Saturday, June 15, 2024

Add strong yet subtle flavor to dishes with a classic ingredient: celery

My first stop this morning at the mercado near my house was Chava, my “chicken guy.” I’ve learned it’s always best to make my order with him ASAP and then do the rest of my shopping, as there’s often a line of people waiting before he even opens his stall.

At Blanca’s produce stand, I picked out tiny papitas (baby potatoes, smaller than a ping-pong ball), a nice red onion, a couple of red bell peppers and a big bunch of cilantro. Two heads of celery (apio) sat next to the scale, and as Blanca weighed each of my items one by one, I saw my dinner take shape. Chicken salad or potato salad? Heck, why not both?!

While we’re fortunate in Mexico to be able to buy just one or two stalks of celery if that’s all we want, I decided to buy the entire head. Especially at this time of year, as the weather is getting hotter, celery is a refreshing snack to have on hand, and I wanted to at least make those two salads. Plus I had this column to do, too …

Celery, along with bell peppers and onions, is part of the New Orleans “holy trinity” flavor base and also a key ingredient in the French mirepoix (with carrots and onions). History tells us that in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it cost more than caviar, and was the third-most-popular menu item after coffee and tea. Celery seed and celery root both add strong but subtle celery flavor to many recipes but aren’t as commonly found in Mexico.

The tricky thing with celery, especially in hot climates and even more so if it’s not refrigerated (like in a mercado or your neighborhood tiendita), is to find it before it starts to get stringy or fibrous. That’s a feature of age but also temperature, and while sometimes you can revive wilted celery in a bowl of ice water in the fridge, that won’t solve the stringiness issue. Look for bright green, fresh-looking firm stalks with leaves that aren’t brown or discolored.

Go on, buy the whole head. We've got plenty of ideas.
Go on, buy the whole head. We’ve got plenty of ideas.

The best way to store celery is not in a plastic bag; like bananas, it releases ethylene gas, which will cause it to spoil. Keep the stalks whole, wrap them tightly in aluminum foil and keep them in the crisper drawer of your fridge. Alternately, cut into sticks and refrigerate in a container of water. And while celery can be frozen, I have to ask why.

Shrimp Rolls

  • 1¼ lbs. medium shrimp, cleaned
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1-2 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill, cilantro or parsley
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lime or lemon juice
  • 1½ tsp. prepared horseradish
  • 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • 4 hot dog or other soft buns
  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • Optional: ¼ teaspoon paprika, 1 Tbsp. Sriracha

Cook shrimp in boiling salted water until cooked through, about 2 minutes. Drain, then rinse with cold water until cool. Pat dry, chop into bite-size pieces.

Whisk celery, scallions, mayonnaise, fresh herbs, lime/lemon juice, horseradish, vinegar and, if using, Sriracha and paprika; season with salt and pepper. Fold in shrimp. Spread buns with butter and grill on a comal or skillet or in the oven until golden.

Fill with shrimp salad.

Morning Juice Blend

  • Juice of 2 small limes
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 bunch of celery, diced
  • 1 apple, grated
  • ¼ inch ginger
  • 1 clove garlic

Put everything in a blender and process until mixed. Strain. Serve chilled with ice.

Classic Bloody Mary

  • 2 parts vodka
  • 4 parts tomato juice
  • ½ part of lemon juice (to taste)
  • 4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 dashes Tabasco (or hot pepper sauce)
  • Shake of salt & pepper
  • Touch of celery salt
  • Celery stalks
  • Optional: ½ tsp. horseradish

Mix in a glass or pitcher; top with ice. Stir well. Garnish with a stalk of celery.

Tweak this creamy celery soup's consistency just how you like it with some added spinach or by using yogurt instead of cream.
Tweak this creamy celery soup’s consistency just how you like it with some added spinach or by using yogurt instead of cream.

Creamy Celery Soup

Play around with this recipe by omitting the dill, adding ½ cup of spinach leaves or using milk or yogurt instead of cream. If you prefer a thicker texture, don’t strain the finished soup.

  • 1 head celery, stalks chopped, leaves reserved
  • 1 large potato, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • ¼-½ cup unsalted butter
  • Salt
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • ¼ cup fresh dill OR 1 Tbsp. dried dill
  • ½ cup heavy cream OR half & half
  • Olive oil (for serving)

Cook celery, potato, onion and butter in saucepan over medium heat, stirring, 8–10 minutes. Add broth. Simmer until potatoes are tender, 8–10 minutes. Purée in blender with dill. If desired, strain.

Put back in pan over low heat; stir in cream.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve topped with celery leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.

Celery Tonic

  • 1 celery stalk, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 oz. gin
  • Lemon twist (for serving)

Muddle celery with sugar and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add gin, fill shaker with ice; shake about 30 seconds.

Strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.

Garnish with a lemon twist. —

Celery in guacamole? No, seriously, hear us out.

Celery-Spiked Guacamole

  • 4 avocados, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1-2 serrano chiles, seeds removed, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • ¼ small red onion, chopped
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt to taste

Mash avocados, then mix in all other ingredients.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. A retired journalist, she has lived in Mexico since 2006 .

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