From the Kitchen Garden: Wilted Celery, and Other Unlikely Vegetable Delights

My dear mother, now 82, visits me several times a year from Wisconsin, and it’s only a matter of a day, often hours, before I hear the same refrain from the kitchen:

(Sounds of muffled rummaging…)
“Michael, these vegetables in your refrigerator should be wrapped! Look at this celery, it’s wilted!”
“It’s supposed to be that way, Mom.”
“What do you mean? It’s all white and wobbly.”
“It tastes better that way! Just put it back.”
“What do you mean, tastes better? How could it? It’s not green! Shall I take it out and feed it to the chickens?”
“No, Mom, it’s for us. I’ll use it. Just wait and you’ll see…”

Top, the normal celery you get from the store; bottom, blanched "wilted" celery ready for cookiing.

Top, the normal celery you get from the store; bottom, blanched "wilted" celery ready for cooking.

What my mother is forgetting is that in this supermarket age of steroid vegetables, not all food is supposed to be green, stiff and pretty. In fact, before my mother was born, celery would NEVER have been eaten green. Such vegetables would have been deliberately blanched, or whitened, before harvest to tenderize and sweeten the stalks. (Don’t confuse this “blanching”, which derives its meaning from the French, blancher, to whiten, with the cooking term “blanching,” which oddly enough means to scald briefly to fix the color.)

A century ago vegetables were blanched directly out in the garden in one of three ways, depending on species: 1) by planting self-blanching cultivars; 2) by using special pots to shut out the light; or by 3) mounding up the soil around the stems to ensure darkness. Celery and asparagus were the most common recipients of this technique, but other branched species, such as rhubarb, were often blanched as well. (Belgian endive, actually the blanched shoots of chicory, is still produced this way.)

Today, given the odd pack of leftover celery, you can duplicate something of this process right in your own refrigerator, as my Mother has discovered to her dismay. Simply take the celery from its bag, remove and use the outer stalks (once green, they will remain so) and let the pale inner core sit – unwrapped! – in the refrigerator drawer. After several weeks, it will whiten slightly and go quite limp in an abortive attempt to conserve moisture. This dehydration heightens the natural sugars in the stalks, and means the celery is ready for eating. The flavor is superb – celery without the sharpness – and is perfect for use in a variety of recipes where the taste of celery, not the crunch or bitterness, is called for… as in my favorite  summer lunch, curried chicken salad:

Wilted Celery Curried Chicken Salad

6 boneless chicken breast halves, skin removed, poached in 2 cups homemade chicken stock and ½ cup white wine.
1 cup chopped wilted celery
½ cup diced red unpeeled apple
½ cup grapes (or 1 full cup of either grapes or apples)
¼ cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
1 teaspoon curry powder (or more to taste)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
½ cup mayonnaise (light mayo will work as well, especially if you add more stock reduction)

Preparation: Poach the chicken until done, remove to a tray, allow to cool; dice. Reduce stock to ½ cup, and combine liquid with other ingredients in a large bowl, adding more or less mayonnaise to your taste. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.
Serves 6

“So Mom, how was that curried chicken salad we had for lunch?”
“Oh, wonderful! So tasty! Just perfect on such a hot day.”
“Didn’t mind the wilted celery, then?”
“What wilted celery?”

Case closed.

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