One of my favorite side dishes to share at family events is braised celery. Generally, I like celery best when it's raw and crunchy (and covered in salt), so at first the idea of not just quickly cooking celery, but actually braising it for a length of time seemed a little crazy. But the recipe, which I first saw on 101 Cookbooks, is a definite keeper. The recipe below serves 4, but I've successfully doubled it in the past and it worked just fine.
Braised Celery with Crunchy Bread Crumb Topping
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 head celery (about 1 3/4 pounds) - not just celery hearts, you want the whole thing
1 large shallot or 1 small yellow onion, finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth (I always use vermouth)
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1/3 cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese, or half Gruyère and half Parmigiano-Reggiano (I've tried it with all Gruyère, a mix, and all Parmigiano, and all three were delicious, so you can't go wrong)
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs made from day-old rustic white bread
Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Using about half the butter, generously butter a large gratin dish or baking dish (9- to 10-by-13- to 14-inch).
Tear the celery stalks from the head. You should have about 10 or 12 sturdy outer stalks. Stop tearing off the stalks when you reach the shorter, pale, tender stalks, or the heart. Set it aside. Rinse the celery stalks, giving special attention to the inside of the base of each stalk, where dirt tends to lodge. You may need a vegetable scrubber to remove stubborn dirt. Trim off the top part of the stalk where it branches into leaves, and set the tops aside with the heart. Using a small paring knife or vegetable peeler, scrape the outside of each celery stalk to remove the fibrous strings that run its length. (This can take forever if you really try to get every string off the outside of every piece. When pressed for time, I've just done this as quickly as possible and definitely missed some. In my opinion, it didn't hurt the dish, but if you want to make sure every bite of celery is super-tender, you may want to take as many off as you can).
Cut the celery stalks into 3- to 4-inch lengths. Arrange them in a layer in the baking dish. It's fine if the sticks overlap some; they will shrink and flatten into a single layer as they braise.
Finely chop the reserved celery heart, with the celery tops and leaves. Melt the remaining butter in a medium skillet (IO-inch) over medium-high heat. Add the shallot, thyme, and chopped celery heart and leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Pour in the vermouth or wine and simmer until the pan is almost dry, about 3 minutes. Add the stock and simmer until reduced by half, another 6 minutes or so.
Pour the celery-shallot-stock mixture over the celery sticks. Cover with foil and slide into the middle of the oven to braise until the celery has collapsed and feels very tender when prodded with a knife tip, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Remove the celery from the oven, and increase the oven heat to 400 degrees. Sprinkle the cheese and bread crumbs over the celery, and return to the oven until the cheese is melted and the top is crusty and browned, about 10 more minutes.
Serve while hot or warm.
"celery" photo courtesy of flickr user Daveybot through use of Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.