Chef Gabrielle Hamilton shares a delicious late-winter recipes for a celery salad.
It’s assumed that living in New York City brings you right to the altar of the finest foods the world has to offer. And in large part it does, particularly when you own a restaurant. The farmer, the butcher, the fish and cheese mongers - not to mention the dish suds guy - all file right up to my delivery door, making it effortless to have communion with the best of everything. But as a civilian, it can be surprisingly arduous to get my weekly home grocery shopping accomplished. I used to go to my local giant temple of organics in order to buybread that looks like bread, not a foot pillow; and coffee beans that taste of coffee bean, not burnt roast; and lettuces that were grown by people who don’t think of insects as pests. I then went eight long blocks in the opposite direction to the indoor vendors’ market, where there is a very good stall that sells cheese that stinks of cheese. Then, still, I would soldier another nine blocks northward to my local chain grocery store to get all the backbone-of-the-pantry stuff - the Hellmann’s and the Goya and the Häagen-Dazs.
A weekly shop like that, though, will just about do you in. And it made me feel too uppity and too particular - not to mention weary - shopping all over my neighborhood on foot like that, often with unenthusiastic children in tow, for the best of everything I wanted to eat. So a couple of years ago I decided to forgo the best bread and the best coffee and the best cheese and to put all that effort into just making do with one significantly more affordable stop at my local chain supermarket. It is not a gourmet grocery by any stretch of the imagination, and it has not undergone any renovation since the 1970s, I suspect, but this utterly delicious and addictive dinner salad - which made it quickly onto the menu at Prune and has never left - was born in the aisles of it, under the fluorescent lights on a dreary late March evening.
That early home version came straight from the supermarket produce section: shrink-wrapped celery, scallions in cellophane, and radishes in little plastic sacks. And that virgin incarnation was made with Cambozola - the creamy German blue cheese with an Italian-sounding name, also shrink-wrapped in cellophane. It has been hard sometimes, especially in the late-winter landscape of plantains and oranges, to honor one’s vow to one supermarket. But once home, with all of the ingredients dressed and assembled, with the bright and crunchy salad sparking with raw garlic, and the faint pulse of the mild blue cheese revivified by the warm buttered toast, my faith was totally renewed.
I’ve written my restaurant version here, using firm and salty celery heads, crisp and pale bulbs of fennel, peppery and tonic radishes, with their leaves still attached. And I’ve gravitated toward Valdeon, the much more assertive blue from Spain, as it can stand up to the more pronounced flavors of produce from the farm. But at home, I still sing from the hymnal of the average grocery store and make this salad with cellophane-wrapped ingredients from the produce aisle.
For the Salad
1 head of celery, tough outer stalks removed, well rinsed
2 medium heads of fennel, stalks and fronds removed
2 bunches of scallions, approximately 15 pieces, root end removed and first outer layer peeled off with your fingers
⅓ pound sugar snap peas, stem end removed and the thread at the seam peeled
2 bunches of red radishes, tops removed and well washed
For the Dressing
5 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the Toasts
4 long slices of fresh baguette
2 ounces sweet butter, at room temperature
8 ounces Valdeon cheese, crumbled or shaved
1. With a sharp knife, thinly slice the celery and the fennel and toss together.
2. Sliver the scallions and sugar snap peas on the bias and add to the fennel and celery.
3. With a sharp knife or mandoline, thinly slice the radishes and add to the salad.
4. Grate the garlic on a microplane, or mince well.
5. Mix together the garlic, oil, and lemon juice and dress the salad.
6. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss well. Let stand.
7. Toast the baguette slices and spread each with a half-ounce of the butter.
8. Divide the cheese among the four buttered toasts.
9. Toss and taste the salad again before plating; add salt if necessary. Serve with the Valdeon toasts.