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.)
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
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.