Creamy Penne with Italian Sausage, Wilted Celery, and Parmigiano

Tony writes: I’ve silently stood by and watched countless bunches of celery die slow, shriveled deaths in my vegetable crisper. And on more than one occasion, I’ve been asked that excruciating question: “What can I do with all this #$Q!W%! besides ants on a log?”  “No mas!” I decided this past weekend. From here on, all celery I purchase (or see somebody else purchasing) will be completely utilized; full-blown, nose-to-tail. I accepted the 3/4 bunch left from a grilled chicken recipe as my first test.

Here’s the thing (which we all know): celery is no star. When your distinguishing characteristic is inducing more calories being chewed than eaten (admittedly, an urban legend), dynamic flavor is not your thing. But at the same time, celery can be a wonderful vegetable player, particularly now, at the end of winter, when there’s not much doing produce-wise. The trick is to work it into places where its faint sweetness and crunch can step to the fore.

Celery thoughts: Diced celery plays 3rd wheel to carrots and onions (as the traditional sauteed base) in soups and stews. In those applications, its presence is muted. The vegetable better asserts itself in rustic French and Italian cooking.  You will see chunky pieces in French roasts and braises. And the Italians like to slice and wilt the raw stalks and leaves in austere salads (with good olive oil and Parmigiano). This brings up a good point: both the the inner “heart” and the celery leaves themselves are good eating: milder and sweeter than the sturdy outer stalks. Chinese celery (slightly thinner stalks, more pronounced flavor) plays a prominent role in traditional Asian cooking. Its toothy crunch is a good counterpoint in quick stir-fries. You can use any of these applications as inspiration or go your own way. I like to saute 2-inch strips of celery with crumbled Italian sausage and wild mushrooms and toss with pasta and plenty of Parmigiano. Or dice up the celery and leave it toothy in stir-fries with strips of beef or chicken and hot chiles (Kung Pao style). Or, one of my new favorites: make a salad of wilted celery hearts and top with grilled shrimp and a lemony dressing.

Storage and Prep: You have at least one good week with celery; by the second, you get diminishing returns. Though my significant other suggests holding celery in aluminum foil (she read it online years ago), you can also store it in damp paper towels and plastic wrap (as you might with fresh herbs). I generally trim the top inch or two off the stalks and make sure to wash the bottoms near the core (which tend to have grit).

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The recipe (Serve 4)

Pasta with Sausage and Celery

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1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.

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2. Meanwhile, set a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add 1 Tbs. olive oil and once it’s shimmering hot, add 2 links Italian sausage (about 3/4 lb; removed from its casing and crumbled) and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sausage browns and mostly cooks through, 3 to 4 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to a large plate.  In the same pan, add 2 ½ cups celery (cut into 3 inch pieces and split in half; from about ½ bunch celery) and 3 1/2 oz. shitake mushrooms (stemmed and sliced).  Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. each kosher salt and black pepper.  Cook, tossing occasionally, until the celery and mushrooms brown and soften, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup dry white wine and cook, stirring to incorporate any browned bits in the bottom of the pan, until it completely cooks off, about 2 minutes.  Return the sausage to the skillet (along with any of its juices).  Add 1/4 cup half n half (or heavy cream), 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano and some chopped fresh herbs if you have (like 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme) and cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens and the sausage finishes cooking through, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

3. Cook 3/4 lb. penne (or a like sized pasta) in the boiling water until tender, but toothy, about 10 minutes. Reserve ½ cup of the pasta water and then drain the pasta. Add the drained pasta and the pasta cooking water to the skillet (with the celery mixture) and cook, over medium-high heat, stirring, until the pasta absorbs the sauce, 1 to 2 minutes. Season the pasta with salt and pepper to taste and serve sprinkled with more Parmigiano.

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