Celery rarely is celebrated. It’s a near constant companion to chicken wings, it’s regularly dragged through hummus, and it certainly has its place in mirepoix (along with carrots and onions). But star alone? Not often.
In fact, Kathy Fang, chef and co-owner of Fang restaurant in San Francisco’s busy SoMa district, says diners often balk at even the suggestion of a dish built around celery. “If they see celery,” she says, “they’re like, ‘Can I have another vegetable— a more fun vegetable?’”
They can, of course. But that’s a mistake, Fang says, because celery is underrated. And delicious. It shows up often in Chinese cooking, typically lightly cooked and given at least equal billing with a protein (particularly beef and white fish). “It’s not hidden at all.”
Though many of those dishes use Chinese celery (also called leaf celery), which is thinner, leafier and more intensely flavored than the celery used in Western cooking, both varieties have a pleasantly crisp texture and light, fresh flavor.
Those qualities make celery an ideal vegetable around which to build a dish. The fibrous texture of celery makes it extremely forgiving. It stays crisp and is difficult to overcook. It also has a naturally high sodium content, which means it pairs well with savory flavors.
At Milk Street, as we considered our own cooking with celery, we were inspired by the flavors and textures of a celery salad from “A Spoonful of Ginger” by Nina Simonds, which dressed the vegetable with a spicy sesame oil vinaigrette.
We borrowed those flavors and used them in a stir-fry, which gently cooked the celery, slightly sweetening it. We paired it with fresh shiitake mushrooms; their earthy, meaty taste, kicked up by soy sauce, offered a good contrast to the fresh, herbal taste.
We also added plenty of fresh ginger and scallions, which provided bracing, peppery notes. Chili-bean sauce, called toban djan, offered spicy-salty intensity, but more widely available chili-garlic sauce is an acceptable substitute. The result: a chance for celery to be more than a bit player.