Monday, November 30, 2009

Celery: Learning to Love an Old Nemisis

These days at the market, I eagerly scan familiar farm vendors for the best celery. But I wasn't always this enthusiastic about celery.

In fact, I resented celery when I was young. This boring, party-stopping vegetable was nothing more than a crunchy distraction in my potato salad and an unwelcome offering on appetizer plates. Even in my Thanksgiving stuffing, celery seemed like an intruder. As a teenager I once forced myself to eat the pale green vegetable because a friend said celery had negative calories. It had negative flavor too.

But when I discovered celery's gnarly cousin, celeriac, at the market, at Willie Green's Organic Farm, I fell in love--vegetable love. After carefully peeling the hairy root, I steamed and mashed it with potatoes. The first bite left me hooked on this homely root. It imparted hints of celery and parley flavors and mingled with warm oozy potatoes,it was the comfort dish I'd always dreamed about. (For this celeriac and potato recipe check out my recent article about roots and greens "Beyond Spinach and Potatoes" for Marlene's Sound Outlook .) Celeriac easily earned a spot in my market bag, but I still wasn't sold on the stalks. Not until I discovered the most amazing thing about celery a few years ago.

It was a stressful year. My dad suddenly passed away, my favorite old basset hound died and I lost I job I'd had for 16 years. And as if that wasn't enough, my blood pressure went up. Besides exercise and cutting out salt, I looked for some natural remedies to lower my numbers.

Then one day, celery waltzed into my life. I'd picked up a copy of Michael Murray's The Encyclopedia of Healing with Whole Foods (2005 Atria Books) and read that celery was beneficial in reducing blood pressure. Murray said, "Just four celery ribs consumed daily could reduce blood pressure up to to 14 percent." The action on blood pressure is a result of a coumarin compound called 3-n-butyl phthalide (3nB). This compound apparently also lowers cholesterol. Celeriac or celery root (below) also contains this blood pressure lowering compound.

Lucky me, I read about about the benefits of celery in the fall, just when Northwest celery was in season. I bought some from Jeff Miller at Willie Green's at the market and started munching. The flavor was more assertive than the tame stringy tasteless grocery store celery. And on a long drive to California to deal with my dad's house I munched through an entire head of celery. My dad had always told me to eat crisp apples when driving to stay alert, but celery works just as well.

When I checked my blood pressure after I'd eaten copious quantities for week , the numbers were in the low normal range. They stayed there and my only question was how much would I have to continue consuming year round to keep my blood pressure low?

Gnarly celeriac roots pictured below.

Turns out, a lot less than you'd think. I sometimes go a month or so without consuming any, but mostly I eat small amounts on a fairly consistent basis. I like it best like my apples --with a drizzle of almond butter from my favorite organic California farm.

Dedicated local Northwest foodies should try it with hazelnut butter.

Now celeriac and celery are weekly market purchases. (Celeriac offers the same component for reducing blood pressure.) I add stalk celery to Waldorf and shredded carrot salads; I simmer celery in soups and stir it into braised vegetables. The stalks of market celery can sometimes be tough but the assertive celery flavor from market farmers is always amazing in cooked recipes and it's well worth the price.

The variety sold in grocery stores is called Pascal celery. It's cheaper than local varieties and is grown mostly in California, Florida and Texas. Pascal celery has a long-standing reputation for harvesting ease, transportability and shelf life and its mild flavor has also been a draw for grocery store shoppers. But I opt for more flavor and I always support locally grown when it is in season. Sadly, celery goes out of season in the Northwest during winter, spring and summer.

In these "off-seasons," I buy organic celery because The Environmental Working Group lists celery as one of the top pesticide laden foods, describing it as thin-skinned and difficult to wash off the numerous toxic farm chemicals. And who needs toxic farm chemicals added to an otherwise healthy diet plan?

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