Versatile Celery Casserole

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Celery is a delicious, nutritious, and surprisingly versatile vegetable. Its juicy, crunchy texture makes it a popular choice for raw vegetable plates and salads, and its uniquely salty taste adds flavor to many recipes. But celery is more than a crunchy snack or add-in; it stands on its own as the star ingredient in many scrumptious dishes.

Start by purchasing the best celery available. For optimum flavor and texture, look for medium-sized stalks that are firm, crispy, and light green in color. The larger, darker green stalks tend to be tougher and stringier.

Avoid celery bunches that have limp or wilted stalks - a sure sign that the celery is past its peak of freshness - and stay away from bunches that have bruised stalks.

Celery should be promptly refrigerated. It will keep for about a week.

To prepare celery for cooking, rinse well under cold running water to remove any residual sand or dirt that may have been trapped between the stalks. Trim off the tough bottom where the stalk was attached to the bunch, and cut off the leaves but don't throw them away! The leaves are high in both nutrients and flavor and can be added to soups, stews, and casseroles.

When celery is cooked the flesh softens, but the "strings" that are prominent on the outside of the stalk remain intact. If you don't want the strings to be part of your finished dish, simple strip them away from the stalk before cooking.

Celery tends to lose color when cooked. This is the result of a completely natural chemical reaction that occurs when the chlorophyll and acids in the plant interact in the presence of heat and it has no effect on flavor. However if you want keep the color bright and vibrant, cooking celery quickly in plenty of water will help.

Versatile Celery Casserole

- 4 cups (about 10 - 12 large ribs) of celery cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 can cream of chicken soup
- 1 stick of butter or margarine
- 1 can of water chestnuts or 1/2 cup of slivered blanched almonds
- 1/4 cup diced pimento (optional)
- 3 slices of bread, OR 1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs

Boil the celery in salted water till barely tender (about 5 - 8 minutes). Drain and put in casserole dish. Add half the butter or margarine while the celery is still hot and allow it to melt, stirring occasionally. Add the soup, water chestnuts or almonds, pimentos if desired, and salt and pepper to taste.

In a separate pan, melt the remaining butter and add the crumbled bread or dried breadcrumbs. Saute briefly, tossing to coat completely.

Sprinkle the coated crumbs over the top of the celery mixture in the casserole dish and bake uncovered in a moderate over (350 degrees) for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the mixture is hot and bubbly and the crumbs are golden brown.

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