This isn’t so much one recipe as a combination of two favourite recipes that just seemed destined to meet.
The first is a dish of braised celery that is one of my absolute favorite things to eat—summer or winter. I was first introduced to the idea of braised celery through the miracle-worker that is Lidia Bastianich, whose books on Italian cooking forever changed the way I looked at the regional cuisines of Italy.
Celery is too-often thought of as a secondary ingredient in American cooking. One of the interchangeable ingredients you start a soup with, or a scoop for dips, at best. This is an incendiary shame, because celery is really one of the more interesting ingredients that you can rustle up at almost any supermarket no matter where you are. Its strong, brisk flavor, with hints of lovage, is really quite remarkable when you experience it on its own, and I love this dish because it’s a lovely entrée to the idea that celery can, indeed, be the star of the show rather than just a bit player. Gently braised in a garlic-rich tomato sauce with olives, the celery becomes tender and silken and though it loses its familiar crispness its bright herbal flavor thoroughly infuses the sauce it’s cooked in.
The celery braised in tomato sauce can serve all on its own as a very satisfying supper, but sometimes when it’s cold and grey out (more often than not, in the winter), it can be nice to fortify the celery with something a little heartier. When the mood strikes, I like to add some pork meatballs to the mixture after it’s been braising for a little while. Seasoned with a sparky mixture of parsley, fennel, red chile flakes, and orange zest, the meatballs finish cooking with the celery, making an incredibly aromatic, veggie-forward Sunday supper. But don’t just save it up for the end of the week—apart from the time spent on the stove this is an incredibly quick and easy dish to make, and it reheats beautifully. So make a batch today and portion it out for a little taste of celery and meatball heaven any day of the week.
A note on peeling celery: Although not strictly necessary, I like to peel my celery. If this seems unnecessarily fussy to you, you’re not mistaken: most people like to leave their celery unmolested and use it as is. If you do have the patience for it, though, I recommend it: peeling the fibrous outside surface of the celery exposes the tender, string-free interior and will make the cooked stalks that much more tender and silken.
Pork Meatballs with Braised Celery in Tomato Sauce
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
2–3 large cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
4–5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp red chile flakes (or to taste)
Sea salt to taste
1 cup unpitted olives (use a mixture of black and green olives of different sizes, if you have them)
5 stems of celery, outer surfaces peeled with a vegetable peeler
1 lb ground pork
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp red chile flakes
1 small handful washed and dried parsley leaves
Zest of 1 orange (make sure to wash and scrub the orange before removing its zest)
Olive oil for searing
Pour the tomatoes into a nonreactive (stainless steel or enameled cast iron) 8-cup saucepan. Using your hands, gently break up the tomatoes into small chunks. Take care not to squeeze too hard or you’ll send tomato juice flying across your kitchen (and yourself).
Add the sliced garlic, olive oil, chile flakes, and salt to taste. The mixture should be fairly runny, so add upto ½ cup of water if needed.
Cut the peeled celery into 3-inch segments and add to the tomato sauce along with the olives.
Place the saucepan over medium heat, cover, and let cook, undisturbed for at least 40 minutes.
While the sauce is cooking, start the meatballs. Using a mortar and pestle, grind together the salt, fennel, chile flakes, parsley, and orange zest. I prefer to use a mortar and pestle because it reduces the mixture to a chunky paste and releases more of the aroma in the parsley. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, feel free to do this in the small jar of a blender, or grind the spices in a spice grinder and chop the parsley using a chef’s knife.
Using your hand, mix the pork with the parsley-spice mixture until the two are well blended.
Heat 2–3 tbsp of olive oil in a 10-inch stainless steel or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until the oil begins to shimmer. Form a tiny bit of the ground pork mixture into a thin patty and cook quickly on both sides till cooked through. Taste for seasoning. Adjust the spices or salt in the remaining mixture according to your taste before proceeding.
Turn off the heat in the pan while you form the remaining pork into 2-inch meatballs. You should be able to get at least 8.
Turn the heat back to medium-high under the skillet and wait for the oil to begin to shimmer again.
Gently add the meatballs to the pan, one at a time. Let them cook, undisturbed for 3–4 minutes, until well-browned, before turning them. Continue in the same manner until the meatballs are a lovely dark brown on all sides.
Turn off the heat under the skillet and remove the meatballs to a plate. Set aside until ready to add to your sauce.
After the tomato sauce has been cooking for about 40 minutes, check a piece of celery with the tip of a small paring knife. It should still be slightly firm, but not offer too much resistance.
Gently add the meatballs to the sauce, nestling them between the stalks of celery and olives.
Continue to cook, partially covered, for another 45 minutes to an hour, until the sauce is slightly reduced, the celery is cooked through, and the meatballs are tender.
Let the meatballs cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Serve with a side of crusty bread, a shaving of Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.