Celery, along with only a few other vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts, is a relative newcomer to the world’s diet, where most common vegetables have been eaten since before recorded history. This Apium graveolens is the mild, enlarged version of a thin-stalked, bitter Eurasian herb called smallage.
Wild celery is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean area. Its woven garlands have been found in Egyptian tombs. An archeological finding in Kastanas, Greece provides evidence that Apium graveolens was present there in the 9th century before Christ. There is also great literary evidence establishing this, for selinon, which is believed to be the same as celery, is mentioned by Homer in both the Illiad and Odyssey (circa 850 B.C.).
Moving forward five centuries after Christ, this wild edible herb appears in Chinese writings; then following this, it is cited again in a 9th century A.D. poem, from either France or Italy.
Italians first bred this small, primitive plant in their gardens apparently in the 1500’s, using it for medicinal purposes only; other northern European countries also began growing it. By 1623, a record of celeri in France, established it as being utilized as a food. For the next 100 years, it was generally employed only to flavor dishes, though in France and Italy, its leaves and stalks were sometimes eaten accompanied with oil dressing. By the end of this century, this vegetable had arrived in England.
The first evidences of improvement of this wild Apium were seen in late 17th and early 18th centuries in these northern European countries, resulting in selections with solid stems; this stalk celery, as it has been known, originally had a tendency to produce hallow stalks that were bitter and strong. Years of domestication corrected this hallow characteristic; likewise, breeding countered the disagreeable flavors. This latter development was achieved by choosing the cooler growing periods of late summer and fall-the plants were then kept into winter-as well as by employing blanching, a practice that pushes dirt up around the stalks’ bases, keeping the sunlight from turning the celery green.
We have two types of stalk celery varieties: the green or Pascal is popular in North America, while the yellow, also known as self-blanching, is preferred in Europe and the rest of the world. Celeriac, celery root or knob celery, is also widely used in European countries, with a growing audience for it among trendy U.S. gourmets. Chinese or leaf celery, which is also called smallage-of all the Apiums, this is the closest in form and flavor to the original Eurasian herb-is grown in Asia and the Mediterranean regions for its leaves and seeds; these are used for cooking and sometimes medicine.
In America, the presence of this vegetable was minor during colonial days, leaving no evidence as to which European group brought it here. Nonetheless by 1806, four cultivated varieties were growing in the U.S., as is listed in the American Gardeners’ Calendar, printed that year. After the mid-19th century, with further domestication having refined its taste and texture, Americans were eating it raw with salt, serving it in celery vases at the dinner table.
Organic celery tends to be on sale at our local Fred Meyer-Kroger-stores during any holiday. Thus, having it on hand from a Christmas special, I created this exceptionally easy, delightful braised celery dish, for my annual, day-after-Christmas celebration with my long-time friend Janet. We loved it; hope you will to.
Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984, 2004), pp. 249, 315, 406.
Braised Celery Yields: 4 servings. Total prep time: 20 min/ active prep time: 10 min/ cooking time: 10 min.
1 1/4 lb celery (Organic celery is relatively inexpensive.)
2 tbsp chilled butter, cut in small pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper (Himalayan or pink salt, such as Real Salt, is so important for optimum health; a Himalayan salt is available very cheaply in bulk, at our local Winco.)
1 tsp Herbes de Provence (Trader Joe’s has a great deal on this dried herb.)
1/2 c broth (May use chicken, vegetable, or a good beef broth.)
Peel strings off celery with a potato peeler; spray with a safe, inexpensive, effective vegetable spray (combine 97% distilled white vinegar with 3% hydrogen peroxide); let sit 3 minutes; rinse really well. Save leaves for garnish.
- Cut celery in 4-inch pieces; place in a single layer-the indented side up-in the bottom of a large sauté pan; dot with pieces of butter; salt and pepper generously; sprinkle top with Herbes de Provence. (See photo above.)
- Pour broth over celery; bring to a boil over med/high heat; reduce heat to med/low; cook covered for 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile chop the leaves, to be used as an optional garnish.
- Remove cover, stir well, raise heat to medium, and cook for 4 minutes more (see photo below).
- Raise heat to med/high and cook liquids down, stirring constantly, until juices form a glaze, about 1 minute (see photo at top of recipe).
Arrange in a serving dish, garnish with chopped leaves, and serve with pride!