March 12, 2019
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Stalking a Celery Salad. The Best Celery Salad.
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This is not tossing. This is assembling, fashioning, architecting. With the help of chef Ignacio Mattos.

Salads were obligatory when I was young. Always attendant, never principal. I or my brother would be tasked with throwing one together in the final moments before dinner was set on the table. We would chop a head of iceberg, rip open a bag of packaged croutons, and throw both into a large bowl. Then grab a few bottles of dressing from the refrigerator door under our arms and walk the lot to the table. Salad: the mandatory afterthought.

In the early 2000s, I started working in restaurants. At my first job, at Absinthe, a brasserie in the heart of San Francisco, a Caesar salad was ordered by most tables. This was salad presented as an event. Whole romaine-leaf canoes, bathed in an eggy vinaigrette muscular with pounded preserved anchovies. Toasted hunks of levain soaked with the emphatic dressing. Absinthe’s Caesar was a swerve from the Caesars I knew, with their grimy, prechopped romaine chunks and gloppy bottled dressing. This was salad with resolve.

Since that Caesar encounter I insist on salads as happenings. I want to send my fork—or fingers—spelunking for a nub of Parmesan, a shard of toasted walnut, a frill of radicchio, a tickle of pickled radish. One of my favorite places for a salad gamble is Estela in New York City. There are many excellent salads rotating through its smart menu. The finest of all is the celery salad.

The version I ate at the restaurant a few years ago, and a number of times since, featured softened golden raisins, cracked pieces of pistachio and long strips of Bayley Hazen blue cheese, laid on top like a thatch of leaves brought to earth after an autumnal breeze. I tried to replicate the salad at home. I plumped the raisins in Champagne vinegar. I dressed the celery half-moons with lemon juice, a hit of the raisin-soaking vinegar and a deluge of olive oil. I toasted the pistachios, then smacked them with the flat side of a chef’s knife. I tossed the blue cheese in the freezer for a few hours before shaving it with a Y-peeler. The result was near. The sweet and tang and crunch and richness was there. A quiet pluck was missing.

Chef Ignacio Mattos’s recent cookbook, Estela, documents a version of a similar celery salad. This one with mint and the potential solution to my anemic facsimile: the liquid from pickled Thai chiles.

I called Mattos to help me connect the celery salad from the book with the one I adored at the restaurant. I asked him if the pickling liquid, the fruit of a quickfire mix of white vinegar, sugar, and tiny, fiery bird’s-eye chiles, was key. He confirmed. “The Thai chile vinegar is an interesting and much more efficient way to distribute heat,” he says. “When you add red chile flakes or fresh chile, it’s overwhelming for people. Myself included.”

His chile technique was an about-face. The way in which it was employed was also a shock: spoonfuls of the pickled chile liquid are added to the base of the plate on which the salad is served. This approach melted my brain. I thought dressings were only ever added to the salad itself. No, in Mattos’s world, you add lemon juice and the raisin-soaking liquid to the celery and mint, tossing well. Both the pickled chile liquid and the olive oil are strewn across a bare plate, then the raisins and pistachios are scattered over, and the celery is set on them. This is not tossing. This is assembling, fashioning, architecting. The pickling liquid and olive oil comprise a kind of footbath for the salad’s core ingredients. Then the lot is blanketed in shaved cheese.

There is agency in this hunt. The spark and crunch are there, as I push my fork through and around. A bite of plump raisin and a melting of dank Bayley Hazen. A chew of celery and mint. A crackle of pistachios. I am also dressing the salad as I eat, its own uncommon pleasure. Each bite tilts in a new direction. This is salad standing center stage.

A Kitchen in New Orleans. Many years of eating, cooking, and writing about food have left Scott Hocker with many stories to tell. In this occasional column, he re-creates a dish tied to a distant, or sometimes recent, food memory.

Ingredients

  • 4 ounces (about 2 cups or 115 g) fresh Thai bird's-eye chiles
  • 2½ cups white vinegar
  • 2¼ cups water
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 ounces piece of blue cheese, such as Bayley Hazen or another semisoft blue
  • 2 tablespoons raisins, either golden or black
  • 1 tablespoon chardonnay vinegar
  • 2 cups celery (about 5 to 6 stalks)
  • ¼ cup pickled chile liquid
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed
  • Kosher salt
  • ½ cup loosely packed torn mint leaves
  • Grated zest of 2 lemons
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup pistachios, toasted then roughly chopped or smashed

Adapted from Estela by Ignacio Mattos with Gabe Ulla

For optimal cheese shavings, Ignacio Mattos insists on a Microplane chocolate shaver. A cheat, if you do not own one of these, is to put the cheese in the freezer for an hour or two. Then shave with a Y-peeler, regular vegetable peeler, or paring knife, or grate with the large holes of a box grater. None are perfect replicas. But they are close. If you forget to freeze the cheese, no problem. The pieces will be crumbly. Far from the end of the world.

 

  1. MAKE THE PICKLED CHILES: Rinse the chiles and place them in a medium heatproof container. Combine the white vinegar, water, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the chiles and let cool. Refrigerate. They’ll keep for at least three months.
  2. MAKE THE SALAD: If you think about it, put the hunk of cheese in the freezer for at least an hour before you’re going to serve the salad.
  3. Add the raisins and vinegar to a small bowl and macerate for at least 15 minutes.
  4. Rinse the celery well, including the leaves if they’re intact. Cut the stalks into ¼-inch slices to make 2 cups of sliced celery. Submerge the celery in a bowl filled with ice and water for 5 minutes. This helps the celery slices perk up and go crisp. Strain the celery and pat dry.
  5. Drizzle the pickled chile liquid and olive oil onto a large serving plate.
  6. Add the celery slices to a large bowl and toss with ½ teaspoon salt. Really get in there so the salt coats the celery and helps it open up for the dressing. Add the mint, celery leaves, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Strain the raisin-soaking vinegar into the bowl with the celery. Massage the dressing into the celery.
  7. Scatter the raisins and pistachio pieces over the pickling liquid and oil. Scatter the celery on top of the raisins and pistachio pieces. If there is dressing left in the bowl, spoon it over the celery. If any spots on the plate look dry, add a splash or two of oil.
  8. Using a Microplane shaver or other shaving or grating tool, shave the cheese over the salad. You want enough cheese to cover but not overwhelm the salad.

Scott Hocker

Scott Hocker is a writer, editor, recipe developer, cookbook author, and content and editorial consultant. He is currently the editor in chief of liquor.com and was previously the editor in chief of Tasting Table.

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