While we appreciate celery as a versatile—if somewhat common—food, its first uses included celebrations as well as cookery. The ancient Greeks used celery leaves as laurels for athletes, and the ancient Romans supposedly wore a wreath of celery to ward off a hangover. They also used the seed as seasoning.
Popular in 18th century Europe, celery was first introduced to the United States in the early 19th century, when it was used in pickling. The seed was brought to Kalamazoo, Michigan, from Scotland, where it was grown commercially. Now cultivated in India, France, Britain, Japan, China, Hungary and the U.S., the primary U.S. producers are California and Florida.
Wild celery (or "smallage") originated in the Mediterranean, northern Africa and southern Europe. It has fewer stalks and more leaves than cultivated celery.
Celery's sturdy cell walls are responsible for its crunchy texture and upright posture, making it perfect for an array of dishes. If you associate celery with the Bloody Mary cocktail, you might be interested to know that the drink didn't contain celery until about 40 years after its invention, when a bar guest, lacking a stirrer, grabbed a stick of celery.
It's not true that it takes more calories to eat a stalk of celery than are contained in the celery. Still, a stalk of celery contains only about half a dozen calories. It's also a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C and K, folate, potassium and manganese. It provides riboflavin, vitamin B6, panthothenic acid, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.
Celery belongs to the Umbelliferae family, along with carrots, fennel, parsley and dill. In the U.S., green celery is most popular, but in Europe a white variety is also widely grown and used. Varieties include Pascal (a pale green, the most common variety), Utah, Matador, Picador, Florida and Golden (grown under paper or soil to prevent chlorophyll from developing).
Celeriac, or turnip-rooted celery, was developed from wild celery. It forms a large, solid, globular root and is not used raw.
A staple in most every kitchen, celery's crunchy texture and fresh, distinctive (delicate, almost salty) taste is enjoyed in appetizers, side dishes, mains and salads. It's often found where a medley of vegetables is used—in soups, curries and casseroles, for example. Almost any soup will benefit from the inclusion of celery. Split Pea Soup with Spinach is the perfect example. Vegetable Jambalaya begins like so many great recipes—by sauteing an assortment of vegetables that include celery.
Celery's crunch is enjoyed in myriad salads, too, from egg and potato to grain, chicken and pasta salads. Its partnership with apples in salads is famous. Wheatberry and Apple Salad adds grain and cranberries to the standard apple/celery partnership, and Waldorf Salad with Yogurt and Honey combines apples, celery and grapes in a yogurt/honey (rather than mayo) dressing. This Tempeh “Chicken” Salad tastes authentically classic, thanks in part to the celery.
Who doesn't enjoy "ants on a log"? Try mixing it up a bit by substituting another nut butter, like cashew, for the peanut butter, and another dried fruit, like apricots, for the raisins. It's easy to be creative with celery, especially when it comes to healthful snacks and lunches. Surprise the kids (or enlist their help) with this Recharging Robot Lunch.
Keep in mind that while the tender, mild celery hearts (the center of the stalk, surrounded by the leaved ribs) are the most prized part of the plant, every stalk—and the leaves, too—are wonderfully edible.
Celery is at its peak in the summer months, though it's available year round.
Look for celery stalks that are crisp and relatively tight and compact, not splayed out from each other. The leaves should be pale to bright green, with no browning or yellowing. Avoid brown or black discoloration between the stalks, a condition called "blackheart" that's sometimes the result of insect infestation.
If the celery bunch contains a stem in the center (called a seedstem), it will be more bitter than a bunch containing small stalks in the center.
Place celery in a plastic or vegetable bag or sealed container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. (The leaves don't keep as long as the stalks, so use those as soon as you can.) If it wilts, sprinkle it with water, or cut the ends and stand in a glass of water in the refrigerator to rehydrate.
Dirt easily gets wedged between celery ribs, so wash each stalk carefully before using.