Patricia Nell Warren

Victory Garden: Celery and Season's Greetings

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | November 24, 2009 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: butterfly gardening, medication, organic garden, urban gardening, victory garden

With Thanksgiving is almost upon us, not to mention Christmas and New Year's, it's time for the final racking of brains over which stuffing recipe to choose. Every LGBT person I know in L.A. is planning on forgetting the economic and political crisis by going to somebody else's fabulous holiday dinner...or planning their own unparallelled feast. Maybe the menu will include items from the victory gardens that are more and more popular. In the northern tier, gardens are already sound asleep till spring. Meanwhile in the southern tier, gardens are getting ready for a new round -- a cooler season of newly planted items like winter greens -- lettuce, kale, broccoli, etc.

If you live in those almost-frost-free southern latitudes, you might be lucky enough to go outside in the next day or so, and harvest a home-grown head of your own celery. If you're tired of all the fancy New Cuisine dressings, try a variation of that classic old-timey companion to turkey -- celery-sage dressing.

Just pull the plant up by the roots, shake off the dirt, take it inside and wash it good. And don't throw away the taproot when you cut it off. Leave a little bit of the bottom stems, and put it aside it for making soup. Scrubbed and peeled, a celery root adds a unique flavor to any stock.

A Little History

Celery goes by the scientific name Apium graveolens, and belongs to a whole family of aromatic plants that are cherished for cooking all over the world. It includes anise, caraway, carrot, cilantro, cumin, dill, fennel, parsley and parsnip.

For some strange reason, today, celery is thought of as one of the humblest, most ho-hum garden veggies. Along with chopped onion and bell pepper, celery forms the "trinity" that's basic to Creole cooking. In France, it triads with carrots and onions for another basic, the mirepoix.

But celery has an ancient and aristocratic history. In Tutankhamen's tomb, archeologists found a fragile dried garland that had celery leaves tucked among the flowers. In the sacred Nemean games of ancient Greece, it was a wreath of celery, not olive branch, that graced the heads of winning athletes. Medievals knew the plant for its medical uses, especially the seed.

Today it has an extra value for dieters -- it's high in calcium and fiber. (One warning, though: it can touch off a powerful food allergy.)

Wild Thing

The first time I ever grew celery in my own garden, I was astounded by its pungent smell and taste. The insipid plant that's sold in most supermarkets, which is marinated in lots of chemicals, is a fraud. It has made most Americans forget just how good the real deal can be, when it's grown organically. There's something about the smell and taste of celery that transports my imagination to a wild meadow somewhere

For gardening, the most popular variety is "Paschal." The garden books will tell you to fuss with celery, by growing it in trenches so you can "blanch" it, etc. etc. Forget it. This is a plant that still knows how to be a wild thing. It seeds itself around the place like a weed. And it grows almost anywhere. I find the volunteers everywhere -- even sprouting between the bricks in my patio.

So celery has taken year-round residence in my garden for six years now, always replanting every winter and spring with seed or volunteers from the previous season. Though most plants with taproots are hard to transplant, celery is easy if you move it when it's a baby. Just do it early and keep it watered till it recovers from the shock.
As it grows, you can harvest a few stalks off it without hurting it. But if you want to harvest the whole plant, do so before the flower stalk comes up -- it's more tender that way.

If you're interested in bringing butterflies to your vegetable garden, celery is a must. The yellowish umbrella-shaped flower heads, called umbels, are magnificent and long-lasting -- and alluring to many butterfly species. I've seen the big striped anise swallowtails visiting mine. In fact, anise swallowtails are called that because they love the nectar of this whole aromatic family of Apiaceae. So I always let a few celery plants flower for the butterflies. Afterwards I can harvest the seeds, which are a good garnish when dry.

Right now, though, most of the butterflies have gone into hiatus till early spring.

Variation on a Theme

There's no end of ways to cook celery -- from cream of celery and potato soup, to celery au gratin, and of course raw celery with dips.

But my favorite way is stuffing -- my personal variation on the classic recipe. I've already decided which celery head to yank on Thursday morning, and a couple more heads will be left for Christmas or New Year's.

These proportions can be varied to taste:

10 strips of bacon
2 bunches of scallions, finely chopped
1 head of celery, well scrubbed and finely sliced, including the leaves
1 dozen fresh balloon peppers, cleaned and coarsely diced. (These are a mildly hot and mellow-tasting variety, about equal in "heat" to paprika). If you don't have those, any variety of fairly mild pepper will do. or you can substitute cayenne to taste.)
7-8 leaves of fresh sage, chopped
1 cup chopped parsley
1 tsp cumin
1 large loaf of day-old Italian bread or sourdough bread, diced
enough cooled chicken stock to moisten the dressing
2-3 eggs
coarse ground black pepper and salt to taste

Have the cubed bread ready in a large bowl. Fry the strips of bacon in a big skillet till lightly brown. Remove onto a plate, and crumble when cool. Add the chopped and sliced vegetables to the bacon fat in the skillet and sautee gently, moving around with a spoon, till almost tender.

Pour the vegetable mixture over the bread cubes, along with the fresh herbs, salt and pepper, and the crumbled bacon. Toss gently like a salad till just blended. Beat the eggs lightly with the stock. Sprinkle the egg/stock mixture over the bread mixture, and continue to toss gently till the liquid is well-distributed. Don't stir, just toss. You can vary the amount of stock, depending on how moist or dry you like the stuffing.

