What's In Season: Celeriac
Celeriac is an ugly duckling of a vegetable that is also known as celery root or turnip-rooted celery, or in some parts, as knob celery.
Starting in the late fall you will begin to see celeriac everywhere. In the weeks before Christmas it was at my Friday winter Greenmarket, at my neighborhood grocery, at Whole Foods, and at the market near where I live that has a huge selection of Latin ingredients, including many hard-to-find fruits and vegetables.
And I wasn't seeing just one or two of them, as if added by a produce manager who may have thought, "let's see if I can move this ugly thing." Instead there was a bounty of celery roots, which by its appearance doesn't give a clue as to how it should be eaten. Despite being one of winter's treasures, it's all too often overlooked or rejected over with a silent, "and what am I supposed to do with that?"
If you're lucky enough to have a year-round neighborhood farmers' market, it's likely that one of your farmers will still be bringing these globular, knobby, dirt-embedded root vegetables to market and if he or she is also a cook, you might ask for their favorite ways to serve or cook them.
I say "serve or cook" because celeriac is like a carrot in that it can be eaten either raw or cooked. But before getting to how to eat them, their unwelcoming appearance suggests that maybe I should first help you get you better acquainted with this all-too-overlooked vegetable.
Celeriac Versus Celery
Celeriac and celery come from the same plant family and one whiff of a peeled celeriac will confirm it. Celeriac is a variety of celery that has been cultivated to grow a large, globular root. So don't think a farmer can plant a crop of celery and then harvest it twice, first by clipping off the stalks above (those thread-y tall pieces that we love to fill with cream cheese or add to our simmering chicken stock or garnish a bloody Mary) and then harvesting its root. No, instead celery and celeriac are grown and harvested as two distinct, albeit related, plants.
Celeriac is commonly referred to as celery root so if you are searching produce aisles or cookbook indices or Google for recipes, you should search twice, once under each name. You'll get different results.
Like other root vegetables, celeriac is high in carbohydrates but it has no fat, is high in fiber, and has lots of vitamin A and C, calcium, and iron. A half-cup has about 30 calories.
And what does it taste like? It has a mild flavor that is like a cross between potato and celery, but with a subtle tang. But it can also take on the flavor of anything it's cooked with. So if you add celeriac to beet soup, it will taste like beets; to a potato and turnip gratin, it will taste like turnip, plus any cheese you may have added; or puréed with baked apple … well, you get the point.
How To Buy and Store Celeriac
Celery root is usually sold in the produce section alongside other root vegetables. Most of the time, although not always, the stalks have been cut off, making them resemble other pale brown globular vegetables like jicama, so choose carefully. Buy celeriac within a week of when you plan to use it. Even though it's a root vegetable, fabled for a long life in winter storage, you likely can't know how long it's been since the one you're buying was harvested. Plus you can't be sure from its appearance what its internal state may be. For example, sometimes a celery root is hard and firm but when cut into, the core may be soft and spongy.
Choose large ones. Four to five inches in diameter is a good size. The reason is that these gnarly roots need to be aggressively trimmed and you can lose a half-inch from its surface by the time you're done trimming and peeling one.
Select ones that are hard without any soft spots, which usually is a clue that there's some rot inside.
Don't wash or trim a celery root until you plan to cook it. In the meantime, brush off any loose dirt and store it refrigerated for up to a week. If you're going to cook it within a day or so of buying a root, it's fine to leave it unrefrigerated but choose a cool spot that is out of the sun.
Cooking With Celeriac
It's believed that the Chinese were using wild celery in the 5th century A.D. and that the Arabs had cultivated celeriac as early as the 16th century. So this is a global ingredient that is not new to our dinner tables.
Still, in many American kitchens it's still a bit of a mystery, as I found recently when I was buying one at Whole Foods. As I reached for a large, root-decorated celery root, a nearby customer asked me what it was and how I would cook it. I told her how in this case my plan was céleri rémoulade (see our recipe), a classic French salad made with raw shredded celeriac coated in a mustard-tinged mayonnaise, flavored with capers and parsley.
