I’ve gotten serious mileage out of joking about celery. At events promoting my new cookbook, I’ve been saying that in a dozen years of writing about food, I’ve looked at thousands of recipes and have never seen one that uses anywhere close to the minimum amount of celery you usually have to buy — no matter how much you want.
That gets a pretty big laugh, partly because I draw out the sentence as long as possible, adding clause after clause of hyperbole before I utter the name of the ingredient. In humor, timing is everything.
People also identify with the frustration, as exaggerated as it might be. Celery isn’t the only example of produce that is all too easy to waste because of how so many supermarkets sell it (an entire bunch or a package of hearts) and how so many recipes treat it (as a background flavor). But it might be the most dramatic.
Some stores are changing the way they sell celery. As part of a pilot project in markets with high numbers of single shoppers, such as the one in Georgetown, Safeway has been experimenting with selling celery by the piece — and depending on turnover to guarantee freshness. That’s a big step in the right direction.
I realized, though, that I needed to attack the other side of this supply-and-demand equation: to find ways to use up more celery when I have it. In all honesty, I tend to overlook recipes that feature the stuff, because large quantities of celery are not what I usually crave. Maybe it’s the stringiness, but I never liked it all that much on crudites platters. When I would eat it filled with peanut butter or pimento cheese, I tended to speculate about how much better the snacks would be if their vehicles were bread instead.
It took a trip to Prune restaurant in Greenwich Village for me to appreciate celery on its own terms. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s team serves an appetizer of buttered toasts topped with Cambozola, that creamy hybrid of Camembert and gorgonzola, and a salad made up mostly of thinly sliced celery dressed with raw garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. In turning it into a main dish for one, I took inspiration from Hamilton’s recent acceptance speech at the James Beard Foundation chef awards, where she said, “All you have to do is open a can of sardines and a box of Triscuits, call it a signature dish, and you get Best Chef New York City.”
Sardines — of course. Delectable and easy. That took care of three celery ribs at once.
As crunchy and refreshing as it is, celery doesn’t have to be raw to be good, obviously, so I downscaled a side dish by Lidia Bastianich, who braises celery in tomato sauce and olives and plays up the vegetable’s earthiness in the process. I turned it into dinner by steaming a piece of fish on top during the last few minutes of cooking.
Another four stalks down. Between them, those two recipes would dispatch a package of hearts.
When I want to use up even more, soup is an obvious way to go. Not the season for it, you say? I hit on a recipe in Sunset magazine that tops the soup with the classic partners of blue cheese and Granny Smith apple and knew it would be even better when served cold. I reduced the fat by replacing half-and-half with Greek-style yogurt and simplified things by leaving the apple raw rather than caramelizing it in butter.
Chilling the cooked soup is the key. I can eat the leftovers right out of the refrigerator or freeze the soup and eat it once it’s defrosted.
Not only does that save a saucepan (no warming up needed), but the recipe also uses up — Hallelujah! — an entire bunch of celery. And the soup tastes so good, I’m actually looking forward to buying those stalks, no matter how they’re sold.
Yonan is author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011).