Celery Victor landed on my radar that first year out of college while I was working at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. This grand old lodge employed only the finest of chefs, who produced world-class cuisine. During my employment, Chef Roget was running the show. Everything — from his soups to his pastries — were exquisite, in the classic European sense of the word.
So it made perfect sense that one of his most popular salads — one that I never tired of eating — was created by another master chef, Victor Hirtzler. Hirtzler was born in Strasbourg in northeastern France, cooked there and in Paris, served as taster for Czar Nicholas II and as chef de cuisine to King Don Carlos of Portugal. Once in the United States, he worked at the Waldorf Astoria in New York before accepting an invitation to oversee the kitchen of a new, luxurious hotel under construction in San Francisco, the Hotel St. Francis.
His reign at this fine Union Square historical landmark ran from its opening in 1904 until 1926.
As you can see, the name, Celery Victor, comes with a fine pedigree.
It’s a simple dish, really. Nothing more than tender hearts of celery gently simmered in a flavorful broth until the stalks are infused with a rich beefy goodness, then chilled and dressed with a lively vinaigrette and garnished with egg and tomato.
In the ensuing years, an anchovy has landed on the dish as well, but food historians have discovered that not to be part of the original creation. Thank goodness.
After leaving Yosemite, I found a job in a San Francisco test kitchen, where my obsession with Celery Victor led to my first professional faux pas. One of our accounts was a local restaurant chain. The current project included developing interesting side dishes for its menu. The evening before an important morning meeting among my boss, me and the client found me pacing my apartment kitchen, brainstorming at least one additional offering to bring to the table the next day.
We’d worked for weeks producing quite a lineup for the restaurant owners to consider.
But being young, enthusiastic and naive, I wanted to bring one more unique dish to the table. Naturally, Celery Victor came to mind. My ultimate spinoff included the restaurant’s house dressing and a few twists and turns of my own in the garnish department.
I held back until our presentation was almost complete. My boss had no idea she was about to be blindsided until I walked over to the refrigerator, pulled out the results from my previous evening’s labor and set it on the table in front of the client. Her deer-in-the-headlights expression said volumes about just how inappropriate my actions were. These days, I’d be drummed out for my lack of team playing. Back then, I got by with a stern glare, followed with a post-meeting lecture that concluded with an, “Are we clear on the fact that you won’t ever do something like that again?”
Days later, I worked up the nerve to ask: “So, how’d you like it?”
My boss rewarded me with a rare smile. “Oh, it was delicious, Jan. Nothing like chef Hirtzler’s, of course. And like I said … ”
What follows is Hirtzler’s original recipe, plus a basic approach to braised celery that includes a marinated version that incorporates a bit more zest into the celery stalks. I’m also providing some additional ways to enjoy braised celery, which are many.
— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Makes 4 servings.
A classic preparation for braised celery created in 1904 by Chef Victor Hurtzler for the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. At the end of the recipe, you’ll find some additional ways to enjoy braised celery (before the vinaigrette is incorporated into the finished dish).
1 sm carrot, cut in thin coins
1 sm onion, coarsely chopped
2 tender (innermost) celery hearts, bases trimmed (see note below)
2 C beef or chicken broth (I actually use 1 C each), adding additional to cover the celery hearts
1 bay leaf
6 to 8 peppercorns
For The Vinaigrette and Garnish:
1/3 C olive oil
3 TBS tarragon white wine vinegar
1 TBS minced fresh or 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
¼ C minced fresh parsley
Salt to taste
Pinch of white pepper
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and cut in thin slices
Slices of fresh, garden-ripened tomatoes (omit if not local and flavorful)
Scatter the carrot and onion in a shallow pan just large enough to hold the celery in one layer. Arrange the 4 celery heart halves on top, cut sides down, and pour on the broth. Add additional broth if the celery is not covered in liquid. Add the bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer just until the celery is barely tender when poked with a sharp knife or slender tines of a fork. This will only take about 10 to 15 minutes. Don’t forget, it will continue cooking once removed from the heat. Let the celery cool in the broth.
