Stems and Stalks: Asparagus, Celery, and Others

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Vegetables derived from plant stems and stalks often present a particular challenge to the cook. Stems and stalks support other plant parts and conduct essential nutrients to and from them, so they consist in large part of fibrous vascular tissue and special stiffening fibers—for example, the ridges along the outer edge of celery and cardoons—that are from 2 to 10 times tougher than the vascular fibers themselves. These fibrous materials become increasingly reinforced with insoluble cellulose as the stem or stalk matures. Sometimes there’s nothing to do except to strip away the fibers, or cut the vegetable into thin pieces to minimize their fibrousness, or puree them and strain off the fibers. The keys to tender celery, cardoons, and rhubarb are on the farm rather than in the kitchen: choosing the right variety, providing plenty of water so that the stalks can support themselves with turgor pressure, and providing mechanical support by hilling with soil or tying the stalks together, so that mechanical stress doesn’t induce fiber growth.