I never met a vegetable I didn't like. Zucchini, with its sweet, creamy flesh; swiss chard, thick and papery to start, then soulfully silky to finish; kohlrabi, with its refreshing, vegetal snap; eggplant, spongy in one moment, melting the next. Green beans and Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoletti, artichokes and spinach - I love them all, truly madly deeply.
But there is one little exception to the rule that I must confess doesn't exactly knock my socks off. In fact, I usually find it downright disappointing. Perhaps because my first encounters with it were when it appeared, chopped up fine, in alarmingly mushy tuna-fish sandwiches (the filling mashed down wetly into a hot dog bun, of all things), or as a stubby little vehicle for palate-gumming peanut butter at my elementary school cafeteria. When I learned to cook, the only time I ever came in contact with celery was in the base for meat sauce and I quickly learned that leaving it out rarely, if ever, harmed the sauce at all.
There's just something so strange and awkward about celery, isn't there? Its stalks flail about like a gangly boy's legs. I never seem able to finish a bunch of it before it goes all limp and wobbly in the fridge. And the taste, well, it's never been something I've craved. But after the spate of baking I did over the past few weeks and a run of days in which turkey, stuffing and more turkey featured largely in our daily meals, I took one look at my recipe clippings last night and plucked this one straight from the top.
If anyone could get me to like celery well enough to make it my entire meal, I figured, the Chinese could.
First, I had to wrestle my way through the thicket of celery lying on my counter. And you know what I found out? Peeling celery, folks, must be right up there with training fleas as one of the jobs I'd least like to have on this Earth. But I soldiered through, convinced that celery nirvana awaited me on the other side of that swiftly growing pile of slimy, stringy peels lying in my sink.
A quick plunge into the hot, oily depths of my frying pan softened up the celery before it got tossed with a smashed garlic clove, a smattering of minced ginger, ground pork, and the pungent combination of chili sauce and soy sauce (my nostrils are still smarting). I gave the pan a good toss (there is something so satisfying about lifting a pan off the stove and shaking it so hard that everything flies up in the air and neatly falls back down again, just where it should, isn't there?) and then put the lid on to steam the celery into submission. White rice cooked away, plainly, on the stove.
As I waited for the celery to finish, I stood back and contemplated my apartment. It smelled like a Chinese restaurant. That in theory is better than in real life, truth be told. A few minutes later, I turned off the heat and stirred toasted sesame oil into the panful of pork and celery, fragrant and spicy. Then I stabbed around in the pan with a fork and brought a forkful to my lips.
And holy God, was it ever salty. And spicy. But mostly salty. And actually a whole lot spicy. Salty, spicy, salty, spicy, help, help, help - oh wait, what about that white rice? Man, it was like a cooling balm, that good white starch. The first bowl I ate had me mostly in pain with all that spice and salt. But then I found myself hankering after a second bowl, which was tastier and calmer than the first. I have a feeling this stuff will really shine tomorrow, after an overnight rest. The celery was muted, tamed - its stringiness gone, but its assertive crunch still there and its bold, grassy flavor tempered by all that heat, oil, and salt.
I'm still not sure I'll ever really love celery, but this brought me a whole lot closer to liking it.
Stir-Fried Celery in Meat Sauce
Serves 3 to 4
1 large bunch celery
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons sriracha or other hot chili sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ cup canola or peanut oil
¼ teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
2 teaspoons minced ginger
¼ pound ground pork
½ cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. Using a peeler, remove the strings from the outer layer of the celery stalks. Trim the leaves, then slice the stalks into ¼ -by-1 ½ -inch sticks. (You should have about 4 cups.)
2. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, chili sauce, sherry and sugar.
3. Heat a wok or a large, heavy skillet fitted with a lid over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the celery and stir a few times; then add the salt and cook for 1 minute. Transfer the celery to a dish; clean and dry the wok.
4. Reheat the pan and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. After about 30 seconds, add the garlic clove, flipping a few times; then add the ginger and the pork, stirring to break up the lumps. Stir in the soy-sauce mixture. Return the celery to the pan and toss. Add the chicken stock, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Steam to reduce the liquid, about 2 minutes.
5. Remove the lid, increase the heat to high and stir until the liquid has evaporated. Add the sesame oil and toss well. Discard the garlic clove.