flash and flounce

This might just be my favorite time of year. Of course, if you were to ask me again at the start of any of the other seasons, I would probably take it all back and insist that the season in question is actually my favorite. Nevertheless, there is no arguing how hopeful spring feels. And right now, that’s all I need. The generosity of summer and lucidity of fall can wait their turns.

There is no end to the list of springtime events that jazz me up. But my undeniable, hands-down favorite is starting seeds. This is the time of year when trays of little seedlings slowly begin to  take over our living room. The seedlings grow in numbers and size, all of them looking so perfectly green and perky, reaching for the light. Looking at them and watching them grow gives me complete hope. Plus there is the added perk of getting my hands all mucky every time I mix up a new batch of soil and start another tray. It’s a win-win activity. I sit with my morning coffee, brushing my fingers over their sturdy tops, giving them a taste of stronger spring winds to come.

All of this is a result of the continual supply of seed catalogs that the mailbox has offered up throughout the winter. I respectfully thumb through each one, but there are two in particular that I spend and inordinate amount of time with. Neither of which is fancy – no photos, the guts of both printed in black on newsprint. But here’s what I love about them. They are works of art, chock-full of amusing drawings and original art. Both offer subtle political commentary and historical accounts on seeds and gardening. I could read them like novels. And I do. So who are these two mystery seed companies you ask? Fedco Seeds, based in Waterville, Maine and R.H. Shumway’s in Randolph, WI. (I should note that both of their websites pale in comparison to their catalogs. If you’re a fan of garden seeds, do yourself a favor and get on their mailing lists for an actual catalog.)
I sort of went wild ordering flower seeds this year. When it comes to flowers, I generally favor subtle, understated blooms. Dainty plants like Lady’s Mantle, Lavender, Green Gold Bluplurium and Sacred Basil. I’m not sure why, but I more or less wrote off big showy blossoms years ago. So this year as I was going through the catalogs, I was surprised to find myself involuntarily marking some untypical selections. I went all out and ordered things like Dinner Plate Dahlias, State Fair Zinnias, Caribbean Cocktail Nasturtiums, and giant Crackerjack Marigolds. Clearly a shift was happening. I was craving flash and flounce.

As far as vegetables go, I have my tried and true favorites that I grow each year. But I always bring in a few new recruits too. I’m looking forward to the debut of Cubanelle, a thick, waxy, semi-sweet frying pepper. And to a small Russian pickling cucumber (Early Cluster) introduced to the U.S. in the 1850’s. I learned from the Shumway’s catalog that Danish Ballhead is the best old-fasioned kraut cabbage. Several cabbage seedlings are already up and thriving, eager to fuel my kraut and kimchi addictions. And there is one other noteworthy arrival to our garden this year. An under appreciated crop I have never even attempted before. Celery. I chose the open-pollinated variety Ventura from Fedco, because its description reassuringly opens with “Takes the difficulty out of growing celery.” Seems like a good enough place to start.

I don’t know, celery has always seemed like one of those veggies that is just easier to buy. That being said though, I often find there is a lot that can go wrong with store bought celery. It can be just right, but it can also be too stringy, too limp, too bitter, or too sharp. I’ve been on a celery  and celeriac kick lately, so I decided to try my hand at both in the garden. If I had to credit just one celery recipe that inspired me to do so, it would be this knock-out celery salad. I’ve made it all winter and I fall a little more in love with it each time.

Now I acknowledge that celery salad sounds a little dull, but I assure you, it’s not. This is celery at its best. This is celery being flouncy and flamboyant. And it chooses the absolute perfect accessory – shaved Parrmesan. Oh, and the dressing! Don’t even get me started on the dressing! Here’s how good the dressing is. I usually end up with extra. But instead of cutting back on the quantities, I always make the full amount. Because any leftover dressing does wonderful things to whatever it is drizzled over – other veggies, a fried egg, rice, crusty bread – you get the idea.

Flamboyant Celery Salad
Adapted from Ina Garten (I’m not sure which book. I scribbled down notes for this recipe in the library, but failed to note which book I was paging through)

5 cups thinly sliced celery (use the heart and the most tender stalks)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt

the dressing:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon Penzy’s English Prime Rib Rub (or celery salt)
1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste

the accessories:
Shaved Parmesan (2 -4 ounces)
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

Put celery in large bowl, pour 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon of salt over the celery. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and add enough dressing to moisten the celery. Let the salad chill for at least an hour to allow the celery to crisp up and absorb the flavors. Transfer to a platter and top with shaved Parmesan (a vegetable peeler works great for this) and toasted pine nuts. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4-6

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