If you have stared helplessly in Chinese restaurants at dishes loaded with forlorn, economic squiggles of stir-fried celery, then here is a dish to restore your confidence in real Chinese cooking. It is a crunchy, lightly spiced “pickle,” as much at home at a Western barbecue as on a Hunan table. For celery-haters like myself, it is a revelation.
Cut off the base of the celery, then wash and dry the individual stalks. Use only the tender inner stalks which are pale white-green. On the larger ribs, cut off the flared bottom and the tough band where the main stalk joins the leafy upper crown. If the crown has a nice central stalk and pretty, tender leaves, then trim the end of the stalk and cut it where it joins the leaves, to yield a finger-size stalk and 2 leafy branches. The smaller, innermost stalks will not need trimming; simply divide the leafy crown from the base.
String the outside of the larger ribs by catching the strings at the end of the rib with your knife and pulling up to release them. (As a double check, repeat the process from the other end.) The tender innermost ribs will not need stringing.
Cut the stalks into 2½-inch lengths, then cut lengthwise into pinky-size strips ⅜ inch wide. Put the celery fingers and leaf clusters in a glass or stainless bowl, then toss with the salt and sugar. Let stand at room temperature for 40 minutes, tossing occasionally.
Whisk the seasonings by hand until the sugar dissolves and the mixture thickens slightly, then put aside to develop for 10 minutes.
Drain the celery, rinse with cool water, then spread on a lint-free towel and pat dry. Put the celery in a clean dry bowl, and scrape the seasonings on top. Toss well, seal, and marinate at room temperature 1–2 hours, or refrigerate 3–4 hours for best flavor. Toss frequently while marinating to distribute the seasonings.
Serve slightly chilled, in a shallow bowl or in individual dip dishes alongside each place setting. Dribble a bit of the vinaigrette on top, and unfold several of the leaf clusters for a pretty presentation.
The celery is at its crunchy best within hours of marinating. Any leftovers may be drained and refrigerated. They will be limp, but still tasty, the next 1–2 days.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.