Among superlatives and generalizations, celery must be the most indispensable, widely used and yet simultaneously underappreciated vegetable in contemporary cooking.
Why? Perhaps because the celery we have access to year-round, while serving most purposes adequately, is boring. Crunchy, but sometimes watery; sometimes sweet, often bland.
I suspect that most cooks use celery only where it would feel remiss to proceed without it — egg salad, gumbo — and that’s why it seems particularly prone to languish in the backs of refrigerator crispers. It’s not a vegetable we typically buy with enthusiasm or plan meals around.
What I love about in-season celery is that it can shift that ambivalence, albeit temporarily. With its lucid green stems, shocks of fragrant leaves and rich, surprisingly complex flavor, seasonal celery offers the moxie of a main-ingredient vegetable. And the time to buy it, at farmers markets, is now.
Seasonal celery owes part of its depth of flavor to bitterness, which, in many of our modern cultivars, has dwindled to a meek astringency. That bite, however subdued, is what enables the balance in a sweetly aromatic dish of tarragon-roasted celery, featured in chef-author Jennifer McLagan’s “Bitter” (Ten Speed Press, 2014). It sharpens the edge in a passive butter lettuce salad and, McLagan notes, anchors the richness of a beef stew.
In-season celery accomplishes the same thing, but with greater presence. Consider a celery risotto, a stir-fry of celery and mushrooms or a braise of celery, scented with tomato and orange.
It also offers more leaves, which yield such returns on flavor and aroma that all efforts should be made to use or preserve them.
“The main thing is the leaves,” said McLagan. “Everyone usually just throws them away, but they’re wonderful to use. They have a hint of bitterness, and they help to change up texture and color.”
You’ll do well treating them as an herb, as generously and often as you might use parsley and cilantro, although how generous you are in the dosing might depend on your palate and the preparation. Raw celery leaves can be somewhat astringent and rough, but their brusqueness softens in the heat of a soup, where fistfuls are appropriate, and adds nuance to otherwise mild-toned salads of leafy greens, where a handful will do. In a roasting pan they perform a different trick, turning shatteringly crisp in minutes. (Add them to a pan of potatoes or other vegetables in the last minutes of cooking.)
Despite celery’s usual role as an all-purpose aromatic, in fuller-flavored guises it betrays a real affinity for a few particular ingredients. You can’t do much better than potatoes as a partner ingredient for good celery, whether you combine the two in a potato salad, a soup full of celery ribs and leaves, or a bowl of cooked potatoes dressed with a celery-leaf pesto.
Pistachios, too, pair seamlessly with celery, their rich, nutty, earthy notes an underscore and echo of some of celery’s subtler charms.
You will find few better seasonal junctions than tomatoes and celery, if you can line up their availability at the cusp between summer and fall. Theirs is a partnership of balance, each bringing out the best in the other.
As you source local celery, know that cultivated celery appears as two major types: stalk or stem celery, and leaf or cutting celery. A third type, celeriac or celery root, is of the same species but grown for its fleshy bulb (although the stems and leaves, if you find them attached, make a fine addition to stock).
Stalk celery is what you’ll encounter most often in farmers markets and at the grocery store, though depending on the variety the stems might be thicker or longer, greener or golden, the leafy tops more or less prolific. It is the type grown by New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania and Garner’s Produce on Virginia’s Northern Neck, both vendors at several Washington-area markets.
The other type is wild-tasting by comparison, with a grassy, flinty flavor evocative of what a cook can only imagine ancient, feral celery might have tasted like. Leaf celery or cutting celery (or, once, smallage) produces, true to its name, an abundance of leaves on comparatively small, hollow stalks. It behaves like a plant that can’t quite nail down its identity, vegetable or herb, and its indecision makes it that much more exciting to cook with.
Between those two types, dozens of varieties exist, though you might need to turn to seed catalogs to find them. There is garnet-hued celery, said to possess a clear, sweet, nutty taste and a texture that stays on through long cooking; heirloom self-blanching varieties that were all the rage in the late 19th century for their pale color and sweet, nutty flavors; and golden-leaved kin tsai celery, a Chinese celery whose delicate, glossy leaves carry an intense, peppery fragrance. (Chinese celery, found easily in Asian grocery stores, is in fact cutting celery, and a good choice for cooking when local celery is not in season.)
Growers of those varieties, their market copy promises, can expect “true celery flavor,” “real celery flavor” or “pure celery flavor” from their harvests. Those are modest assertions reflecting reasonable expectations.
Once you have your bunch of real celery flavor, don’t let it succumb to the usual fate of neglect. If you can’t use it all at once, blanch it (to preserve it) and take it to the freezer. Defrosted, it will serve best in stocks and soups, but it will still offer a wealth of flavor in thinner times.
Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.