water for several hours in the refrigerator.

Having some crisp celery sticks handy for snacks is easy if you store them in ice water for a few hours. This will result in some loss of vitamin C, but chances are you are not eating celery for the vitamin C content. If you've never thought about celery as anything but salad or snack food, here's a great recipe for a warm, hearty celery soup. If you like your soup a little spicier, you can add a touch of cayenne pepper or curry powder.

CELERY SOUP

1/2 onion, chopped

1 clove of garlic

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

4 cups of nonfat or low-fat chicken broth

2 medium potatoes, diced

1/2 bunch of celery, diced

1/4 teaspoon celery seed

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

1/4 teaspoon paprika

2 cups nonfat milk (or more broth)

Saute onion and garlic in oil until soft. Add four cups of the broth and bring to a boil. Stir in the potatoes, celery and celery seed. Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are very soft. Puree the soup mixture in a blender or food processor. It will probably be easier to do two cups at a time.

Add the pureed soup, salt, parsley, pepper and paprika (and any other spices you wish) to the soup pot and reheat. If too thick, thin with milk or broth.

This recipe will make about eight cups. Each 1 1/2-cup serving contains only about 130 calories.

* Home Spa Food: You needn't spend a week at a spa to eat sensibly and lose weight. Times Test Kitchen director Donna Deane shows you how to pull off low-fat, flavorful meals.

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