Polpette di sedano (Tuscan Celery Balls)

Frankantipasti, Toscana34 Comments

Polpette di sedano (Celery Balls)

One of my favorite pastimes in the kitchen is finding ways to make underappreciated and undervalued ingredients shine. I love an underdog.

Take celery for example. It shows up in any number of recipes, but almost always in a minor supporting role, either as part of the classic soffritto that provides the flavor base for so many Italian dishes or as an aromatic to be thrown into the stock pot along with the onions and carrots. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride…

Well, actually not quite never. There are a handful of recipes that give the oft-neglected vegetable its culinary due. This one, polpette di sedano or Celery Balls, is a specialty of Tuscany. Celery stalks (and ideally a handful of leaves too) are boiled until tender, finely minced, then bound together with egg, grated cheese and breadcrumbs before being rolled into little balls and fried to a golden brown.

Polpette di sedano are perfectly delicious as an antipasto or a vegetarian main course, with or without an accompanying sauce. They’re also quite nice served plain, perhaps as finger food to enjoy with a cocktail.

Ingredients

Makes about 20 celery balls

  • 500-600g (1lb) celery, cut into lengths, roughly one bunch, plus some of the leaves if you like
  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) grated Parmesan, or a mixture of Parmesan and pecorino
  • 100 g (3-1/2 oz) breadcrumbs, or as much as you need to make a solid dough
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt and pepper

For frying the celery balls:

  • More breadcrumbs, q.b.
  • Oil for frying

Optional:

Directions

Trim the celery stalks (see Notes) and cut them into short pieces. Boil the pieces in well salted water until perfectly tender, about 10-15 minutes. If using the leaves of the celery, add them about halfway through the cooking.

Drain the celery well and let it cool in a colander. When cool, squeeze as much of their liquid out of them as you can out and mince well.

Add the minced celery to a large mixing bowl and add the eggs, grated cheese, salt and a good grind of pepper. Mix everything well, then mix in the breadcrumbs, as much as you need to bind everything together into a kind of ‘dough’. Let this rest for about 15-20 minutes.

Form the celery mixture into balls about the size of walnuts. A small ice cream scoop makes short work of this task.

When you’re done, roll the celery balls in more breadcrumbs so they are well coated. The quickest and easiest way to do this, I find, is to place a few balls in a flat-bottomed mixing bowl with the breadcrumbs already in and, holding the rim of the bowl, toss them gently until they are all well-coated all over, like so:

Shallow fry the celery balls into moderate hot oil until they are golden brown all over, making sure they’re well spaced. Proceed in batches if need be.

As you go, set the fried celery balls on paper towels or a baking rack to drain of their excess oil.

Polpette di sedano (Tuscan Celery Balls)

Serve your polpette di sedano while they’re still warm, if you like on a bed of tomato sauce, or at room temperature if you’re enjoying them as finger food.

Notes on Polpette di sedano

Be aware that I’ve written the instructions above for the kind of celery that is generally grown and sold here in the US. If you are buying your celery elsewhere, or are using ‘heritage’ celery bought in a farmer’s market, you will need to make some adjustments.

In the old days, celery was quite stringy, so old time recipes called for removing the strings before making this dish. This quality has been bred out of most modern celery, but it’s worth checking. If you find you your celery has some strings, you can pull the strings off easily using a paring knife or peel the outsides of the stalks with a vegetable peeler.

Equally, these days most celery, here in the US anyway, is sold without most or even any of its leaves. If your bunch has some leaves still on, you should trim them off, but add some back into the pot as indicated if you like. And I do recommend it. The leaves add excellent flavor. (A good thing, since something else that’s been bred out of modern celery is most of its flavor.) You should trim off the whitish root end off the stalk as well, as it tends to be tough.

The celery should be perfectly tender after its pre-boiling. Old time recipes calls for boiling the celery for a good 30 minutes, sometimes more. Modern celery tends to be quite tender, so 15 minutes or less is usually enough.

Variations

The most traditional recipe for polpette di sedano calls for a meat sauce in which you simmer the celery balls before serving. It’s obviously non-vegetarian and more substantial than the version presented in this post. I’ve read the dish is traditionally served on September 8, for the festa della Madonna della Fiera, the feast of the Virgin Mary’s birth.

For the sauce to go with my Celery Balls, I made a rather straightforward sugo di pomodoro starting with two cloves of garlic which I gently sautéed in olive oil, along with my secret ingredient—some extra celery leaves—until there were fragrant, then added tomato passata to simmer for some 15 minutes or so. Tuscany-based blogger Judy Witts makes a sauce scented with garlic and rosemary. But any simple tomato sauce would go well with these celery balls, in my humble opinion. As they do in the more traditional recipes, you can simmer the balls in the sauce before serving, much as you would the Abruzzese speciality, pallotte cacio e uova, with a sprinkling of grated cheese on top if you like.

The variations for making polpette di sedano, some rather subtle, go on and on. You can form the celery balls into logs or small patties rather than spheres. In some recipes, you flour the balls before rolling them in egg and then breadcrumbs. (Too much work for little gain, if you ask me.) Some add a bit of nutmeg to the celery mixture. (Sounds nice.) Killjoys can bake the celery balls rather than fry them, in a hot (200C/400F) oven for about 20 minutes or until golden brown.

