The essay “A Word for Autumn” by A. A. Milne is, in part, a tribute to the end of summer and a meditation on the changing seasons—but it’s mostly about Milne’s unfettered passion for celery.
Celery in the Spotlight
“It is as fresh and clean as a rainy day after a spell of heat,” he rhapsodizes about the vegetable, which he feels best captures the “crispness” of the cold months. “How delicate are the tender shoots unfolded layer by layer. Of what a whiteness is the last baby one of all, of what a sweetness his flavour.”
The Winnie the Pooh author is hardly the lone member of celery’s fan club. For centuries, enthusiasts around the world have flocked to the plant: from Egypt and China, where wild varieties were used medicinally as a hangover cure or aphrodisiac, to Greece and Rome, where victorious athletes were crowned with celery leaves. And after cultivation of wide, crisp stalks began in the 1800s, the vegetable became downright trendy in the United States—Americans in the late part of that century ordered celery prepared myriad ways in restaurants (mashed, fried, as tea, as jelly) and also used it to adorn their dining tables at home, presenting stalks in elaborate crystal “celery vases” for their dinner guests to munch on.
Can't Get Enough Celery?In season 1, episode 1 of Proof, an America’s Test Kitchen podcast, reporter Maya Kroth traces celery’s colorful history, from the vegetable’s Victorian heyday to today.
If you ask me, the vegetable is well worth the attention. The three commercially grown varieties of celery—each cultivated for a unique purpose—produce parts with complex flavors, textures, and hues, offering cooks a wealth of possibilities in the kitchen. The dulce variety most popular in the West produces tall, grassy, herbaceous stalks. The rapaceum variety produces a bulbous underground stem known as celery root or celeriac that boasts an earthy-sweet flavor and takes well to braising, roasting, and pureeing. Finally, leaf celery, or the secalinum variety, grows more delicate-looking but more intensely flavored leaves and stems, often used in stir-fries and soups.
These three recipes are designed to showcase celery’s impressive range. First, celery stalks meld with the aromatic parsley-and-anise-tinged flavor of raw celeriac in a shaved celery salad, a crisp, fresh mélange of thinly shaved roots and ribs with chopped frisée, toasted walnuts, Pecorino Romano, and a sweet-tart pomegranate vinaigrette. In a longer-cooked dish that highlights the creamy, tender qualities of roasted celeriac, the halved root spends an hour roasting wrapped in foil and then is crisped on the stovetop and generously garnished with chimichurri. Lastly, my version of lao hu cai, or Northern Chinese tiger salad, enlivens juicy, crunchy celery ribs with a bracing vinaigrette, piquant scallions, and plenty of hot chiles and cilantro.
One Species, Three Varieties
While all celery belongs to the same species, Apium graveolens, there are three unique varieties of the celery plant that are cultivated commercially, each bred for different purposes.