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Key Ingredient: NoMi Kitchen's chef is challenged to work with a "humble vegetable"

Ryan LaRoche, forced to cook with celery by modernist chef Matthew Kirkley of L20, gets back to basics.

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The Chef: Ryan LaRoche (NoMi Kitchen)
The Challenger: Matthew Kirkley (L2O)
The Ingredient: Celery

"What can't you do with celery?" Ryan LaRoche asked. "It's the most universal ingredient on the planet. One of them, at least."

It's also one of the oldest and most versatile ingredients on the planet: it's been used for medicinal purposes since at least the ninth century BC, and celery leaves were part of the garlands found in King Tut's tomb. Europeans began growing it in the 16th century, and through selective cultivation over the next few hundred years eliminated much of the bitterness and other strong flavors that made celery unsuitable for eating straight (it had previously been used mostly for flavoring dishes). There are currently two types of celery: a yellow variety that's more popular in Europe, and the green kind—known as Pascal celery—that's common in North America.

LaRoche said he was initially excited to get what seemed like an easy ingredient, but after looking at previous challenges, he was a little disappointed that he hadn't been assigned something more unusual. "I would love to have been challenged to think of a new way to use a new ingredient that I'd never seen in my life," he said.

Celery presented its own challenges, though. For one thing, it isn't one of LaRoche's favorite ingredients: not only does he have an aversion to raw celery, but when he was a recent culinary school graduate working at the Four Seasons he ruined a pumpkin soup by adding celery. "It has such a dominant flavor if you use too much of it that it can really skew a dish in a direction that you don't want it to go," he said.

And with so many possibilities for what to make, it was hard for LaRoche to narrow it down. He considered doing something with celery and hot wings, or a new version of the Bloody Mary, but eventually decided on a more classic dish: guinea hen with celery root puree, braised celery, and pan jus. "I didn't make it the most forward piece on the dish because I think celery has a very boring taste to it," he said. "It needs the addition of other elements."

LaRoche cooked the guinea hen breast and thigh sous vide, then finished the thigh on the stove top to cook it through and crisp up the skin. The celery he poached in chicken bouillon with thyme and bay leaf for a couple hours until it was tender; the celery root he cooked with milk, shallots, and garlic before pureeing.

Apple goes well with celery, LaRoche said, so his pan jus included finely diced Granny Smith apple and Calvados in addition to shallots, garlic, and guinea hen stock; he finished it with cold butter and a little parsley and thyme.

After arranging the elements elegantly on a plate, LaRoche tried the dish. "The guinea hen is not superpowerful, so it all kind of works together," he said. "Celery really needs fat, and it gets a good amount from the skin of the bird."

Even though he thought the dish was successful, LaRoche said he plans to use celery in the future the same way he does now—infrequently. Still, he said it did make him think more about using celery in main courses. "It's always good, learning about a food you take for granted every day. It's such an unassuming, humble vegetable."

Who's next:

Lee Wolen of the Lobby at the Peninsula, working with durian, the famously smelly fruit from southeast Asia. "I personally like it," LaRoche said. "The aroma isn't fantastic, but raw, it's got kind of a unique flavor." And the smell? He compared it to rotten onions, gym socks, and a hockey locker room: "It's pungent."

Celery Two Ways with Guinea Hen and Calvados Pan Jus

Braised Celery

1 head of celery
2 quarts chicken bouillon
Thyme
Bay leaf
Break off stalks of celery and clean. Place all ingredients in a pot and heat to just under a simmer. After 45 minutes, check the celery for doneness just like you would for braised meat. Once it’s done, remove from heat and allow to cool in its own liquid.

Celery Root Puree

1 celery root
3 shallots, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 quart whole milk
Salt and pepper
Peel and thinly slice the celery root and place into a pot with the shallots, garlic and foaming butter. Sweat the ingredients until everything is dry, then add the milk.
Slowly cook the ingredients in the milk until everything is soft. Puree till smooth and season to taste.

Guinea Hen

1 guinea hen breast
1 guinea hen thigh
Thyme
Garlic
Poach the breast in a water bath at 62⁰C for one hour. For the thigh, place in a pan with some clarified butter, thyme and garlic and roast till crispy.

Calvados Apple Pan Jus

¼ cup Calvados
1 T apple brunoise (chopped into small cubes)
1 T shallot brunoise
½ cup guinea hen stock
Butter
Parsley
Thyme
In a warm pan place a knob of butter. Add the shallots and apple and allow them to sweat out briefly. Deglaze with the Calvados and reduce to au sec (i.e., nearly dry). Add the stock and reduce till you see the pan filled with tiny bubbles. Remove from the heat and finish with cold butter and parsley.

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