Polpette di sedano

Tuscan Celery Balls
Total Time1 hr
Course: Antipasto, Main Course
Cuisine: Italian, Tuscan
Keyword: fried, vegetable, vegetarian

Ingredients

  • 500-600g 1 lb celer cut into lengths, plus some of the leaves if you like 
  • 100g 3-1/2 oz grated Parmesan cheese or a mixture of Parmesan and pecorino
  • 2 eggs
  • 100g 3-1/2 oz breadcrumbs or as much as you need to make a solid dough
  • Salt and pepper

For frying

  • More breadcrumbs
  • Oil for frying

Optional

  • A simple tomato sauce

Instructions

  • Trim the celery stalks (see Notes) and cut them into short pieces. Boil the pieces in well salted water until perfectly tender, about 10-15 minutes. If using the leaves of the celery, add them about halfway through the cooking.
  • Drain the celery well and let it cool in a colander. When cool, squeeze as much of their liquid out of them as you can out and mince well.
  • Add the minced celery to a large mixing bowl and add the eggs, grated cheese, salt and a good grind of pepper. Mix everything well, then mix in the breadcrumbs, as much as you need to bind everything together into a kind of 'dough'. Let this rest for about 15-20 minutes.
  • Form the celery mixture into balls about the size of walnuts. A small ice cream scoop makes short work of this task. When you're done, roll the celery balls in more breadcrumbs so they are well coated.
  • Shallow fry the celery balls into moderate hot oil until they are golden brown all over, making sure they're well spaced. Proceed in batches if need be. As you go, set the fried celery balls on paper towels or a baking rack to drain of their excess oil.
  • Serve your polpette di sedano while they're still warm, if you like on a bed of tomato sauce, or at room temperature if you're enjoying them as finger food.

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34 Comments on “Polpette di sedano (Tuscan Celery Balls)”

    1. Ah shucks, you’re too nice, Gerlinde. This one really is a winner, though, if you like celery, you’re sure to like these polpette.

  1. What an interesting way to use celery! We love celery, it’s just such an easy snack, with or without a dip. The crunch is so satisfying. We just loved your zucchini fritters so I’m certain we would love these. Looks like a great way to use celery that is not at its best too (which we always seem to have). Do you think oven frying might work with them?

  2. You know, Laura and I were actually just having this conversation about celery the other night. We made a batch of potato salad and we were commenting how necessary celery is for the crunch. As necessary as it is, celery is still a bridesmaid. I was intrigued by this recipe when I saw it on Instagram the other night. It sounds delicious, Frank!

  3. I must try to make these. My husband loves snacking on celery so we always have a bunch in the fridge. I like buying it at the farmers’ market where they keep the leaves. And thank you for the tip on using the ice cream scoop to shape the polpette: nice idea!

    1. Thanks, Simona! Those scoops really come in handy. Never could get meatballs to come out even just using my hands, so they were a godsend for me.

    1. The variety really is endless, isn’t it? That’s why I can keep on presenting new recipes even after 10+ years of blogging! Best to both.

  4. Very interesting recipe. I’m sure these are very good. Celery, and especially celeriac, are maybe the only two foods I don’t love. I can eat celery with peanut butter, but that’s about it. So I guess I appreciate its minor role in cooking. But like I said, I’m sure these are really good.

    1. Gee, well this might not be the dish for you, lol! But I have to say, I do like celery with peanut butter, too. Great snack!

  5. Do agree that celery often plays but minor roles in many dishes. Love the idea of this as an amuse-bouche, primo piatti or even side . . .do not generally deep-fry for health reasons . . . shall try the ingredients shallow-fried or baked or even, God forbid, steamed in some way 🙂 !

  6. These sound and look phenomenal! I’m into anything that’s deep friend and I’m actually growing celery at the moment! I agree, the stuff from the store is so anemic looking and has almost no flavor. What’s the deal with removing the leaves, too?! 🙁

  7. Hi Frank! Yum, yum! Love this idea for either an appy or light, summery main! I made Sicilian cauliflower balls last summer and they were awesome…thinking your sedano ones will be too! We are lucky to get locally grown celery here in the late summer…and trust me, those leaves are precious! I usually chop and freeze them…so handy to have. The last time we enjoyed lunch at da Delfina in Artimino, Tuscany…not far from Prato, my main was stuffed stalks of sedano…delicious. There’s a recipe in Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie Cooks Italy for stuffed, braised celery cooked in a tomato sauce…I just love it when the seasonal veggies start happening don’t you!

    1. Cauliflower balls do sound nice. Never tried that… Those stuffed stalks are quite famous, too. I’m dying to try them.

  8. Wow, lived in Tuscany for donkeys’ years and never heard of this! What a fabulous little recipe!

  9. Good. I have never heard of this – Italian food never stops to amaze me, . thanks for highlighting this little gem. will try- s
    ps: where did u come across this pls?

    1. I first heard of it from Judy, then as usual did my research to explore the history and variations to come up with my little take.

  10. No Killjoy here — I’m frying these beauties! What an outstanding recipe. I’ve never heard of this dish, but do I ever have to make its acquaintance Like the version that’s braised in a meat sauce, too — nifty idea. Fun dish — thanks..

  11. Ciao, Frank, I enjoy your newsletter very much. (and my mother’s name is Angiolina!)
    These celery balls sound tasty and I will try this recipe. A couple of years ago I was in Montefalco and it was the season of Sedano Nero. On the menu in L’Alchemista was Celery Parmigiana. I had to try it and it was delicious. You are correct, celery gets treated as a second class citizen! Thanks for all your wonderful recipes.

  12. Dear Frank, sorry it took me a while to find your lovely blog – you left a comment a while ago but the link did not lead me here, you comment on Jeff’s blog did though.What a great blog this is, full of fabulous pics and recipes, I will make sure to drop by often. Your recipe for fried celery balls sounds totally ingtriguing to me, I have fried many a food before but never celery. I like the idea of using the stalks as well as the leaves together with Parmesan, eggs and breadcrumbs to make these tasty little morsels! They look fabulous!
    Happy weekend!

    1. Lovely to hear from you and thanks so much for stopping by. No need for apologies! And thanks for the kind words, I think you’d like these little beauties.

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