Friday, September 6, 2013

Veggie of the Month: Ventura Celery

Before you ask: yes, of course I've had celery before. But as I discovered last night, our home-grown Ventura celery is a completely different animal (er, vegetable).

It's actually kind of an accident that we ended up having any of this celery at all. Of the four plants I put in the garden itself, three withered away and died before they reached any kind of reasonable size, and the fourth remained kind of stunted. However, we ended up having some extra space in the new rhubarb bed that Brian put in just outside the fenced garden area, because the four new rhubarb plants I bought this spring didn't survive. (This turns out to be a good thing, because the old plants that we moved to this area not only survived but grew to mammoth proportions. Between the three that Brian transplanted to start with and the one straggler that he later found pushing its way up through the new raspberry canes and moved, they're giving us as much rhubarb as we can possibly hope to keep up with.) So, on a lark, Brian sowed some extra celery seeds in this area.

Well, apparently, a little more sun was all these plants needed, because they grew great guns in their new location. However, they never really grew into the size and shape that we've become accustomed to with supermarket celery. The individual stalks were shorter, narrower, and more widely spaced. They also had a much more vivid green color than the pale barely-green shade that goes by the name of "celery" in decorating catalogues. Brian asked around among his coworkers who garden and was told that the supermarket celery is generally "blanched" to help it keep better—not by quickly heating it, the way you blanch vegetables in your kitchen, but by shading the stems so that they get less sunlight. This also gives the celery a much milder flavor, so we were warned that we probably shouldn't use as much home-grown celery in our cooking as the recipe calls for.

Well, that turns out to be an understatement. This home-grown celery has a very strong, pungent flavor. I tried one bite of it raw and found that it was too bitter to even eat that way. Cooked, it was more manageable, but even so, we used only one small stalk of it in the potato-apple skillet we made last night, which normally uses two—and even then, the celery flavor in the dish was much more pronounced than it's ever been.

Now, it might seem that, from an ecofrugal standpoint, this is great. If just a little bit of this celery goes such a long way, then we should be able to get all the celery flavor we need from just one plant, right? And that would be true, if we treated celery primarily as a flavoring agent. But to me, celery isn't really an herb; it's a vegetable, and that means that one of its main purposes is to add bulk to a meal. But you can't really use this celery in that way, because its flavor would overwhelm the entire dish. And if you scale back the celery to the point where it balances with the other flavors, then you can't use enough of it to make up much volume in, say, a stir-fry.

So on the whole, I'm not enthusiastic about this celery, and I'm not particularly keen to grow it again. I'm sure we'll find some ways of using up what we have in the garden right now; Brian has talked about trying a homemade cream of celery soup to take the place of the canned variety we can no longer find at Aldi, and we can always use some as an herb (it might even be strong enough to take the place of celery seed in dishes that call for it). But for everyday use, I think we're actually better off with the milder-tasting supermarket celery, which we can get away with using in greater volumes.
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