Celeriac is an unusual vegetable worth discovering

December 2, 2022

Through the years, various vegetables have enjoyed their proverbial 15 minutes of fame, becoming foodies’ darlings for a period of time. Kale usurped Romaine lettuce in Caesar salad and received star billing as the featured green in a number of other dishes. Cauliflower overcame its reputation for bland flavor, evolving into a substitute for grilled steak, a replacement for rice, and an ingredient in pizza crust. One vegetable that rarely appears in recipes is celeriac, but my friend Bob LaMorte shared some novel preparations for this overlooked root.

While we are all familiar with cultivated celery – long green stalks that add crunch to fresh salads and interest to sauces for braised meats – some of its history may not be as well known. In its original, wild form it was called “smallage,” derived from its French name, “ache.” This type has thin, hollow stalks and a leafy top of greens. Grown since ancient times and mentioned in Homer’s “Odyssey,” wild celery was used primarily for its strong, bitter flavor and medicinal properties.

This plant served as the ancestor for two distinctly different vegetables seen today: stem celery and celeriac (also called celery root or knob celery). The first was popular in Europe in the 17th century and had its earliest mention in the United States in an 1806 seed catalogue. Today, celery stalks are chopped into salads, recognized as a mandatory accompaniment to Buffalo chicken wings and devoured as a snack when filled with creamy blue cheese or peanut butter.

The root end of the wild celery plant was originally quite small, with mild flavor. Several botanists writing during the 16th century extolled its delicate taste, which food historians believe may have been the impetus for cultivation efforts to increase its size. In appearance, celeriac is no beauty, with knobby protuberances and a thick, whorled skin. At farmers markets, it’s typically sold with the greens intact; at commercial markets, these have been trimmed away.

The most daunting task associated with cooking celeriac is removing the skin, which will entail a vegetable peeler and some skillful knife work. Its flesh is similar in texture to a russet potato, and that’s the quality Bob featured in his clever recipes. Not mashed potatoes, but puréed celeriac is the dish in the photo from our Friendsgiving dinner. Drizzled with turkey gravy, the silky texture and slightly nutty flavor of the celeriac were a hit with everyone around the table.

In another substitution, Bob combined the traditional dressing ingredients for potato salad and mixed them with cubed, steamed celeriac. There were some hints of flavor I couldn’t puzzle out, but understood when he told us what was in the “no-potato” salad. You can treat this root as you would any other root vegetables: roast cubes with a drizzle of olive oil and herbs, combine with aromatics and broth to create a bisque or grate with potatoes for golden latkes. I’ve included Bob’s recipes here – thanks for sharing!

Bob’s Celery Root Purée

1 large or 2 small celery roots
whole milk
1/4 t salt
pinch nutmeg

Peel the celery root and cut into 1-inch cubes. Place it in a saucepan with enough milk to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer* until fork tender, about 30 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked celery root to the bowl of a food processor. Add salt and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Process until very smooth.

If the mixture is too thick, add a little of the milk left in the pot and process again until the right consistency is achieved. Check for seasoning, adding more salt, if necessary. *Bob (speaking from personal experience) advises keeping a close eye on the saucepan over very low heat to avoid a milk mess boiling over on your stove.

Bob’s No-Potato Salad

3 slices bacon
3 hard-boiled eggs
1 large celery root (celeriac)
2/3 C sour cream
1/2 C mayonnaise
1/4 t celery seed
1/2 t kosher salt
1/4 t cracked black pepper
3 T whole-grain mustard
juice of 1 lemon
1 bunch chives, chopped
2 T chopped dill leaves
2 t chopped basil
1 T chopped parsley
1/2 t paprika

Cook the bacon until crisp; drain, crumble and set aside. Peel and chop the hard-boiled eggs; set aside. Cut top and bottom ends off the celery root and remove the rough, knobby skin. Rinse the root and cut into half-inch cubes. Put the pieces in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cook until fork tender, about 15 minutes. Rinse under cold water, then transfer to a colander to drain. In a serving dish, whisk together sour cream, mayonnaise, mustard, celery seed, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Add the cubed celeriac along with fresh herbs and gently fold the mixture until combined. Add additional salt, to taste. Sprinkle eggs, bacon and paprika over the top, then mix to combine. Chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours before serving.

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