Set the Table with Celeriac
Written onSeptember 01 , 2008
I’m in the second year of my love affair with celeriac and the romance is still aflame. My initial reaction upon “discovering” this vegetable was to think, “Where have you been all my life?” Since then I have introduced my new love to many gardening friends, insisting they take home a couple of six-packs of seedlings in the spring and just have a fling. This year I also donated quite a few plants to the Westminster West School Children’s Garden, which I coordinate, to see if the kids would take to celeriac the way they now respond to kohlrabi—another somewhat “odd” vegetable that we planted together, and that has become one of their favorite raw snacks.
Celeriac (Apium graveolens rapaceum), also known as celery root or turnip-rooted celery, is a close relative of celery, parsley, and parsley root, and its leaves look and taste much like celery. It offers a subtly sweet and nutty flavor—a cross between celery and parsley, with a hint of anise. Usually softball to grapefruit sized, it has lots of finger-like roots sticking out from its round core—somewhat like the roots of a parsnip that has encountered many Vermont rocks on its journey within the earth. It is beige or greenish-beige, rough, and pock-marked on the outside, and white, firm, and smooth on the inside.
Like kohlrabi, celeriac is delicious raw—crunchy and dense. But it’s equally good cooked, as an addition to fall and winter soups, mashed with potatoes, or roasted with other roots. According to French market gardener Joël Thiébault, writing in Vegetables by 40 Great French Chefs, the celery root was historically used medicinally and as a seasoning. It was first bred as a root vegetable in Germany in the 16th century. In France, it was not grown in significant amounts until 1815, where it is now well loved by French chefs. A classic dish is celeriac remoulade, in which the root is cut into matchstick-like pieces, marinated in lemon juice, and tossed with a mustardy mayonnaise.
Luckily, celeriac is beginning to be appreciated in this country and can often be found in food co-ops and some grocery stores. Or, you can try growing your own. I find it easier and more rewarding to grow than celery because of its relatively simple garden requirements, its mellow flavor and its multiple uses.
According to farmer Joël, who has been perfecting his methods for many years, it’s important to make sure that the large root grows very slowly, “as the tap root contains the plant’s reserves and the leaf system is its lungs.” It must be kept growing steadily, but not be overwatered, so that the ball of the root does not develop until late in the season. Joël aims for a root weighing 2.5 pounds, with a nice solid center. A root like this can be stored all winter (in moist sand) and still be delicious in March.
In order to provide the long growing season that celeriac needs, you should start the seeds indoors in late winter or early spring. I started mine on March 17 this year, but you could start them a couple weeks earlier, I’m sure. The seeds are tiny, so you’re likely to end up with much more celeriac than you know what to do with—hence the need to foist off your extras on friends. The seedlings can be transplanted into the garden in early summer, and you should keep them evenly moist from then on. You can begin to harvest smaller roots in early fall and larger ones as the season progresses, on into November. As with some other root vegetables, the flavor is enhanced by light frosts.
To use celeriac, cut off the bottom and top of the root. Although you can eat the gnarly skin, you’ll probably want to peel it away with a paring knife. (You won’t be able to eliminate all the creases and crevices in the skin, but there’s no need to.) Celeriac can be boiled, mashed, braised, sautéed, roasted, or even made into French fries. Dehydrated, it can serve as a celery-flavored seasoning. Many French recipes call for blending or creaming the cooked root for soups and soufflés, but I love the crunchiness of celeriac and would rather use it in chunks in soups or tomato sauce, or raw, grated, or chopped in salads. It’s a great addition to Waldorf salad (see recipe) and its crunchiness also suggests it would be excellent pickled. Some chefs decree that celeriac should be parboiled in acidified water for 5 to 10 minutes before using it in salads, but if you’re a raw kohlrabi fan, you’re likely to enjoy celeriac straight up.
However you eat it, celeriac is a vegetable worth getting to know. Once you do, I’m sure you’ll be enraptured, too.