Stuff the turkey with this mixture right away, taking care to not pack the dressing too tightly. Any surplus stuffing can go into a casserole dish and be baked separately.

Whenever I cook Thanksgiving dinner, I'm always thankful for having friends and family to share with -- especially in these trying times that we're living through. And for having a victory garden in the middle of Los Angeles.

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Rev. James M. Evans, Jr. | November 25, 2009 1:58 PM

It's Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and already I'm fantasizing about putting the dressing together for the feast tomorrow. And then I read this particular recipe and I am, once again, astounded at the enormity of the dressing recipes that are out and about to tantalize our respective palates. My parents were both from Arkansas and so I grew up on cornbread dressing which my nuclear family doesn't really care for all that much. Which just goes to show that there are levels of disfunction in every family. My spouse's grandmother was a master at putting together oyster dressing in the hills of West Virginia because grandfather loved it. I make dressing in the "by guess and by golly" school of cuisine and nobody seems to mind all that much. One year, my maternal grandmother decided to put chopped apples in the dressing and it wasn't all that bad. So there we are: recipients of the largess of our upbringings and our own levels of creativity. Thanks Ms Warren for sharing this tantalizing opportunity. Happy Thanksgiving, Everybody!

Thanks for the fun comment. You're so right about the influence of upbringings. My own Virginia relatives went for the cornbread stuffing too. Whereas my German greatgrandmother preferred a turkey stuffing made almost entirely of apples and white raisins and candied citron, with a little bread crumbs to hold it together. The fruit juices carmelized in the bottom of the pan and made the richest gravy you can imagine.

I'm sure your dressing will be great, no matter what the recipe is.

John R. Selig | November 25, 2009 6:57 PM

Thanks for this wonderful article Patricia. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday in part because it occurs at the same time as my birthday (with my birthday falling on Thanksgiving every few years, like this one). The celebration also isn't wrapped up in religion like Christmas and Easter. Then, of course, there is all this wonderful food. Relationships have been tested over which stuffing to make. One person's family has a cornbread based stuffing with sausage, while the other has a bread and mushroom stuffing. I like my stuffing and don't want yours. Some relationship come to the brink over this weighty issue. Compromise isn't possible unless two turkeys are roasted. Many people don't know the difference between stuffing and dressing and I have noticed some on The Food Network using the terms as if they are the same which they are not. If it cooks inside the turkey it is stuffing, if it is cooked outside of the turkey in a separate pan it is dressing.

I have made my own favorite stuffing for over 30 years whenever I roast a turkey. I call it "Simon & Garfunkel Stuffing" because it is made with "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme" along with some salt and most importantly the spice Marjoram. This year I am using fresh parsley, sage rosemary & thyme.

Get a large loaf of white bread (cheapest you can find works just fine). I also recommend having some more bread on hand if needed. I am guessing as to quantities here. You could have a little more on hand if you want to be safe. It also depends on how large a bird you buy. Personally I buy the largest bird that I can find as I enjoy leftovers. Turkey is always cheapest at this time of the year as the grocery stores use them as loss leaders. The larger the turkey the higher percentage of meat to bone. typically I get a bird that is between 21-25 lbs. I will also give you my gravy recipe at the end.

"Simon & Garfunkel Stuffing "
1 Large loaf of White Bread
2 Large Onions
1 Package of Celery
1-2 lbs. mushrooms
1 stick of butter (more if needed)
- Salt to taste
- Parsley (dried spice in a jar is fine)
- Sage (dried in a bottle or canister is fine)
- Rosemary (dried in a bottle or canister is fine)
- Thyme (dried in a bottle or canister is fine)
Marjoram (dried in a bottle or canister is fine)

Cut the bread up into small cubes and brown under the broiler in the oven. I do this in a large roasting pan opening the oven every 30 seconds or so to mix the cubes around to keep them from burning (if a few burn, it isn't the end of the world). this usually takes about 10 minutes or so. When you cut up the bread I usually take 4 or five slices at a time and slice four or five strips one way then 40 or 5 strips the other way. You don't need to be particular. You just want small pieces. If some get mushed together, don't worry.

A food processor is a godsend for this recipe. Cut the opinions into quarters and then process in the food processor (by pulsating to chop them finely) until the pieces are small. You don't want them to big so smaller is better than larger (same later with the celery and the mushrooms.). Start melting the butter in a very large frying pan. After it melts, add the onions. Once they begin to go from white to translucent, turn off the hear. while onions are on the stove. Wash the celery and take a vegetable peeler and peel off the outside of the stalks to remove the strings. You don't have to be fancy, just a couple of scrapes on each stalk will do it. that way the celery won't be stringy when it is in the stuffing. Cut the scraped stalks into a few pieces and put them into the food processor (process by pulsating to make small pieces). Add to the onions and turn back on to start cooking the celery and onions together. Wash the mushrooms and put into the food processor and pulsate to make small pieces. Add to the onions and celery. The mushrooms cook quickly. Now salt to taste. And start adding the other spices. I add a few shakes of each. Quantity isn't that big of a deal. You will love the smell and go ahead and taste to see if you like the blend. The marjoram really makes this recipe. You may need to add more butter as you want the blend of vegetables not to be dry.

Time to Stuff the turkey.