As the winter holidays approach, big vegetables (and big meats) tend to take center stage. While the weighty winter squashes and bright sweet potatoes garner raves, the true culinary star, celery root, waits quietly in the wings for those sensitive to her considerable talents.
Also known as céleri rave and celeriac, this is a root vegetable that won’t win any beauty contests. The beige-colored, lopsided sphere is embossed and channeled, convoluted, creviced, and crowned with disorderly rootlets that tenaciously hold the soil from which they were recently unearthed.
But if you give celery root a chance, you will be won over by the beauty within. Just one sniff of the recently-dug root will fill your head with an intoxicating parsley- and celery-scented aroma. The taste combines that herbaceous pungency with the crisp texture of the root. Together the combination is irresistible.
Despite its gnarled and gnarly appearance, celery root is well-loved by those who know it, and it has an honored place and starring role in the French specialty, céleri rémoulade (celery-root remoulade). If you have ever been to a French bistro, chances are you began with a crunchy salad of julienned or shredded celeriac dressed with a sharp mustard mayonnaise.
A deep and complex flavor
Celery root is a late bloomer. Unlike a radish’s meteoric rise from seed to plate in 30 days, celery root seeds are planted in the hoop house in March, transplanted outdoors in May and then grow slowly but steadily for six whole months before being harvested in late fall or early winter. All that time in the soil gives them a wonderfully deep and complex flavor, equal parts earthy and herbal.
Celery root is not only good, it’s good for you — rich in phosphorous and potassium, and a mere 40 calories per cup. History tells us that Madame du Barry served celery root soup to King Louis XV every night before they went to bed. She considered the soup an aphrodisiac, but most herbalists herald celery root for its anti-inflammatory properties and recommend it for people with arthritis or rheumatism.
But its true value is not in the bedroom, but in the kitchen. There it shines in soups and stews, with other roasted root vegetables, added to mashed potatoes or raw in salads. Raw, it is usually grated, shredded, or julienned and then dressed with mayonnaise, vinaigrette or a cream dressing. For a slightly less raw taste, you can first toss the slivered root with one teaspoon salt and one tablespoon lemon juice and let it marinate an hour. Then rinse, drain, and dry thoroughly before dressing.
Versatile for warm winter dishes
I like to start any winter soup, with sautéed celery root. Finely diced, it makes a perfect substitute for the celery in the traditional mirepoix of carrot, celery, and onion. When you sauté celery root, carrot and onion in butter, it becomes the perfect flavor base for any soup, stew or sauce.
When celery root is braised alongside meat, it creates a tasty two-way street, lending a complex flavor to the meat juices, and a meaty richness to the vegetable. For the same reasons, celery root makes a great poultry stuffing for your Thanksgiving bird.
A few years ago, we had a very wet summer, which led to softball-sized celery root at my brother Henry’s farm. The great quantity of excellent celery root led me to cut it into French-fry sized sticks and make oven fries.
Roasted Celery Root or Celery Root Oven Fries
- Preheat oven to 425 F. Trim and peel celery root and cut into 1-inch pieces for roasted celery root, or into 2-3 inch sticks for fries.
- In a large roasting pan or heavy cookie sheet, toss celery root with oil and salt and roast in middle of oven 30 minutes.Stir celery root and reduce temperature to 375 F. Continue roasting celery root, checking for doneness after 30 minutes.
Celery Root and Potato Puree
- Place the potatoes and celery root in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Add the salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.
- Drain and return to the pot. Add the cream and bring to a low boil over medium heat. Simmer gently 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Add the butter, stir, and remove from the heat.
- Press the mixture through a potato ricer or pulse in the bowl of a food processor until almost smooth, retaining some bits of celery root and potato.Add the lemon juice, taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Serve hot.
Simple Celery Root in Mustard Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
This is a lighter version of the classic, creamy céleri rémoulade.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the lemon juice, mustard, crème fraiche, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
- Quarter the celery root and peel it. Grate coarsely. Immediately add the celery root to the mustard sauce and toss to coat. Season to taste.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.