In our household there are constant and mildly heated arguments surrounding an unlikely topic. Politics and religion? No problem. But celery? There’s a red flag subject. I maintain that it’s one of a well-stocked larder’s essentials. My partner claims he hates it — and yet, offer him a leafy stalk to stir his beloved Bloody Marys and he happily accepts and crunches down once the drink is stirred. I have resorted to hiding the celery in the bottom of the vegetable bin for its own safety and mincing it finely in all recipes so it becomes undetectable. One thing I won’t do is go without.

Celery is so much more than the green crunch in your summer tuna, chicken or potato salads. I feel it comes into its own at this time of the year, when it’s an essential in that holy trinity of soup stock, celery, carrot and onion. And when it comes to the stuffing for a holiday bird or rolled roast, you can add cranberries and apples, sausage, oysters, chestnuts or giblets, but it’s not possible to make a proper stuffing without chopped celery.

Celery has so many wonderful attributes that once I begin thinking about them they expand exponentially. Unlike onions, celery needs no peeling and no tears are shed while chopping those proud green stalks. It keeps well in the refrigerator, but if it is looking a bit wan, I will sometimes peel it lightly to revive it before chopping. Usually, celery needs nothing but a quick rinse in cool water before it’s ready to use in any recipe. I like to buy organic celery because, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of foods with the most pesticide residue, celery ranks number two, beaten out only by apples, but even organic celery is inexpensive considering how many ways it can be used and how little waste there is in a bunch of celery, especially if you include the tasty leaves in your recipes and salads.

Celery punches well above its weight class in flavor and nutrition. It gives us a fair amount of vitamins and minerals, few carbohydrates or calories, and lots of healthy fiber. Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K and a good source of vitamin A, potassium, and folate. For those wanting to cut down on carbs, celery sticks are a perfect vehicle for cream cheese or peanut butter or to use as a crunchy dipper for hummus or yogurt dips. Best of all, while summer’s bounty wanes about now, celery is right there where it always was, available year-round, stacked up beside peppers and cucumbers that have suddenly doubled in price.

Celery wasn’t always a pedestrian supermarket vegetable. Back in the 1800s, celery was considered a superfood, believed to purify blood, calm nerves and relieve stomach disorders. Celery products such as celery soap and celery chewing gum proliferated, starting in 1868 with a tonic that can still be found today: Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. If you’ve ever patronized a true New York delicatessen, you’re probably familiar with Cel-Ray, which somehow became the perfect healthy beverage to pair with fatty pastrami or other deli favorites. A peek at the ingredients list of today’s Cel-Ray would reveal some less beneficial ingredients, like high fructose corn syrup, but then, you probably don’t want to know what’s in that “healthy” Vitamin Water or Gatorade, either. There was never any celery in Dr. Brown’s soda, just celery seeds, which were also believed to be medicinally beneficial. Beneficial or not, celery seeds are highly flavorful. They’re one of the spices I buy in the larger 12-ounce jars, the one I reach for when making soup stock or mayonnaise-based dressings, boiling shellfish or mixing up a meatloaf.

Lately, we’ve been making our own less-sweet soda by combining seltzer and homemade fruit syrups. My current favorite is chokecherry syrup. The syrup was originally intended to be jelly, but it never jelled. This happy accident now adds Its slightly tannic flavor and rose color to soda drinks that are actually healthy, as chokecherries are even higher in antioxidants than blueberries or elderberries. Better yet, they grow wild in huge quantities around here, so next year, I plan to deliberately make chokecherry syrup. But I digress. What I intended to relay was the recipe for homemade Cel-Ray, healthier without that high-fructose syrup.

C E L E R Y   S Y R U P

1 cup organic sugar
112 cups water
34 tsp. celery seed
4 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. each black peppercorns and green cardamom pods, crushed
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Combine sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, add celery seed, pepper and cardamom and lemon zest and steep one hour. Strain syrup, discarding solids. Add lemon juice. Cool completely. Stir 4 teaspoons syrup into a cup of seltzer or carbonated water to make a refreshing bubbly drink. The syrup can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Celery itself is a great addition to many vegetable dishes and a star of stir-frys but it takes a star turn in this creamy gratin. Don’t be put off by the anchovies; they add umami, and are virtually undetectable, while adding an undertone of richness.

C E L E R Y   A N D   F E N N E L   G R A T I N

Sauce:
1 medium fennel bulb, finely diced
6 oil-packed anchovy filets, minced
3 Tbsp. butter
14 tsp. ground fennel seed
2 Tbsp. flour
114cups half and half
Sea salt and pepper to taste
For gratin:
8 large stalks celery, diagonally sliced into 2-inch pieces
1 small leek, halved lengthwise and cut diagonally into 12-inch pieces
4 Tbsp. butter
34 cup freshly grated Parmesan
12 cup dried panko or bread crumbs
In a large saute pan, saute fennel and anchovy in butter until fennel softens. Stir in ground fennel seed.

Add the flour and cook, stirring, a few minutes. Slowly stir in one cup of half and half and cook until sauce thickens a bit. Season to taste. Let cool slightly, then place sauce in a blender, add remaining half and half and puree until smooth. Set aside. Wipe out pan and saute celery and leek in butter until leek softens a bit. Place celery/leek mixture in a 9-by 9-inch baking dish and pour fennel sauce over. Cover with foil and bake at 350° F for about 45 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes or more until sauce thickens. Combine cheese and breadcrumbs and sprinkle over casserole. Increase oven temperature to 425° F and bake another 15 minutes or so. Let casserole rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving.