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.

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