Tall, pale and handsome: Mark Hix cooks with celery

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Our man in the kitchen can't understand why celery is so often underrated – to him it's the most glorious, versatile and tasty of all vegetables

Celery is so versatile and you can use it in many different ways in the kitchen. The Victorians used to grow it as a Christmas treat; they appreciated its terrific flavour, cooked or raw. Sadly, however, over the years celery has lost a little of its culinary appeal and is regarded as a boring vegetable.

Up in Cambridgeshire, there is a bit of a celery revival going on. G's Fresh, which has been growing celery for more than 50 years, is making a fuss about its dwarf white variety which is banked up with peat to keep the tender stems white and flavoursome and free from frost; this also encourages leafy growth which sadly most celery producers hack off! See fenlandcelery.com for more information.

The uniquely-shaped stems of celery lend themselves to all sorts of interesting dishes. I love cutting the stems in lozenges and blanching them to make a salad with the leaves, walnuts and blue cheese. Here are just a few ideas about what do to with this wonderful vegetable.

Celery and ham hock broth

Serves 4-6

Ham hocks are one of the tastiest, cheapest things you can cook and keep in your fridge. Good butchers and some supermarkets have ham hocks, both smoked and unsmoked.

1 ham hock, soaked overnight in cold water
10 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 large onion, halved
60g butter
5-6 sticks of celery, peeled if stringy and cut into rough 1cm dice
30g flour
A handful of celery leaves, chopped

Drain the ham hock and then give it a good rinse under cold water. Place it in a large saucepan with the peppercorns, bay leaf and onion, cover well with water, bring to the boil and simmer very gently for about 2-2½ hours with the lid on or until tender and just falling away from the bone. (You can cook the hocks in approximately half the time in a pressure cooker if you have one.)

Strain the stock through a fine-meshed sieve and place the hock on a plate to cool. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan and gently cook the celery for 2-3 minutes until it begins to soften.

Stir in the flour, then gradually add 1.2 litres of the hot stock, stirring continuously to avoid lumps forming. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, remove half of the ham hock from the bone and cut into rough, 1cm chunks (save the rest for another meal and the skin is great crisped up in a salad).

Add to the broth with the celery leaves; season to taste if necessary and serve.

Steamed celery with pickled walnuts and Peter's guanciale

Serves 4

Here I've served the celery rather like you would asparagus or sea kale. Peter Hannan, one of our great meat suppliers, won a gold at the Great Taste Awards with his Moyallon guanciale, which is a dry cured, lightly spiced pig jowel which you can serve sliced or cubed and pan-fried.

6 -8 sticks of celery, peeled if stringy
A handful of celery leaves
120-150g guanciale or a cured ham
4 pickled walnuts, quartered or sliced and a tablespoon or so of the pickling liquor
3tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the celery into 10-12cm x 1cm sticks, cook them in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes until tender and then drain. Slice the guanciale as thinly as possible. Whisk the walnut pickling liquor together with the olive oil and season. Arrange the celery on serving plates with the guanciale and walnuts, spoon over the dressing; scatter over the leaves.

Celery gratin

Serves 4-6

You can serve this with meat or fish and even as a vegetarian main course.

1 head of celery, root removed and stems and leaves washed
60g butter
50g flour
300ml hot milk
250ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
150g mature cheddar, grated
60g fresh white breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Remove the leaves from the celery and then cut the stems into approximately ½cm-thick slices.

Bring a pan of lightly salted water to the boil and blanch the celery for 3 minutes, then drain and mix with the leaves.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, stir in the flour then gradually whisk in the hot milk. Bring to the boil, season and simmer for 5 minutes then add the double cream and simmer for another 3-4 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in 120g of the grated cheese, plus the celery and leaves and transfer to an oven-proof serving dish.

Bake for 20 minutes, then mix the remaining cheese with the breadcrumbs, scatter over the top of the gratin and continue cooking for another 15–20 minutes, until browned.

Jambonette of chicken with celery

Serves 4

I hadn't made this dish for years; it's called a jambonette as it resembles a mini ham. It's a great economical and smart way to make a cheap chicken leg go a long way. You can bone it yourself or get your butcher to do it, but the crucial thing here is to leave the chicken as intact as possible.

4 large chicken legs
A couple of good knobs of butter
4-5 sticks of celery, peeled if stringy
40-50g fresh white breadcrumbs
A little vegetable or corn oil for frying
1tsp flour
120ml cider
350ml chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A small handful of celery leaves
2tbsp double cream

With the point of a sharp knife cut the flesh away either side of the thigh bone and up to about 2cm past the joint, leaving the skin and flesh as intact as possible, then chop the bone through with a heavy chopping knife and put to one side. Chop the bone still attached just slightly below the knuckle to reveal it. Chop the knuckle and bones into small pieces and put to one side.

Chop two of the celery sticks into a fine dice, melt the butter in a saucepan and gently cook the diced celery for 3-4 minutes with a lid on, adding a tablespoon of water after a couple of minutes.

Mix the celery with the breadcrumbs and season to taste. Push the stuffing into the boned legs as far up the drumstick as you can and leaving a tablespoon of stuffing on the thigh part. Fold over the thigh meat, encasing the stuffing and secure with a couple of cocktail sticks so the stuffing doesn't fall out.

Wrap each leg tightly in clingfilm so you end up with a kind of mini ham shape. Place the legs in a saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Chop two of the sticks of celery into 5cm x ½cm batons and put to one side and put any root trimmings with the chopped bones.

Roughly chop another stick of celery, heat a little vegetable oil in a pan and fry the chopped bones, celery and trimmings for a couple of minutes until lightly coloured. Dust with flour then gradually add the cider and chicken stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes.

Then strain through a fine-meshed sieve into another saucepan and simmer until you have about 4-5 tablespoons left. Then add the double cream and continue simmering until the sauce has reduced and thickened, cover with a lid and remove from the heat.

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Remove the clingfilm from the chicken legs and place in a small roasting pan, season and spoon over a little oil and roast for about 30 minutes or until golden.

Meanwhile, bring a small pan of water to the boil with a little salt and blanch the celery batons for a minute, adding the leaves after about 50 seconds, then drain. Toss them in a little butter, season and keep warm.

To serve, reheat the sauce, remove the chicken from the roasting tray, drain on kitchen paper. Place the batons and leaves on warmed serving plates, add the chicken and spoon a little sauce over.

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