Local Celery, A Treat When You Can Find It

Jul 18, 2019

Credit Elspeth Hay

I first met Roe Osborn on a cold January evening at a WCAI pub night. Today, it’s hot and rainy, and we’re standing outside looking at a patch of leafy plants in his garden.

The last time that we spoke, he was excited about celery.

Roe has grown it in various gardens at various times. It keeps better than he originally thought. Last year he planted about a half a dozen plants and was eating fresh celery into January.

When Roe first told me this, I realized I know almost nothing about growing and storing celery. I did a little reading. It turns out celery is biennial—this means that like parsley or turnips, it has a two-year life cycle. The first year the plant makes big, lush stalks and leaves, the part we eat. The second year, if these aren’t harvested, the celery stalks will send up flowers and seed heads. It grows best in wet, rich soils. And like carrots, celery can be finicky to germinate—Roe says he prefers to start with seedlings.

“I actually got these from local Agway store and it’s just a six-pack they like cooler weather so at this point they’re just marking time until cooler weather hits and then off they’ll go.”

I asked how he’d describe the flavor of homegrown celery versus celery from the store.

“It’s much, much stronger. If you like the flavor of celery in soups like in the fall, I always make a bunch of kale soups and I love to have that that celery flavor really pounding through, it will impart a lot more of the celery flavor than typical celery from the store.”

I tried one of his plants. The taste was way more pungent than any celery I’d ever had. The texture is slightly tougher than store bought celery and the color is also a darker green. It turns out the color celery you see at the store isn’t entirely natural—many modern growers and especially commercial farms blanch their celery plants. You can do this by tying the tops of the celery stems together to block light from getting into the center of the plant, or by shading the lower parts of the stalks using boards, stakes, or even newspapers.

Roe says he likes the strong flavor that develops from the darker coloring, though. Instead of blanching he pulls off outer stalks throughout the summer to chop up for tuna salad or chicken salad or to add to a nice green salad. Then, just after the first frost, he harvests the whole plant and stores it in plastic bags in his fridge for soup season.

“I use it a lot for stock and when I do stocks one of my favorite, favorite, favorite soups is escarole and bean soup which I make with stock I’ve made from my celery.”

For this Roe makes a classic stock with a chicken carcass, carrot shavings, and plenty of his own celery. I always assumed people had been using celery in soup since the dawn of time, but when I started reading about celery history, I learned that it didn’t get popular in the US until the early 1800s—one article called it the avocado toast of the Victorian Era. Apparently, this was because celery was expensive—and hard to find, which is also how Roe got interested.

Roe is what he calls a farmers’ market haunter. He doesn’t see celery that often at local markets.

It’s true—you almost never see it at markets. I know only one local farmer who regularly has celery in late summer and early fall, and it’s always a treat. It’s not too late to plant a row of your own if you can find celery starts at your local farmers market or garden store. And if you do end up with a few big plants at the end of the season, consider storing them either in a bag in the fridge veggie drawer with the roots removed, or in a root cellar with their roots intact and firmly planted into a bucket of sand. It’s exciting to learn about one more way to eat your own fresh veggies into the winter.

--

Roe Osborn's Classic Chicken Stock 

In a large pot place chicken carcasses (usually 2 or three and usually frozen). Hint: When you cook or buy a chicken, it’s much easier to remove the meat from the bone when it’s hot!

Add one or two onions (peeled, quartered and broken apart),

If you’ve accumulated veggie peelings throw them in.  

Peel one or two good size carrots into the pot, then cut up the carrots into 1-inch long chunks.

Celery: Fresh from the garden if you have it; leaves especially. Two or three stalks cut up. If you use store-bought celery, go into the middle and pull out the leaf buds and add a stalk or two besides.

Add water until everything is covered.

Salt and pepper generously.

Bring to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Cover and simmer for a minimum of two hours. Stir and taste occasionally and add more salt if needed.

Let cool and strain liquid into a large bowl or pot. Press the ‘wort’ to get out as much liquid as possible. Decant into quart containers and freeze or refrigerate. ENJOY!!! 

--

Roe Osborn's Escarole and Bean Soup

This takes 1/2 hour if you’re quick, 45 minutes if you’re slow like me!!!

Ingredients:

One large head of escarole
One large onion
One big stalk of fresh celery (Optional—go easy with this very powerful flavor!)
1-2 cloves of garlic
6 Sweet Italian sausages (I use turkey sausage), or a 1 lb. package of sausage meat.
One large can of cannellini beans (drained)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a large soup pot over medium high heat (no, I don’t measure!)

Peel and half the onion and slice the halves into the hot oil.

Stir and brown.

If you decide to use celery, cut up the stalk and add it now.

Peel and mince garlic and stir that in.

Prepare the sausage: either slice into 1-inch chunks and throw them in, OR remove casings and add the meat to the pot, again stirring.

Break the leaves off the escarole head. Make sure they are clean (no dirt—I hate gritty soup!!!), rinse if necessary.

Stack clean leaves on a cutting board 4 or 5 at a time and slice across the stem into 1-inch slices.

As you cut them up stir them into the mixture in the pot.

When the entire head of escarole has been sliced and stirred in, add one or two quarts of stock (see above).

Add can of drained beans and salt and pepper to taste.

The soup is ready to go almost instantly, but it’s even better when heated up the next day.

Serve with Italian bread!

--

Celery Salad Recipe (Bon Appetit)  

¼ cup pine nuts

1 large fennel bulb, very thinly sliced

6 celery stalks, very thinly sliced

½ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves with tender stems

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper

2 ounces Parmesan, shaved

 

Toast the pine nuts ( I do this in a dry cast iron pan) 

Toss fennel, celery, parsley, and pine nuts with lemon juice and oil in a large bowl; season with salt and pepper. Serve salad, topped with Parmesan.