You can prepare the dish to this point up to 24 hours ahead.
Prepare the dressing by whisking together the olive oil, tarragon vinegar, fresh or dried tarragon, and the parsley. Whisk in salt and white pepper to taste.
About an hour before serving, remove the celery from the broth and pat it dry with paper towels. Marinate the celery halves in the vinaigrette for about 30 or 40 minutes. To serve, drain the celery hearts from the vinaigrette, reserving the vinaigrette, and arrange attractively on individual plates. Arrange a portion of the egg and tomato on top of each serving, then drizzle with the reserved vinaigrette and serve.
NOTE ON CELERY HEARTS: One package of celery hearts typically contains two. Remove the outer layer of stalks, leaving several layers of the more tender stalks. Trim the bases to remove some of the darkened and rough exterior, then halve each stalk lengthwise.
Beyond Celery Victor
Braised celery all unto itself is a wonderful starting point for many side dishes. Over the years, I’ve found that Chef Marion Morash’s finishing touches, as written in her wonderful cookbook, “The Victory Garden Cookbook,” are quite tasty. Here’s a sampler:
• With Parmesan: Drizzle 4 tablespoons melted butter over cut sides of braised celery, then sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Run under the broiler until cheese is lightly browned and bubbly.
• With brown butter: Melt ½ cup butter in a saucepan and cook until butter is a nutty brown; pour over celery.
• With lemon sauce: Beat 4 eggs in a saucepan; beat in 4 tablespoons lemon juice and gradually beat in 1 cup reserved cooking juices or broth (I usually opt for broth). Stir over moderate heat until sauce is slightly thickened; do not let boil. Season to taste and pour over celery halves.
• A la Greque: Prepare a braising marinade by combining 2½ cups chicken stock, 1 cup dry white wine, ½ cup olive oil, ¼ cup lemon juice, 6 parsley sprigs, 1 clove finely minced garlic, ¼ teaspoon thyme, 8 peppercorns, ½ teaspoon salt, and 1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped. Braise the celery in this marinade as directed above.
• Stuffed stalks: Cut wide stalks into 4-inch lengths and braise just until becoming slightly tender. Remove, let cool, then stuff with fillings of sauteed finely chopped celery, mushrooms, onion and seasoned bread crumbs; or crab meat sauteed in butter and sprinkled with grated Swiss cheese. Dot with butter and bake, covered, in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes, then uncover and run under broiler to brown.
Braised Hearts of Celery Vinaigrette
Makes 6 servings
Here’s another spin on Chef Hurtzler’s Celery Victor. This one incorporates the zesty vinaigrette into the initial braising.
3 celery hearts, trimmed of large outer stalks, cut in half lengthwise, ends trimmed
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
½ med onion, sliced
Salt to taste
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 C chicken broth or vegetable stock
2 TBS lemon juice, plus 1 large lemon, sliced
¼ C dry white wine
Freshly ground pepper
1 TBS finely chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and drop in celery. Boil until partially tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, pat dry and lay side by side, cut side up, in a baking dish.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring until the onion softens, about 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Stir together for a minute, until fragrant, and add the chicken broth or vegetable stock, lemon juice and the wine. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and pour over the celery. Season the celery with salt and pepper and lay the lemon slices on top. Cover tightly and place in the oven. Braise for 20 to 30 minutes, until the celery is thoroughly tender but still holds its shape (do not over cook; it gets mushy). Remove from the oven and allow the celery to cool in the liquid. May be prepared to this point up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated.
Using tongs, remove the celery from the dish and cut the halved bunches lengthwise in half again. Transfer to a platter or a wide serving dish. Meanwhile, pour the liquid into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce by about half. Adjust seasonings to taste, then pour the liquid over the celery. Drizzle on the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, grind on some pepper, sprinkle on the parsley and serve, or chill and serve cold or at room temperature. Spoon liquid from the platter over each portion.