Spice: Celery Seed
Celery is one of those ubiquitous grocery products that can usually be found in the crisper drawers of most refrigerators in western kitchens but celery seed, for some reason, is far less popular or well known. For most people, the seed (actually the tiny fruit of a particular wild variety of celery rather than the thick-stemmed sort usually eaten in the west) is encountered most commonly in some Bloody Mary recipes, or else in the Old Bay Seasoning used for seafood in the North-eastern United States. This is unfortunate, however, as the spice, being not only cheap and easy to find, is very versatile and well-worth having on hand…
The ‘seeds’, as you can see, are exceptionally tiny, but they carry quite a hefty flavor punch for their size. The aroma is not particularly reminiscent of celery but just a pinch added to many different types of dishes will add a definite, sharp celery ‘bite’ that would require huge amounts of the stems and leaves of fresh celery in order to achieve the same level of flavor. You should note, however, that a little goes quite a long way and it is very easy to cross the line between ‘just-right’ and ‘way-too-much’. When overused, the spice can produce an unpleasantly bitter finish to a dish. If you want to experience that particular effect, try chewing a little pinch of the seeds and note the harsh, almost acrid taste that quickly develops after the initial burst of celery flavor.
The seed has long been used in the Ayurvedic medicine of India and you can come across all sorts of health claims at various sites on the Internet. Aside from the fact that the seeds do contain a number of compounds recognized for being antioxidants, I tend to take most claims of health benefits with a grain of salt and thus my interest in the spice is purely culinary thus far.
Basically, you can use the seed in any preparation where celery itself would be a welcome flavor addition, with soups and stews being a prime example. Not long ago, I used celery seed to make a batch of Panch Phoron, and I noted, in that post, that the seed is often used as a substitute for a rare and hard-to-find spice known as radhuni. Beyond that, you may wish to try sautéing a tiny pinch in butter or cooking oil to flavor it before frying steaks or chops, adding it to the dough mix for roti or paratha, or using it in the mix for egg-salad sandwiches. The seeds are also very commonly added to pickles, chutneys, and marinades and can apparently, though I haven’t tried it yet, make an interesting ‘tea’ if steeped in boiling water.
Finally, one of my favorite uses (though I almost hate to admit it) is as a little flavor boost to Kraft Dinner (and, yes, I can’t resist making that old-standby from time-to-time, toxic cheese-powder and all!).