By perseverance out of weed: that might well be the pedigree of that eminently useful and healing vegetable, celery. For this food can trace its ancestry back over several centuries of human improvement to the ordinary, yel/owish-green weed known as wild celery, widespread in many wet places near the sea.
Native throughout Europe, wild celery must always have attracted attention by its pungent, distinctive celery smell, and there is some evidence that in earlier times it was eaten in rural parts of England under the name of smallage. However, we owe it to the diligence of Italian gardeners and plant-breeders of the seventeenth century that today we eat not a drab, white-flowered marsh weed with deeply-furrowed, acrid-tasting stalks, but modern celery with its “mild, sweetish, aromatic” but still distinctive taste. By long years of careful breeding, selection and blanching, the Italians produced a prolific vegetable with whitish stalks and a unique and flavorsome crispness.
These qualities alone have endeared celery as a salad plant throughout the temperate world, but we now know that here taste has always been a good guide to health-giving properties. For centuries celery has been appreciated as an excellent antidote to rheumatism and allied aches and pains: only comparatively recently have we proved this scientifically to be true.
Celery is in fact one of the most highly alkaline of all natural foodstuffs, and a remarkably powerful solvent of those three harmful acids, oxalic, uric and butyric, which, when present in crystal form in the tissue of the body, cause.most rheumatic complaints. In addition,it is very good in many cases of nerve disorders, acting as a helpful tonic. Even in perfect health, the alkalinity of celery usefully aids the body in its natural elimination of carbon dioxide from the system.
Although there are green and red forms of celery, it is the white-blanched type (or increasingly, now, the self-blanching varieties) that are most widely eaten, and it is interesting to note that whereas raw celery is universally taken in almost all European countries, elsewhere the vegetable is preferred cooked and served hot with meat.
Certainly the vitamin content of celery, often overlooked in favor of its mineral alkalinity, is much reduced by coolcing, and both by prolonged soaking in cold water, as is often done to produce the attractive-looking little curled strips.
Apart from the traditional fresh vegetable content of vitamin C, which is useful but not high, celery also acts as a very valuable source of vitamin B. The green leaves are also very rich in vitamin A, but this does not occur in the blanched stalks. For this reason alone, the green tops of celery, and the green part of the stalks, should never be wasted, and if not eaten raw in salads (as they should be) can always be added to stocks and soups. In fact, stewed on their own, celery leaves make the very best and certainly the most nourishing vegetable bouillon as a basis for both soups and sauces. Indeed, with the exception of the soiled roots, no parts of the celery plant should be thrown away, for the dried seeds are an ancient but efficacious remedy for neuritis and rheumatism. Our ancestors used to dote on celery seed tea for these and similar complaints.
Celery is exceptionally rich in sodium, containing far more of the vital mineral element than any other vegetable, even more than twice as much as watercress. It is also very rich in calcium, and provides the body with useful amounts of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus, plus a little iron. It is furthermore a good source of the blood-cleansing mineral sulphur, and is not without a useful modicum of vitamin E. Incidentally, the potential alkaline balance of both the leaves and stalks of celery is about the same, and equally high.
Few vegetables should figure more regularly in season than celery; preferably raw. Many people prefer celery as an accompaniment to bread and cheese, and it is generally agreed that the sticks taste better if they have had at least one frost on them. Nutritionally, of course, the frost adds nothing: the real reason is probably that after frost the stems are crisper and therefore seem to be of an improved flavor.
But there are many other ways in which celery may be useful added to our menus. In winter, especially, it should always be used as the basis for salads, with chopped apples, orange segments, and nuts (ideally walnuts), and always as a complement to watercress. If short stems have curled naturally, as they sometimes do, these can be attractively filled with various cheese or nut mixtures, or savory fillings. In warm weather, chopped celery added to a Mediterranean-style salad of lettuce, asparagus and pimentos completes a most refreshing dish.
For many folk, the naturally refreshing and toothsome qualities of sharp, crisp celery are lost when it is cooked, even the lightest braising. Whilst this is perhaps a little prejudiced, obviously celery should never be boiled overlong, if only to retain its beneficial salts. Perhaps the best way to cook this vegetable is (a) to retain at least some of the green leaves, and (b) to simmer it briefly and very gently in a good chicken, or (preferably) veal stock. Prepared thus, it can make a pleasant winter standby when greenstuffs are hard to come by. Celeriac can be similarly treated.
The other form of cooked celery is of course celery soup. There is much support for the view that a good celery soup is the most health-giving of all thick soups, especially if it is made with a good veal or chicken stock and contains a solid proportion of the vegetable after fine straining not just a few lumps.
Celery’s long tradition as a remedial and health-promoting food, backed by modern scientific knowledge, provides every support for its regular appearance on enlightened tables.
Reprinted from Natural Food & Farming.