Another day in another store I saw someone buying a celeriac and I asked him how he planned to cook it. It was soon after The New York Times had published a recipe for puréed celeriac and potatoes (see our link to the recipe) and I wondered if that was his goal. It wasn't. "I peel the root and cut it into thick, half-inch slices which I then sauté in a little olive oil until it begins to soften. Then I top each slice with a piece of soft cheese -- something like fresh mozzarella or maybe talaggio -- I cover the pan and continue cooking until the cheese melts." He paused as if to anticipate how all this would taste and reached for a second celeriac, as if one just wouldn't be enough.
Celery roots can be a pain to peel. Many advise using a paring knife, but I find that removes far too much of the surface and prefer using my vegetable peeler. But be prepared to make a mess removing the fine roots and dirt, which can penetrate the vegetable unevenly; you may need to cut some parts and peel others. Your goal is to get to a completely clean, ivory-colored root. It will probably be unevenly shaped but it won't matter.
Celeriac also oxidizes so be prepared with a bowl of cool water to which you've added a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Otherwise, as with an artichoke, the peeled celery root will darken. A tip: if you're making céleri rémoulade, have the rémoulade sauce already made so that as soon as you've shredded the root you can immediately dress it, skipping the step of putting the pieces into the acidulated water, which will end up diluting the dressing, no matter how carefully you may try to drain and dry the celery root pieces.
How else can we cook or serve celeriac?
It's a gently flavored and satisfying addition to soups and can partner with mushrooms, chives, and luxurious additions like truffle oil.
Celery root can also be cooked in just about any way that a potato is cooked. It can be cut into wedges and roasted, slices into sticks and fried, mashed, shredded and fried as latkes either on their own or mixed with shredded turnips or potatoes, sliced and baked in gratins, or cut into cubes and added to vegetable soups, borscht, or vichyssoise.
As I looked for examples of how this plain and overlooked vegetable can be cooked to greatness, I turned to two of the masters. In Volume I of Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, she gives us Braised Celeriac in which thick slices of celery root are first par-cooked in salted boiling water and then baked with onions and bacon, plus beef stock and wine.
In Patricia Wells' brilliant cookbook Vegetable Harvest, she has a recipe that I have often made for company: Celeriac Salad With Fresh Crabmeat. It's a rich and luxurious first course, especially when followed by a lighter entrée. Or in the summer (if you can find celery root), it's a wonderful summer lunch. Here's how to make four servings:
- Cut a large celery root into julienne pieces using either a mandoline or food processor (using the julienne or shredding disc).
- Toss with several tablespoons of Creamy Lemon Chive Dressing (see below) and serve in a mound alongside another, smaller mound of crabmeat that has also been also tossed with a few tablespoons of the same dressing (6 ounces of large lump crabmeat serves four nicely). You can add a few pieces of your favorite lettuce or some sliced cherry tomatoes to add color to this all-white salad.
- To make the Creamy Lemon Chive Dressing use a small jar that has a lid; an 8 oz. canning jar is perfect because it has measurements built into the jar and you won't even need to dirty a measuring cup.
- In the jar combine: 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice with 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt.
- Cover the jar and shake until the salt dissolves. Then add 1 cup light cream and 1/3 cup finely minced fresh chives.
- Cover and shake again to blend. If the dressing sits for a while before you use it, be sure to give it another shaking just before you do.
You can make the dressing in advance and store it covered and refrigerated for up to a week. Even though you're combining acid with cream, it won't curdle. That is because, as Ms. Wells explains, light cream has 12 percent fat content, enough to resist curdling. And the higher its fat content, the more milk or cream will resist curdling. I've made this dressing dozens of times and it has never curdled and I have always made it with light cream.