Today: You've got a bundle of celery in the back of your crisper drawer. (Go check. You do.) This is what you should do with it.
Celery would like you to think it's very strict and plain.
It's what dieters eat when they're trying to outrun their calories. It's the dependable seat-filler in your pot roast and chicken noodle soup -- the one you didn't even notice you were eating. Even when you fill its crannies with peanut butter and parade raisins down its back, celery somehow seems austere.
There's a bag sitting in a dark corner of your refrigerator right now, just waiting for its next assignment. But if that celery isn't more than the log to your ants, you are missing out, my friends. Because it can do so much more.
Marcella Hazan knows a good way to get celery to cut loose -- stick it in a bath with olive oil, tomato, pancetta, and onion, then stand back. When Food52er linzarella tipped me off to this method, she said, "It makes celery something to get really, really excited about -- no small feat!"
When you cook celery down with these four ingredients, you'll see it lose its rigid lines and sharp color. Sturdy chunks collapse and fade, drinking up the sweet, bacony tomato sauce.
Marcella says to cook until tender, which can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours, depending on what you're going for, and your definition of "tender".
Cook it down long enough, and you won't even need to peel it.
Marcella would have us peel the stringy outer stalks, but the version published in Saveur as part of an article by Lesley Porceli on the merits of long-cooked vegetables, doesn't. (On a long enough timeline, those strings are all that's keeping the stalks from falling apart.)
You can even make this when your celery is starting to wither a little, and bends a bit too much to be shaved into salads. (Which is good, because seriously that bag of celery has been there forever.)
Marcella Hazan's Braised Celery with Onion, Pancetta and Tomatoes
Adapted slightly from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Alfred Knopf, 1992)
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds celery
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups onions sliced very thin
2/3 cup pancetta, cut into thin strips
3/4 cup canned plum tomatoes, chopped coarse, with their juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Photos by James Ransom