Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Celery Root

If vegetables were judged solely on appearance, celery root – hands down – would win the booby prize. A massive bulb covered with an unruly tangle of hairy roots, celery root looks more like a flower bulb than something you might actually eat. It isn't just less pretty than beauty queens like chard, eggplant or winter squash; it's downright unsightly. In her Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables, author Elizabeth Scheider writes that "the swollen form would be at home in the forest of a tale by the Brothers Grimm."

When there are so many other – and more beautiful – vegetables to choose from, it's easy to understand why celery root might get the short shrift. But if you take the time to cut away its hairy armor, you'll discover that homeliness is only skin deep. Once peeled, celery root is a specimen not only to behold but to inhale – along with basil, it is one of the most gorgeously aromatic vegetables in the kingdom. Could celery root be the Cinderella of the vegetable bin?

A Brief History

First, a botany lesson: As the turnip-sized bulb grows underground, green shoots that resemble celery stalks emerge above ground. Despite popular belief, celery root is not the "root" of stalk celery but a close relative. Both are descendants of wild celery which dates to ancient Egypt, where it was used as a medicinal plant.

Also known as celeriac, knob celery and turnip celery, celery root is a native of the Mediterranean.

Produce historian Jonathan Roberts in his Cabbage and Kings notes that Rauwolf, the 16th century German botanist, "recorded its popularity among the Arabs in 1575" and explained that it may not have arrived in Britain until the 1720s, at the earliest.

According to Elizabeth Schneider (quoted above) celery root became available in the United States in the 19th century but was largely ignored. Historically, it has been much better known in Europe, where it still grows wild. However, there seems to be a surging interest in the root stateside, thanks to increased availability through farmers' markets and CSAs.

Cultivation

Botanically, celery root is known as Apium graveolens (var. rapaceum).  It’s a member of the larger Umbelliferae (carrot) family, which makes it kin to parsnips and parsley as well.

It is cultivated for its bulb rather than the above-ground stalks and leaves, which have an almost too intense celery flavor. (Interestingly, the bulb is very mild, a cross of celery and parsley, with a few nuts thrown in.)

Environmental Impact

Because it's not grown on a massive scale, celery root is excluded from the Environmental Working Group Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (Its cousin, stalk celery, ranks number two on the "Dirty Dozen" list.)  Depending on where you live, you may find it in your supermarket produce aisle; more likely, you'll spot some at the farmers' market.  Celery root is a great example of seasonal, local produce that is truly at its peak during the coldest months of the year. Given the absence of industrial production and big-box store availability, buying some offers a great opportunity to ask growers about production methods as well as recipes and favorite ways to prepare. (See our veggie rule of thumb*.)

Seasonality

Celery root begins showing up in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, which is why it's commonly associated with end-of-the-year stuffing and other holiday sides. A cold-weather crop, it sticks around through the end of March, which is particularly helpful for cooks in the northern half of the country where early greens and pea shoots are still several weeks away. This means now is the time to enjoy the last bits of celery root. There's no excuse for celeri-crastination.

Characteristics

Hairy, gnarly, snaggy, knobby, hulking, bristling, muddy, pitted and tangled. These are some of the words I came across for descriptions of celery root – and if you're detecting a pattern, negative impressions of the root are almost always related its appearance.

But as mentioned earlier, celery root cleans up real good, its yellow-beige flesh exuding an ethereal perfume that someone should be bottling. Texturally, it's less starchy than a potato but not as watery as jicama. Flavor wise, you get a nearly perfect bite – a little bit herbal, floral, fatty and starchy – and not too much of any one.  

Nutrition

Although far from a power food, celery root is plenty nutritious. At 66 calories, one cup contains nearly three grams of fiber and more than two grams of protein, and is a respectable source of both calcium and potassium. Not shabby at all.

What to look for

No soft or squishy spots, please, and you want a tangible heft. Smoother exteriors will be easier to peel. Avoid roots that are cantaloupe sized – they may be too woody – and instead choose roots of apple or grapefruit proportions.

Storage

Remove stalks and leaves, if still attached (but don't toss them – they're great additions to homemade stock). Store in a root cellar or the refrigerator to keep the moisture level to a minimum. Try wrapping it in a kitchen towel or in a paper bag. Celery root will keep for a few weeks this way.

Cooking tips/What to do with it

Before we get into the myriad ways to cook celery root (and there really are many choices), we need to talk peeling and prep. No matter which cooking method you decide upon, celery root must be thoroughly scrubbed and peeled. Leave the peeler in the drawer; this is a job for a sharp chef’s knife. First timers: This how-to video with New York Times food writer Melissa Clark will get you off to a good start.

The classic French preparation is a raw slaw, dressed with a remoulade sauce, most commonly known as celeri remoulade. In her cookbook Bon Appetit, Y'All, my friend Virginia Willis uses grated celery root, which she coats with a quick mayonnaise-based dressing flavored with Dijon mustard, capers, fresh tarragon and parsley, plus the grated zest and juice of a lemon. I might add a few chopped cornichons here (or even an anchovy), as well as subbing in some plain Greek yogurt for the mayo.

For a delightful and surprising twist on mashed potatoes, mix in one part celery root to two parts spuds, along with a few whole cloves of garlic and just enough liquid to cover the vegetables. (Add one teaspoon salt for every two pounds.) Bring up to a boil, cover and cook until fork tender, about 25 minutes. With tongs or a strainer, transfer the vegetables to a mixing bowl, reserving the cooking liquid. With a hand masher, mash the vegetables, ladling in the cooking liquid as necessary. Use a wooden spoon to mix, along with two tablespoons olive oil or unsalted butter, plus salt and/or black pepper to taste. Chopped fresh parsley as a garnish is really nice.

Greek culinary authority Diane Kochilas notes in her book The Greek Vegetarian that "celery root and leeks are two gems of the Greek winter garden." Kochilas dishes up a recipe for leek and celeriac soup with bulgur and finished with avgolemono, a sauce of egg yolks and lemon juice.

In the course of my research, I found a slew of celery root puree recipes that called for copious amounts of cream. So that eaters of all dietary stripes could enjoy, I hedged my bets on a dairy-free puree, thickened with a potato and pear. The resulting texture is plenty "creamy" with a velvety mouth feel that is downright irresistible. Think vichyssoise with more attitude. Have a go at this before Mother Nature ushers in spring. 

Recipe

Celery Root-Pear Puree

Ingredients
2 tablespoons neutral oil
1 medium-size celery root, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, washed and chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped roughly
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
1 ripe pear, peeled, cored and chopped
1 medium-size russet potato, peeled and diced
4 to 5 cups vegetable stock
½ ; teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black or white pepper to taste (optional)

Heat the oil in a medium-size pot fitted with a lid over medium-high heat. Add the celery root, celery, onion and garlic, tossing to coat with the oil, and cook over medium heat until soft, 8 to 10 minutes.

Stir in the pear and potato, then add the stock gradually until it just hovers over the other ingredients. In most cases, 4 cups should be sufficient. Bring up to a boil, then reduce the heat to low-medium, cover and cook at a simmer, until the potato and celery root are fork tender, about 40 minutes.  Stir in the salt.

Strain the cooked solids from the liquid. Using a stand blender, immersion blender or food processor, puree the solids, and add the liquid gradually until the mixture is at your desired texture. Return to the pot and gently reheat until ready to serve. Taste for salt, and add more as needed, as well as ground pepper.

Makes 4 to 5 8-ounce servings.

(*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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