There was a time in the not too distant past when I felt quite differently about celery. In fact, my dislike of its flavour and scent, which is virtually impossible to get off one’s hands, was so intense that even its extreme crunch-ability could not win me over. I’m sure that this was due in part to my constant dieting as a teenager.
When I was a kid, I was really into dancing. I took jazz, tap, ballet, and gymnastics, and as a member of the Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede (a group best understood if one says the name with a Phil Hartman-esque voice) – did stints as a rider of unicycles, a walker of giant balls, and a twirler of guns and flags. And it was while a member of this illustrious troupe of young heavily made-up and sequined entertainers that I heard the words that would have a major impact on the next 20-odd years of my life: lovely dancer, should lose weight.
It gets worse.
When they decided that they needed to employ a regimen of sorts to keep us fitting into our green sequined bell-bottoms and bikini tops – a task made more difficult by the fact that I had absolutely no boobs, and could barely keep the bikini facing the right direction and covering what it was supposed to cover – put us all on a diet, with weekly weigh-ins to monitor our progress. I was told to lose 2 pounds.
Even now I cannot fathom the lunacy of telling an eleven year-old girl who has not yet had her growth spurt to lose 2 pounds, but this is what I was told. And so for the next year or so, until someone likely told their parents who talked some sense into the troupe director, my Tuesday diet consisted of grapefruit and celery, and sure enough, by the time I got on that scale at 7:30 at night, those 2 pounds were gone.
But I am getting a bit off track here. For this is to be a post in defense of celery, my most-despised vegetable – until all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
It is entirely possible that I did not knowingly consume celery for 20 or more years, but one day, when trying my hand at making the mushroom stew that a friend had brought over for our Umbrian meal, I fell in love with celery. My love is now so deep that I actually enjoy the smell of celery lingering in the air, and its slightly salty watery crunchiness satisfies the most insistent of cravings. But what most enured this humble vegetable to me was my discovery of just how important it is to the complex production of flavour.
First, finely-chopped celery is one of the main components – when sauteed in butter with diced carrots and onions – in Mirepoix, the essential aromatic element in much French cooking, particularly the manifold stews, soups and sauces for which the cuisine is known. Replace the carrots with green pepper and you have the holy trinity in New Orleans cookery. Add a little garlic and parsely to the Mirepoix and you have soffrito, the slow-cooked or sweated vegetables which provide the basis for many Italian and Spanish dishes.
Celery is also extremely good for you. Sure, we have long known that one expends more calories chewing it than actually exist in the food itself, making it the dieter’s dream food in terms of being able to continuously shove food into your mouth without gaining weight. But in terms of nutrients, I always thought it a pretty non-essential food. I was wrong. Recently, when assisting a friend in some research on gout and its treatments, I discovered that celery and its juices go a long way to combat the inflammation caused by that condition. It is also full of vitamins, contains many anti-cancer agents, cools the body, aids constipation, and calms the nerves. In fact, there is little that celery cannot do.
Upon making these discoveries, I began to develop my own version of Mirepoix. Here, the onion and celery were guaranteed, and the remaining ingredients were simply those that were hanging around in the fridge. Once the flood gates were opened, all sorts of celery-related ideas began to spring up. There was a stir-fry of celery and carrot with peanuts and Sichuan peppercorns, some braised celery with vegetable stock, olive oil and parmesan, and the sudden realization that celery is the perfect addition to all manner of slaws and raw vegetable concoctions.
Then, a few days ago I heard my husband crunching something in the other room, and knowing that there were no crackers or chips in the house, I ventured over to see what was going on. Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch… and there he sat, happy as a clam with a plate full of celery and peanut butter. Snack perfection.
And now all that remains for the ultimate nostalgia trip is a quick jaunt to the depanneur and the procurement of some Cheez Whiz. Having recently broken my decades-long boycott of processed cheese when faced with a platter of my friend Michael’s most awesome Superbowl nachos, this might not be as much of a leap as previously thought.