Starring celery

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Several months ago, during that sweet, early space of summer, I stalked the celery at my local markets as though it would disappear suddenly, never to be seen again. Maybe you recall. I went on about how amazing it was for something like three paragraphs, about how thoroughly in opposition it is with supermarket celery, about its wild fragrance and bright, untamed flavor that evades precise description. In the kitchen, knowing the heat would chase it away before too long, I used it everywhere it seemed fit—pasta, potato salad, salads of farro or wheatberries or rye, in ragouts to spoon over grits or polenta. This is, in fact, a habit of mine with every ingredient I love and sometimes results in a surplus of ingredients and impromptu dinner parties designed to trim the excess. Nevertheless, now that it’s cooler, I’m finding celery here and there and everywhere, and I have assigned myself the task of convincing everyone who will listen that it is an ingredient worth lavish, enthusiastic attention.

Celery is so good as a background note that I think it’s easy to forget, or never even consider, how exceptional it might be, put on the spot. And times like now, with all of the romanesco cauliflower, brilliant fuchsia mustards, bunches of sweet, tender leeks and fat, teardrop-shaped Hubbard squashes flashing their goods, how do you even see the celery? Look for it. The best kind will be chartreuse-colored, maybe a little darker, with a shock of even-greener leaves at the top, so thick you’re not sure what you’re going to do with them all (include them in a parsley-walnut pesto; roughly chop a generous handful and stir it, as T. does, into a thick soup of onions, potatoes and beans, just before serving). I suppose it looks a little ordinary, if only because it’s so familiar. But celery with this much flavor was new for me in my adult life, and using it as a main ingredient was something I’m not sure I would have considered without a hint, at least.

I only ever did because I am a disciple of Giuliano Bugialli, an Italian cookbook author and teacher highly underrated in the U.S., and if he suggested, in any of his marvelous cookbooks, a pasta sauce of mint and only mint, I would make it. In Bugialli on Pasta, he features a recipe for pasta with celery. It’s a Roman dish, he says, seasoned only with hot chile, garlic and parsley, and if I had any reservations at the time I first made it, they have evaporated completely. In this dish, the garlic is pungent, the chile is hot, the parsley is green and the celery is celery. I add chickpeas to it sometimes, not because I think it needs improvement, but so that I can get away with a more substantial meal less one dish.

It’s fashionable these days to describe food as honest, or real.  I’m a part of this camp, and yet I still find it a little annoying. But if these descriptors apply to anything, really, it’s dishes like pasta with celery, where the ingredients don’t hide behind anything and are, unabashedly, themselves. And I think there’s a comfort in knowing that even the most seemingly pedestrian ingredients, grown well, treated nicely, can feature in the most joyous dishes. Even if all you have is celery, you already have a lot to work with.

Pasta with celery and chickpeas

Adapted from a recipe for Pasta with Celery from Bugialli on Pasta, by Giuliano Bugialli

So here’s the thing. You can’t use regular grocery store celery with this. I mean, you can, but just, why? It’ll be fine, but nothing special, and I just don’t see the point of making pasta with celery unless it’s something special, which is easy enough to do if your celery is full-flavored, sweet not bitter crisp not watery juicy not stringy. So don’t. Wait to make it ’til one of your local growers starts bringing it to market, and then get to it.

Serves 4.

1.5-2 cups celery, cut on the diagonal (first cut vertically if the ribs are especially wide)

1-2 cloves garlic, smashed with the flat side of a knife

2 chiles de arbol, broken into 2-3 pieces

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas, cooked with a bay leaf and seasoned with salt toward the end of cooking

12 ounces pasta, preferably penne or another short, tubular shape

20 large sprigs flat parsley, leaves removed and roughly chopped

fresh-cracked black pepper and sea salt, to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add celery and blanch for 1-2 minutes. Remove with a wire skimmer and rinse with cold water. Add the pasta to the same pot of water.

Heat a Dutch oven or saute pan over medium-low heat. When the pasta is about 5 minutes from al dente, add garlic and chile; cook, pushing them around every minute or so with a wooden spoon, until the garlic is nearing golden and the chile is starting to brown. Add celery, and cook for 2-3 minutes—it should be tender but still have a nice resistance. You want it to match the pasta, in a way. Stir in the chickpeas, season with salt and pepper, and warm through.

When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Add the pasta to the pan with the celery, add the parsley and a couple of tablespoons of pasta cooking liquid, and stir well but gently, making sure to scrape up all the delicious bits of garlic and parsley from the bottom and sides of the pan. If the pasta seems dry, add a bit more pasta cooking liquid; you can also add more olive oil. I usually add both. Ladle into shallow bowls. Offer black pepper at the table.

Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

I hope Laurie Colwin would forgive the title. It was difficult not to borrow, being as I was the other day, alone in the kitchen with eggplants. Lavender and lilac-colored ones, slender, with sloping curves and taut skin, too svelte for words, almost. Sigh. I realize eggplant envy is a little weird and that perhaps I’m becoming too intimate with my food. (Although once, on a family vacation when I was younger, I made up names for everyone, firstname surnameisavegetable. I was Emily Eggplant, so obviously there is some kinship here.)

The truth is, much as I adore the looks of these elegant fruits, they always seem less suited to my usual eggplant purposes, which tend to appreciate fuller, more generously-figured varieties with a larger skin-to-flesh ratio. But still I gather them up, almost whenever I see them, because they are so exquisitely good looking. I think about how this time, I’m going to bake them whole, split not quite through and stuffed with something heady and fragrant, or use them for some lively, herby salad or another (like this one from the New York Times I bookmarked two months ago), or make the Vietnamese claypot eggplant I haven’t made in years but used to crave like clockwork. I bring them home, so full of potential, and still they find their way into ratatouille or any number of Sicilian pasta dishes I am compelled to run through before frost signs eggplant off for the year. Let me say, those dishes are all wonderful; there are reasons I keep after them. But eggplant is capable of so much more that I always end up feeling the littlest bit guilty imposing limits on it, as though by treating it just a few ways I’m stifling its repertoire. I am given to wanton immoderation, but there it is.

And then about a month ago, reading through Andrea Reusing’s wonderful Cooking in the Moment, my eyes locked on her recipe for eggplant salad with walnuts and garlic, and I knew I was going to make appropriate use of those eggplants for once, at least.

Reusing owns Lantern, a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she uses glorious produce from the region’s profusion of small farms to illustrate a Southern-inflected, pan-Asian menu marked by much more cohesiveness and clarity than it sounds.

Her book offers glimpses of Lantern’s kitchen, but they are modest, secret-sharing ones. And she dispenses stories and personal anecdotes, but where they are occasionally sentimental, they are never gratuitous or self-indulgent. Instead they give you a start; suddenly you’re itching to shell peas or pay an on-farm visit to your favorite local grower, or cook with someone much older than you, or younger. Her text is honest and real, her recipes perfectly accessible, and the upshot is that, unlike so many other chef-authored cookbooks, this one works more, in the end, to inspire and instruct than impress.

I can vouch, at this point, for the simple goodness of her summer squash braised softly with butter, onions and basil; the spinach with melted leeks and cardamom; the pickled hot peppers, whose fiery vinegar bath, I can already tell, is going to rescue my winter cooking from doldrums with regularity these cold months ahead. But it’s this eggplant salad I want to write about, because it’s the thing I’ve kept returning to again and again, and I’m not in the habit of settling. In it, slender eggplants are quartered, steamed until just tender, left to cool, and then tossed with a full-bodied dressing of lemon, olive oil, parsley, garlic, walnuts and hot chile. There is sublime contrast and balance here, flavors and textures egging each other on, but never too far. It is such a delectable, substantial salad that I’ve been eating it for lunch as it is, with some good bread and something else of salad kind, tomatoes, here, radishes there.

The other day I had the idea to add some minced onion to the dressing and use chopped peanuts in place of the walnuts. I served this round with an unruly-looking heap of the first gorgeous mustards of the season, a mix of purples and jades that were full of nutty, fiery spice. I worked a smashed garlic-lemon-olive oil dressing into those, too, which seems redundant next to the eggplant’s dressing, but those mustards are so bossy it didn’t taste that way.

So now, finishing this post, I’m seeing that it might seem terrifically ill-timed, with eggplant taking a bow right about now, making room for greens and squashes and cooler-weather everything. But if you think about it, doesn’t eggplant really deserve an encore? That’s what I’m thinking.

Eggplant salad with walnuts and garlic

Reprinted with permission, from Cooking in the Moment, by Andrea Reusing

8 small Japanese eggplants, about 6 inches long and 1 inch across

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

juice of 1 lemon

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon mild Anaheim chile flakes, less if using regular chile flakes

3/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and any loose skin rubbed off

1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Cut each eggplant in half crosswise into 3-inch-thick rounds and then quarter them lengthwise. In a vegetable steamer over medium-high heat, and in batches if necessary, steam the eggplant for 10 to 12 minutes, until it is tender but not yet falling apart. Let the eggplant cool on a plate, discarding any liquid that accumulates.

Mash the garlic and salt together into a smooth paste, using the side of a knife. Transfer the paste to a medium bowl and stir in the lemon juice, olive oil, and chile flakes. Coarsely chop the walnuts and add them. Add the parsley and eggplant, and mix well.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

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