Election Section

Celery Planting Time is Here Again: By SHIRLEY BARKER

Special to the Planet
Friday September 03, 2004

Celery seedlings can be difficult to find locally because it is considered hard to grow here. In fact, especially where the water table is high (and where in Berkeley is it not?), this marsh-loving member of the Umbelliferae family is one of the many vegetables that reward the home gardener.  

Search for six-packs in the fall, plant them six inches apart in lavishly-enriched soil, give each plant a collar of copper strips to protect from slugs and snails, and let the winter rains do the rest. I set them out closely because I like to dig up alternate plants when they are young, leaving plenty of space for the others to mature. 

In a more limited way than leafy greens, celery is a vegetable one can harvest gradually, cutting off outside branches as needed. And as with leafy greens, planting in early fall gives roots time to develop for a growth spurt in early spring. There is no need to blanch the stalks, since they have the same taste and crunch whether green or white.  

The celery season is short. Dig up the entire crop when rain has ceased, and replace with a heat-loving vegetable. In hot dry weather it deteriorates. I like to leave one plant to set seed—which has culinary value in the Indian cuisine—and sow a few of these when they are fully ripe and dry at summer’s end. The trick to their germination is to sprinkle the tiny seeds on to a six-pack or other small pot of fine potting soil and set it in a dish of water. The constant moisture seems to be what the seeds need and love. When true leaves appear, transplant to individual four-inch pots and keep them constantly moist. Set them in the ground no later than October. 

When preparing celery for eating, strip off the stringy fibers, as these can be indigestible. Home grown celery is crisper and more tender—more youthful, no doubt—than store-bought celery. It is best eaten raw, as part of an antipasto, with oily black olives, rosy radishes, thin slices of garlicky salami and a glass of cool Frascati.  

It also makes an excellent veloute, or velvety soup, the diced stalks simmered in lightly-salted water, blended when soft, thinned and reheated with milk and enriched with a touch of butter or cream. Taste for salt, and grind over it some black pepper. This is a delicate soup whose flavor is best revealed when not masked by seasonings and poultry stock. A sprinkling of chopped parsley is an ideal garnish. 

Parsley is in the same family, yet its seed is much more difficult to germinate. Parsley seed is said to go to the devil and back before it will sprout. One should never trust a woman who cannot grow parsley. Or is it one who can? Either way, parsley’s usefulness in the kitchen is legendary. Yet celery leaves make an excellent substitute where stronger flavoring is acceptable and green fingers and thumbs have failed. Try an intensification of the above soup with the incorporation of a young celery leaf or two, finely chopped.