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How celery went from foreign ingredient to a staple

The stalk is the plant’s primary edible ingredient, while the leaves can be used for garnish, in salads and to make pesto. But, it's no miracle juice

(left) Chilled celery soup; and celery leaves pesto. (Nandita Iyer)

Celery was considered a foreign ingredient in Indian kitchens until some years ago, when soups and salads became a common addition to our home cooking repertoire and diets. It continues to get listed under “exotic vegetables” in shopping apps and websites. Belonging to the parsley and coriander family of herbs, the leaves have a similar shape, albeit larger, and the stalk is much meatier. The celery stalk is the plant’s primary edible ingredient. Keep the bottoms of the stalks standing in a jar of salt water in the fridge and they will remain fresh and crisp for days. Celery turns limp rather quickly if kept in the crisper drawer as it is.

If you buy a bushy bunch, you get two ingredients for the price of one. Diced celery stalks, onions and carrots (mirepoix) form the base for many savoury dishes in French cuisine. Chopped celery can also be added to salads for a crunchy texture.

Here are some of the ways to use the leaves. Use them whole or chopped in salads. Lightly sauté leaves and combine with fried chillies, urad dal and tamarind flakes, along with coconut, to make a chutney we call thogayal in Tamil cooking. Sauté onions and chopped celery leaves, combine with cooked rice, seasoning of choice and orange or lime zest for a delicately flavoured, summer-friendly rice dish. The leaves can be used as a herb garnish on a salad or a pasta dish in a pinch instead of parsley or basil. Lots of finely chopped celery leaves can be combined with any cooked grains of choice to make a tabbouleh-like salad. Celery leaves dried and powdered along with rock salt give a flavourful celery salt that can be used to add a final layer of flavour to dishes or to rim Bloody Mary cocktail glasses.

If all this is too much work, then keep the leaves in the freezer along with bits and bobs of other vegetables and use them for making a stock.

I cannot write about celery and not touch upon the celery juice craze that has been growing steadily around us. If I had a dollar for every YouTube video with the title “I drank celery juice for X days and you will not believe what happened”, I would be a rich girl. The New York Times did a feature with the headline, “Is Celery Juice A Sham?”, which mentioned that the celery juice madness could be attributed largely to a Mr William, author of the book Celery Juice: The Most Powerful Medicine Of Our Time Healing Millions Worldwide. The feature goes on to explain how Mr William, who goes by the moniker “Medical Medium”, is neither a medical doctor nor someone with a background in nutrition. His teachings come to him via spirits that he writes down. If that doesn’t scream woo-woo, I don’t know what does. People who believe that organic, raw, non-GMO celery juice is important to “cleanse and detox” clearly don’t have much faith in their own liver and kidneys.

Celery, like most other vegetables and fruits, is full of nutrients, but it is no miracle juice. As long as you are not using it to replace medicines, and treating it like any other antioxidant-rich vegetable juice, you are fine. Also, if you don’t like the taste, there’s no need to force it down your throat. There are many other vegetable and fruit juices that taste far better and offer the same nutritional benefits.

These two recipes taste much better than celery juice and you can use both the stem and the leaves.

CHILLED CELERY SOUP

Serves 2-4

Ingredients

1 tsp olive oil

1 bay leaf

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1 small onion, sliced

1 cup sliced celery (five-six stalks)

1 medium-sized potato, peeled and sliced

3 cups water or vegetable stock

Half tsp salt (if using stock, reduce the salt used)

1 cup spinach leaves

1 cup milk

For the garnish

1 tbsp olive oil

A few celery leaves

1 tsp toasted seeds of choice

Method

In a pressure cooker, heat the oil. Fry the bay leaf. Add sliced garlic and onion and sauté on a medium flame for four-five minutes. Combine the sliced celery and potato. Sauté on a low flame for one-two minutes.

Add water or stock. Close the lid of the pressure cooker and pressure-cook for five minutes (keep the flame on the lowest setting after full pressure is reached, i.e. one whistle). Gently release the pressure by lifting up the weight and open the cooker. Stir in spinach leaves. Let this mixture cool. Remove the bay leaf and blend to a smooth purée along with the milk.

Check for salt and season accordingly. Chill in the refrigerator for one-two hours. You may serve this warm too.

Divide between two-three bowls.

Fry a few celery leaves in olive oil in a small pan or the tadka ladle. Use these for garnish along with any seeds. Serve with thin slices of toasted baguette.

CELERY LEAVES PESTO

Makes 1 cup

Ingredients

1 cup celery leaves

1 cup basil leaves

3 cloves garlic, peeled

Quarter cup toasted almonds (or cashews)

One-fourth tsp salt

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

3-4 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese

Method

Wash the leaves two-three times until free of mud. Dry thoroughly using a salad spinner or cotton towels. Chop up the leaves coarsely.

In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients, reserving 1 tbsp of the olive oil and the cheese. You may use a little water if required to get a smooth paste.

Remove into a bowl and stir in the remaining olive oil and grated cheese. If you are not using cheese, then increase the quantity of salt a bit. Keep refrigerated in an airtight glass jar. Use this pesto along with any cooked pasta or as a spread on sandwiches or toast.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book, Everyday Superfoods, will be out on 18 March.

@saffrontrail

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