I didn't start out loving celery. As a kid, I knew it as that crunchy vegetable on raw vegi platter served with ranch or some other kind of dip. (I never eat it with peanut butter, as I didn't like peanut butter. I know. That makes me weird for an American.) Or it was that slimy veg in stir-fries at Americanized Chinese restaurants. Anyway, I wasn't all that fond of it, so celery was not something I kept stocked in the refrigerator. Then one day I decided to make Marcella Hazan's Bolognese Meat Sauce and it required celery. Well, I figured it was there for a reason, so I duly cooked my bolognese with celery. Cooked so many hours in milk and wine and all the other tasty good stuff in bolognese, the celery became soft. Not slimy. Not crunchy. Just right. Okay, celery, you win that one.
I started keeping chopped dried celery in my spice cabinet. That way I could rehydrate small amounts for dishes that needed a bit of the celery flavor.
Then my in-laws gave us Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan cookbook. She features quite a few stir-fries with celery. Is she for real? That was my thought at the time. Actually it was probably more like this: "For real? Celery? Is she actually for real? Is that authentic?" But I try to keep an open mind about food, and as far as making authentic Chinese food adapted to Western kitchens is concerned (or not, as she's studied in Chinese kitchens) Dunlop has excellent credentials.
Rehydrated celery was not going to cut it for Chinese stir-fries, which meant buying fresh celery.
From Dunlop I learned about de-stringing the celery, which vastly improves the texture in stir-fries. (A peeler makes de-stringing the celery a snap.) And I learned that I love stir-fried celery. Chicken with Vinegar, Dry Fried Chicken, Stir-Fried Chicken Hotchpotch, Dried-Fried Beef Slivers, Boiled Beef in Fiery Sauce, Fish Fragrant Pork Slivers. All these delicious dishes used celery. I came to like celery so much that I adapted her Sichuanese stir-fry potato slivers dish for celery. These days my vegi bin seems empty if I don't have a head of celery in there.
So I was delighted when paging through her newest cookbook, Every Grain of Rice, I saw this recipe and swooned. It was, of course, the first recipe I made. And it's amazingly simple and delicious.
Sichuanese "Send-The-Rice-Down" Chopped Celery with Ground Beef
Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop
11 oz celery (American or Chinese, but she says Chinese is better)
3 Tbs cooking oil
4 oz ground beef
1 1/2 Tbs Sichuan chilli bean paste
1 1/2 Tbs finely chopped ginger
light soy sauce to taste (optional)
1 tsp Chinkiang vinegar (brown rice vinegar)
Start your rice and set some water to boil for blanching the celery. This dish cooks quickly, so I would begin stir-frying when your rice cooker finishes.
De-string the celery. (I run my peeler down the outer convex side to take the string layer off. I don't worry about the concave side.) Dice into one cm pieces. (Cut lengthwise into 1cm (3/8) strips, then chop the strips into small square pieces.) Blanch celery in boiling water for about 30 seconds to "break its rawness." Drain.
Heat oil in seasoned wok over high flame. Add ground meat and stir-fry until cooked. Break up pieces as needed. If it is fatty beef, I like to spoon out some of the fat. Add chili bean paste and stir-fry a bit more until fragrant and the oil is red. Add ginger and stir-fry for a few seconds. Add celery.
Stir-fry until celery is hot but still crunchy. As you cook, season with a bit of soy sauce to taste. Stir in vinegar. Serve with rice.
Kitchen Chick's notes:
I often add a bit more beef. You can adjust the chili bean paste to taste and make it quite a spicy hot dish that really needs that rice to send it down!
I have never used ordinary white or clear rice wine vinegar in dishes calling for darker vinegars. Chinkiang vinegar, as well as the chili bean paste, is easy to find in well-stocked Chinese groceries.
Seasoning a wok: There's the "big" seasoning you do to prepare a new wok (or restore one that has lost its patina), and then there's the seasoning before cooking a dish. This second one helps with keeping food from sticking to the surface. Heat a bit of oil in a wok. Swirl it around to coat the wok until smoking. Pour out oil. Then add the oil you're going to cook with.