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Beyond the crunch

March 08, 2006|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

SOMETIMES it's the flavors that are right under our noses -- or buried in the crisper drawer -- that are most worth celebrating.

Take celery. Because it's integral to so many recipes, a dedicated cook always has it around. Celery is one of the triumvirate of aromatic vegetables that forms mirepoix, that all-important combination of diced onion, carrots and celery that's the basis of so many stocks, sauces and dishes. The leaves go into any self-respecting bouquet garni -- the bundle of herbs that flavors braises and soups.

Yet most of us take celery for granted. You never hear people talking about it at parties, unless they're debating its merits in a Bloody Mary. You don't see it touted on menus. And curiously little has been written about its flavor.

Although wild celery, also known as lovage, is strong and bitter, cultivated celery has a delicate flavor that's alluring but hard to pin down.

The true celery lover looks forward to the post-bouquet garni moment when, after snapping off the leaves that'll be tied up in cheesecloth with other herbs, you're left with tender pale white-green stalks of celery heart to munch. This is raw celery at its best: lovely, subtle, elusive flavor with no strings attached. Bite a bit, along with some tender leaves, and you get a white peppery flavor, but fresher, brighter and almost a little salty.

As with other aromatic vegetables, celery is good at imparting its flavor to dishes; that's why it's so important to cooks. But who ever spotlights it?

The Chinese do. According to Alan Davidson in "The Oxford Companion to Food," the Chinese had been using wild celery as early as the 5th century, and they later developed cultivated celery -- "thinner, juicier, and more strongly flavored than the European kind."

Diced celery stalks are a hugely important element of many Chinese stir-fries. In fact, true celery lovers can tolerate even the most mediocre of Chinese restaurants -- we know we'll find, in the lion's share of the dishes at those tables, terrific celery flavor and crunch.

You don't have to stop at stir-fry. Braised celery hearts are fabulous. Trim the bottoms conservatively, so the bunches hold together; trim the tops, leaving hearts that are 5 inches long; and run a peeler up the sides all around, so they're appealingly smooth. Then quarter the bunches vertically and braise them in chicken stock with a bit of turnip and carrot. Simmer till the liquid reduces almost to a syrup, which glazes them nicely.

Or whip up a light cream of celery soup that really isolates and elevates the fresh celery flavor. Just simmer lots of sliced celery in chicken stock with a little onion and potato until the vegetables are tender. Puree, then push the mixture through a strainer for a super silky soup. Stir in a touch of cream -- just a touch -- and you have something truly elegant.

Raw celery stalks have uses beyond tuna salad, the crudite plate and the annual Thanksgiving relish tray. Dice a generous amount and combine it with Dungeness crabmeat, diced radishes, celery leaves, homemade mayonnaise and a little Meyer lemon juice for a compelling winter-into-spring salad.

And then there's the root, celeriac, which has an earthier version of celery flavor and a completely different texture. Ever meet a French person who hates celeri remoulade? Many of them do: It's a fact little-known outside of French culture that the salad of julienned raw celery root dressed in mustard sauce is served ubiquitously in school cafeterias. So to the French, celeri remoulade is cafeteria food -- ick. We know better: A good remoulade is a marvelous thing.

Many celery root lovers look no further than remoulade, but they should. Deep-fried celery root adds intrigue to a fritto misto. Or peel celery root and carve it into large olive shapes. Drop the pieces into boiling salt water, blanch for about 2 minutes and drain. Heat some butter and add the blanched celery root, tossing to coat. Add a little stock -- veal, chicken or beef. Cook uncovered, shaking the pan, until most of the liquid is gone and the root pieces are just cooked through and nicely glazed. With salt and freshly ground pepper, you're good to go.

And celery root puree is a revelation. You can simply simmer the root in chicken stock then puree it in a food processor, and that's delicious. Daniel Boulud, chef-owner of Daniel in New York, likes to puree the root with Yukon Gold potatoes in milk, then add a goodly amount of butter, puree it into creamy richness and serve it with braised celery, as a duo.

At the restaurant he has served saucy, red wine braised short ribs plated atop the celery root puree with braised celery alongside. But it's also great with black pepper crusted fish such as arctic char or wild sea bass. Just make a little pan sauce by deglazing the pan with white wine or fish stock, and pour that over the fish and celery root, which have an amazing affinity for each other.

*

Celery duo

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Servings: 8

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