One to Root for: Celeriac

Published Fall, 2008
Edible Portland

At farmers’ markets everywhere this fall, vegetables of all shapes and sizes are coming together, like students meeting up for another academic year. New are introduced to old, and the popular brush elbows with the wallflowers. Rich purple eggplants, deep red tomatoes, and emerald green peppers—summer’s jocks and pretty girls—flaunt their fresh flavors and jewel tones, while autumn’s bullies and math geeks, a collection of hardier, less glamorous vegetables, compete for our attention with their forthright flavors and unapologetically frumpy appearance.

I'm talking about root vegetables, of course: turnips, rutabaga, parsnips and celeriac--the awkward kids who didn't blossom over the summer. Plagued by gnarled skin, riddled with knobs and warts, these vegetable brethren don't run with the popular crowd and are among those foodstuffs we find most difficult to embrace. They may require extra effort to tease out their individual charms (not to mention added growing days and cooking time), but once wooed, celeriac and its kin are downright endearing, not to mention delicious.

A member of the parsley family, celery is native to the Mediterranean region and Middle East. According to the Cambridge World History of Food, wild celery was one of the first vegetables to appear in recorded history; the writings of Confucius document its use in China before 500 B.C. Celeriac (the early Greeks called it selinon) is also mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, circa 800 B.C., but it didn’t become an important vegetable until the Middle Ages. First recorded as a food plant in France, in 1623, it was commonly cultivated throughout Europe by the end of the century.

Often called celery root, celeriac should not be confused with Apium graveolens, var. dulce, the so-called “true” celery, whose fleshy green ribs and blanched hearts are enjoyed both cooked and raw, in everything from soup stocks to ants on a log. (It also produces the culinary seasoning celery seed.) “True” celery is among the top-ten-selling vegetables in the U.S., outperforming its cousin by 20 to 1.

I’d say that puts Apium graveolens, var. rapaceum, or celeriac, squarely in the “frog prince” category. Cultivated for its starch-storing root rather than the inedible bright green ribs that sprout from its crown, the exterior of the root is lined with dirt-filled crevices and dotted with dangling, hairy rootlets. Do not be dissuaded. Inside is a princely flesh, dense and creamy white, with loads of character and a bracing clean flavor that’s a cross between parsley and celery, only deeper, softer, and slightly sweet. Celeriac has a long pedigree in French salads (most notably céleri rémoulade, with its mustardy mayonnaise dressing) and in northern European countries and Russia, where it finds its way into soups, stuffings, and purées.

Readily available from late summer through the following spring, celeriac is particularly stellar between the colder months of November and April. The bulbous roots range in size from grapefruit to small cantaloupe, usually weighing about one pound, 25% of which is trimmed away. Choose one that is firm, with good heft—large but light means a spongy center. One pound should yield 2 to 4 modest servings, or about 2 cups chopped, plenty to add ample flavor to a soup, gratin or purée. Kept in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, it will last several weeks.

Celeriac yields stubbornly to the caress of a vegetable peeler. Instead, scrub it well and “peel” it with a sharp paring knife by taking a slice off the polar ends so that it stands on its own. Next, moving from top to bottom with broad strokes, cut down the side using a slight zig-zagging motion and angling the knife sharply at the top and bottom. Continue around the entire bulb until it’s peeled; then hold it in your palm to cut away any remaining blemishes. Keep the parings for stock.

Though it is somewhat expensive, celeriac’s affinity for grains, potatoes, and other root vegetables allows for stretching it in all manner of ways. Cut up a bulb and boil it with a potato or two. Mash with butter and cream and a drizzle of truffle oil for a decadent purée. Thinly julienne a few apples, a bulb of fennel, and some celery root. Toss them with watercress and walnut oil for an elegant salad. Slice, layer, and bake the root in a gratin, with mushrooms, parsley and thyme. Vary with potatoes for volume, and Gruyère cheese or cream for irresistibility. Joined with any one of these ingredients that highlight its nutty notes and subtle hints of lemon and licorice, celeriac joins its clique.

Finally the inelegant veggie once clumsily trying to find its way can confidently walk the halls.

Recipe for Potato-Leek Soup with Celeriac