There are lots of root vegetables that get all kinds of attention this time of year: the parsnip, the purple carrot, the rutabaga…ok, maybe not the rutabaga. But there’s one that always seems to be confusing to people. The Celeriac. “Is it celery, or is it iac?” In some ways it’s both. Although they are in the same family they have about as much in common as you do with your uncle’s sister-in-law’s boyfriend.
A typical head of celery (the kind you cut up to dip in blue cheese dressing with buffalo wings) is cultivated for the growth of the stalk, to grow hearty and broad above ground. Although the typical celery has a top root similar to the celeriac, it is significantly smaller, with a longer taproot digging deep into the soil. The Celeriac however has been cultivated to put all its energy into the top root. It grows large and bulbous, pushing the root itself out of the ground, while exposing it to the elements and leaving the aboveground stalks deprived of water and nutrients. The stalks from the celeriac can still be used in cooking but are normally reserved as an aromatic, being used for stocks and soups, as they grow very tough and fibrous.
what looks to be a dirty, knotted piece of driftwood…
lthough it can be picked small in the late summer, and can be left in the ground like other root vegetables through the winter, this is most certainly a late fall crop. The freshness of this crop is at its peak just hours after being pulled from the ground. You’re sure to find some “fresh that day” at the South Kingstown Wintertime Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings.
The root itself coaxes incredible flavor out of what looks to be a dirty, knotted piece of driftwood. Although at times the root looks alarmingly large and overwhelming to work with, it is not. Because of all the dirt and crevasse in the celeriac, almost a quarter of the root needs to be carved away to get at its starchy center.
The Celeriac can be eaten raw, as it often is in France, cut into matchsticks and served on salads, or cooked. One of my very favorite preparations of this ugly root results in a dish so elegant you’d never know American Chefs once dismissed this tuberous plant.
After the root is free from all dirt and trimmed to the core, it is diced and slowly simmered in water and milk. Once tender it is pureed in a blender using the milk and water mixture to achieve the consistency of very loose mashed potatoes. Cold butter is added while the blender is running. The puree is passed through a fine mesh sieve, and then seasoned with black truffle salt (or black truffle shavings if you have it). This puree can brighten up any dish with mild flavors of celery, a hint of nuttiness and the herbal aroma of parsley.
This is only one of countless preparations of the root. Replace potatoes with celeriac in au gratin for a more herbaceous flavor. Slice thin and deep fry for chips and dip, or add it in with all the other late harvest root vegetables, some garlic and rosemary for a roasted root vegetable dish that will disappear at your thanksgiving table!
Don’t pass over the poor neglected celeriac this year. Won’t you help an ugly vegetable in need?
– Your Friendly Neighborhood Food Forager