It is a rare occasion when I find myself spending an hour in front of the television catching up on my recorded cooking shows. My husband is usually in charge of the remote control since I simply don’t watch much TV. Even rarer is the occasion when husband would actually sit through an entire cooking show with me. He is not as enthusiastic about food as I am but over the weekend, he became a Lidia Bastianich fan. He enjoyed her engaging, no-nonsense style and the way she would exclaim, “mm-mm-mm” after taking a bite of the dishes she made. But above all this, I believe that what won him over was watching her prepare one of his favorite vegetables: the celery.
I buy at least one head of celery each week. No matter what type of salad I prepare, my husband always thinks it would be better with celery. Soup? How about adding celery, he’ll suggest. Appetizer? Stir fry? Stew? You get the idea. I like celery, too, but even I have my limits. It has its place in my kitchen, but admittedly, I haven’t given it much opportunity to step up above its role as a secondary ingredient. A filler. A supplement. In short, second to everything else.
Enter Ms. Bastianich. She made the celery the star. We watched her braise the celery with other equally humble ingredients–onions, garlic, olives, tomato paste, water–prompting my husband to say “we should try this” and at that, my heart sang. This marked his second request in as many days; I might have waited longer to try this dish were it not for my joy at witnessing my husband’s foodie moment.
This is a don’t-knock-it-until-you-try-it dish. You might be tempted to dismiss it like I was, but in the end I was very happy that my husband requested it. I was stunned by how much I liked it. Braising did to celery what roasting does to brussels sprouts and cauliflower–its full potential is realized. The celery had depth of flavor that I’ve never tasted before, aided by the caramelized onions and salty olives. The tomato paste , even just the small amount added, provided the long-simmered richness that brought everything together. Crushed red pepppers gave the dish an extra boost.
I have a new found love for celery. Who knew it could be so comforting and satisfying outside of a meat stew? Well, Ms. Bastianich did, so I have her to thank once again for a winning recipe.
Braised Celery and Olives
* from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy
Note: I halved this recipe but I’ll post the original amounts suggested. I recommend making the full batch.
- 2 1/2 pounds celery (1 large or 2 medium heads)
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled (I used more for my half batch)
- 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1/2 cup pitted black olives (I used kalamata from a jar)
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cups hot water
- Separates the heads of celery and wash and trim the stalks. Shave the tough outer ribs, if necessary, then cut the stalks (including leafy parts) in 4-inch or smaller pieces.
- Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic cloves and onions and heat until they start to sizzle. Cook for a minute or two, just to give the onions a little color.
- Add the celery, salt and crushed red pepper then stir, making sure to coat the celery with oil.
- Cook over medium heat for about five minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the olives, raise the heat a bit and sauté the vegetables for about 15 minutes. Stir from time to time. The celery and onions should soften and caramelize a bit at the edges.
- Stir in the tomato paste in the hot water and add to the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the pan and lower the heat to simmer. Cook about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the celery is completely tender and caramelized and the liquid has reduced to a glaze (my half batch simmered for 25 minutes).
- Serve warm.