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Recipe: Celery holds firm as Thanksgiving necessity

Every November, celery performs countless tasks: It perfumes the holiday turkey, lending moisture from the inside out; it’s the backbone of the stock in gravy; it adds bite and vegetal flavor to stuffing.

But rarely does this tireless Thanksgiving staple get any thanks.

“It’s hard to make it the center of the spectacle, but on the back end, it’s everywhere,” said Ignacio Mattos, chef and owner of Estela, Flora Bar and Café Altro Paradiso in New York City. “It’s a supporting actor.”

Treated like a workhorse, celery does its job, but it’s so much more than a sidekick to Buffalo wings. Given the opportunity, these stalks shine — versatile enough to be enjoyed raw, simmered until silky or cooked to any state in between. Celery’s bright, citrusy flavors mollify with heat, and its stalks provide a prodigious range of textures.

Celery reigned supreme at the Thanksgiving table in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Raw stalks were arranged in crystal vases created specifically for the purpose of showing off the era’s “It” ingredient. Ornate serving sets were considered incomplete without celery vases, until they were replaced by narrow, horizontal celery dishes.

“Celery was a status item for a long time in the Edwardian era,” said Amy Bentley, a professor of Food Studies at New York University.

For Americans of that time, celery was new and exciting. Dutch immigrants, widely credited with helping to develop the U.S. celery business, started growing the vegetable as early as 1874 near Kalamazoo, Mich., which subsequently was nicknamed Celery City. Train boys and messengers sold celery to passengers on the railroad; the seeds were disseminated across the country, and a celery craze ensued.

Good Housekeeping’s Thanksgiving menus from 1900 celebrate celery in every form: in celery soup, blended with mashed potatoes and accompanied by peanut butter on brown bread. Boiled, then tossed with breadcrumbs to stuff the turkey, celery fortified the holiday centerpiece; its cooking liquid was used to baste the poultry. Prized for its crunch, celery was tossed with apples and mayonnaise.

Decades later, during Harry Truman’s presidency, braised celery was on the White House menu for Thanksgiving dinner in 1947.

Celery’s popularity grew with its availability, until its success undercut its cachet: Celery became commonplace. Knocked from its pedestal, celery settled into its roles as crudite, kid’s snack and Bloody Mary garnish.

But recently, the ingredient found new fame. “Last year, we had a huge spike in consumption because a Kardashian started juicing it and put it on her Instagram,” said Jake Willbrandt, a fifth-generation celery farmer in Decatur, Mich. “People just went wild; it was a huge fad for about eight months, and the prices were incredible. Just like any fad, it has faded, and consumption is back to normal now.”

But every November, celery quietly sneaks back into the limelight: Its popularity spikes on Google Trends during the week of Thanksgiving, and supermarket sales skyrocket throughout the holidays.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, celery sales at Walmart jump by more than 650%, a company spokeswoman said.

Celery is a team player, equally adept at imparting subtle flavor, unseen, as it is at the center of the plate. Whether you’re looking to supplement your Thanksgiving spread with a new recipe or to experiment with the neglected stalks perishing in your fridge, try showcasing celery in one dish.

Crunchy and fresh, the raw vegetable holds its own in a punchy salad with blue cheese and mustard, offsetting the rich, buttery flavors of the Thanksgiving table with assertive verve.

The Thanksgiving feast has long been associated with aspiration, but the humble everyday ingredients that support us year-round can prove worthy of appreciation. Thanksgiving without celery wouldn’t taste like Thanksgiving at all.

IF YOU have a lot of celery left over from making your stuffing this year, consider using it in a salad that will complement the offerings on your Thanksgiving table, or provide a lighter meal in the days after the big feast.

CELERY SALAD WITH APPLES AND BLUE CHEESE

By Alexa Weibel

  • 1 head celery, trimmed, stalks peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal, leaves reserved
  • 2 tart red apples, such as Pink Lady
  • 1 small celery root (about 12 ounces)
  • 1 packed cup parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped roasted, salted almonds
  • 1 cup crumbled bold, creamy but firm blue cheese (4 to 5 ounces), divided
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • >> Vinaigrette:
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped shallot
  • 4 teaspoons coarse mustard
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest, plus 4 teaspoons lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a large bowl, whisk together vinaigrette ingredients (season with salt and pepper last).

Add sliced celery to vinaigrette; toss to coat.

Core apples, then slice lengthwise into very thin wedges using a knife or mandoline. Add to sliced celery and toss to coat.

Peel or slice off outer skin and layers of celery root until no brown skin remains.

Cut in half lengthwise, then slice into very thin half-moons using a knife or mandoline. Add to the celery and apple mixture and toss to coat.

Salad may be refrigerated at this point for 1 to 2 hours — or even overnight.

Just before serving, add parsley, almonds and half the cheese, and toss to combine; season with salt and pepper.

Transfer to serving dish; top with remaining cheese, reserved celery leaves and parsley leaves. Serve immediately. Serves 8.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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