Until few yrs ago, I never though much of celery. Of course, it is one of the key ingredients of the classic battuto (generally equal quantities of chopped onions, chopped carrots, chopped celery), the basic of so much Italian cooking (fried in some fat, it becomes soffritto) and it is often served raw in pinzimonio, that is to say with other raw vegetables, to be dipped in the best olive oil. Apart from this, edano (celery) was a stranger to me. Moreover, I had always associated celery with the cold months only.
The turning point was when I discovered Sicilian caponata, one of the greatest of all summer dishes: here celery plays a crucial role, to add both crunch (and therefore textural contrast to the softness of the fried aubergines) and depth of flavour, with its earthy, sweet, mineral tones. I remember once asking an excellent Sicilian cook why there was a winter ingredient in such a summery dish. She smiled (at my naivety/ignorance, I guess) and she explained to me that in fact sedano is very much a summer and autumn vegetables, hence its starring role in caponata, a summer-early autumn dish. I had grown up with all-year round celery, that I had not even imagined it does have a proper season. This was reinforced when I started shopping from my local farmers’ markets here in London: from late spring until late autumn, I could see huge bunches of leafy celery for sale, intensely green and almost bouncing with energy.
I became more interested in this ingredient: in salads, with meat (pheasant with celery is excellent) and… braised with tomatoes, sedano al pomodoro.
It is a recipe I discovered first in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials and I later learnt it is firmly rooted in the most obscure Italian home cooking.
It is an incredibly tasty little number, which works either as a dish in itself or as a sauce for pasta.
First of all, get hold of some proper celery: a tall, firm, deep-green bunch with all its leaves (no limp, bagged, supermarket celery, please). Boring as it is, you have to string it (otherwise the eating will be unpleasant): I use a potato peeler. Take your time and do a good job here – finesse is the key! Wash it and cut it up in thick slices. Keep the leaves and chop them coarsely. Leave to drain it.
Meanwhile make a basic tomato sauce: you know, the usual thing : onion and garlic fried in oil, followed by some pelati (tinned whole tomatoes). You could add some diced pancetta too or some chopped fresh red chilly. The ratio of celery to tomatoes varies of course: this is a positively red dish, so I tend to use generally a couple of cans, unless my bunch of celery is really small.
After you sauce has cooked steadily and rather briskly for ten minutes or so, and it has thickened somehow. add the celery. Turn the flame up, and toss the celery in the sauce few times: this is the all important step called “insaporire”, in Italian, when things get tasty by absorbing the flavoursome base/fat one is using. Salt it, and let is simmer at a lively but not too high heat, uncovered, for… well.. until it is fully tender. It takes longer than you might think: thirty-forty minutes are not unreasonable. This is supposed to be a moist but not soupy dish and by the end there should not be any sigh of wateriness
I sometimes add a handful of grated pecorino, at the very end for extra savouriness. In autumn I also add, halfway through, few tablespoons of red wine, for a deeper taste.
Eat at room temperature. Great on toasted bread, with a coddled egg, with mozzarella, crumbled feta ecc…