Published in the Toronto Star, March 8, 2013
Gnarled knobs of celery root may look a little scary, but beneath their pitted beige skin and tangle of rootlets lies a heart of culinary gold.
If you’re eating local, this homely root is just the thing to add variety to end-of-winter meals with its potato-like texture and fresh flavour of celery and parsley with a hint of nuts.
Celery root is delicious raw or cooked. Fans of Paris bistros have probably already met it raw, coarsely grated and tossed in mustardy mayo tweaked with lemon for the classic salad céleri rémoulade.
Toronto chefs have been using the root to full advantage all winter long in everything from soups to salads.
“It’s not the sexiest vegetable,” admits Paese executive chef Christopher Palik, “but celery root is amazing and pairs well with braised meat and with sweet and smoky flavours like apple and bacon.”
At new Skin + Bones wine bar in Leslieville, chef Matthew Sullivan adds the root to potatoes to make pillowy gnocchi in a garlicky fried tomato sauce. He also cooks toonie-sized coins of celery root in a vacuum (sous vide) to bring out their intense flavour and creamy texture before slipping them into a slow-cooked chicken dish.
But you don’t need chef’s training to enjoy celery root. You, too, can serve a couple of golden pan-fried scallops on a smear of puréed celery root for a swanky appetizer.
In fact, if you can boil water and own a grater, you’ve got all the skills and tools you need to turn this plain-Jane root into a taste sensation.
Though celery stalks and celery root (a.k.a. celeriac) hail from the same family, they’re not the same plant. This gets confusing in mid-September, when freshly harvested roots are sold with their leafy tops attached. Local growers harvest and trim the rest of their crop in late October before the frost, and store the hardy roots until orders come in.
On the Farm:
We can thank local growers including John Gorzo and John DenBoer of DenBoer Family Farm in Otterville for bringing this European specialty to Ontario. In the past 18 years, DenBoer’s crop has grown from half an acre to 25 acres to meet the demand from chefs and consumers. A new batch of plants will fill his greenhouse by the end of February, to be transplanted in the field in May. He says local supplies should be ample through April.
•Celery roots range in size from a baseball to a cantaloupe.
•Choose a firm, heavy root without soft spots. Don’t worry if there’s a little green “sunburn” on the skin; it won’t affect the quality or taste.
•Trim side roots and store in a cool, dry place, which means the fridge for most of us.
•A 1 lb (500 g) celery root equals 3 cups (750 mL) grated or 1 cup (250 mL) cooked and puréed.
•Lop off the bottom, including dirt-filled crevices, until you reach the creamy white flesh.
•To remove skin, trim both ends of the bulb with a sharp paring knife so it stands flat, then cut downward in sections, following the vegetable’s natural curve and removing skin as you go.
Boiled, mashed, roasted or scalloped with Oka cheese on top, celery root can do anything a potato can do.
Mash: Cook 2 pounds (1 kg) potatoes with 1 pound (500 g) celery root and mash with warm milk, salt and pepper. For even cooking, cut pieces the same size.
Raw: Slice thin rounds of celery root, stack them in bundles and cut into thin matchsticks for salad. Chef Chris Palik tosses paper-thin sticks with arugula and herbs in a lemony vinaigrette. Or coarsely grate and pair it with other assertive flavours such as carrots, apples and roasted beets. Once grated, use it quickly so it doesn’t discolour.
Fries: Cut celery root fries 1/2-inch (1 cm) thick, spread on a baking sheet and toss with a little oil and spices of your choice. Roast at 450F (230C) for about 40 minutes, until golden brown, shaking occasionally. Serve immediately.
Sexy Side: NYC chef Mario Batali cooks cubes of celery root slowly in butter over low heat until tender and caramelized for a scrumptious side dish.
CELERY ROOT PEAR SOUP
Soft celery and pear flavours pair deliciously in this elegant soup. I made it with a 900 mL carton of Knorr vegetable broth. Bosc, Anjou or Bartlett pears all work well.
3 tbsp (45 mL) butter
1 large leek, (white part only), chopped or 1 large onion, chopped
1.5 lb (750 g) celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (.5 cm) cubes
1 medium yellow-fleshed potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (.5 cm) cubes
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced
2 tsp (10 mL) thyme leaves or (1 tsp/5 mL) dried
4 cups (1 L) vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup – 1 cup (125 – 250 mL) light cream
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
1/2 tsp (2 mL) freshly ground pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
Thyme sprig or chopped thyme for garnish
In large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add leeks, celery root and potato and cook about 10 minutes, stirring often, until onions are translucent. Do not brown. Stir in pears and thyme and cook 5 minutes more.
Add stock, bring to boil then reduce heat to medium. Cover and simmer 25 minutes or until vegetables and pear are tender, stirring occasionally.
Remove from heat; cool slightly. Purée with a hand-held immersion blender (love my powerful Breville!) or transfer to a blender in batches.
Return soup to pot and stir in cream or more stock to desired thickness. Season to taste with salt and pepper and nutmeg. When cool, cover and refrigerate 1 to 2 days. Serve garnished with a sprig or chopped fresh thyme.
Makes 6 cups (1.5 L).