Hard to say, easy to cook, celeriac builds a solid fan base
Root vegetables aren't exactly known for their good looks. In produce aisles, beets, parsnips and turnips are rarely showpieces. And when it comes to celeriac, also known as celery root, this large bumpy, brown vegetable frequently is deemed too ugly to eat.
'It's not an easy sell because it looks a little weird to the conventional vegetable buyer,' says Vince Alionis of Whistling Duck Farm in Southern Oregon. 'It looks like a vegetable from outer space, and that's kinda spooky to some people.'
Celeriac is a member of the aromatic umbelliferae family, which includes celery, parsley, carrots and fennel. Although celeriac is related to celery, shares flavor attributes with it, and requires similar growing conditions, it's a unique and versatile fall-winter vegetable with a colorful culinary history all its own.
Sheldon Marcuvitz, of Your Kitchen Garden, an 11-acre farm in Canby, has been cultivating celeriac with his wife, Carole Laity, for several years now. Their farm is unique in that they sell a constantly rotating array of crops. There are currently 30 crops in the ground, most of which are sold to Portland restaurants.
Your Kitchen Garden's farm-direct roster includes Higgins, Wildwood, Castagna, Nostrana and Alba Osteria and Enoteca. Aside from the farm's 22 restaurant accounts, the produce also is available at Food Front and City Market.
Marcuvitz says, 'Our celeriac is larger than usual this year. It's about two and a half to three pounds per piece. When you peel celeriac you usually lose a quarter of the volume; so because the ratio of volume to skin is so high with these it's a really good deal. The restaurants are happy because there's less waste.'
Of all the restaurants Your Kitchen Garden supplies, Marcuvitz can't think of one that doesn't consistently order celeriac when it's in season for soups, stews, roasts or purées.
'At both Carafe and Castagna they often poach celeriac in cream and water and purée it the classical French way,' Marcuvitz says. 'At Higgins, my wife and I recently had celeriac cooked and puréed, but with apples. That gave it a nice sweet and tart edge. Hot Lips usually throws celeriac into their house-made soups. And then, all over town you'll find it grated like slaw with a vinaigrette, served as a French rémoulade with mustard and mayonnaise or roasted.
'I've been trying to convince Saucebox to serve celeriac with an Asian-style peanut sauce but they haven't yet, that I know of.'
Of course, it's big in Europe
Planted in mid-May, celeriac is harvested from late September through December. Your Kitchen Garden typically sets aside 6,000 square feet for celeriac every year - about one-sixth of an acre.
Most celeriac is between the size of an apple and a small cantaloupe. Generally, the smaller, heavier celeriac are the most flavorful and tender, but Marcuvitz claims that despite the larger-than-usual size of this year's crop, flavor and texture have not been compromised.
Alionis of Whistling Duck, a 22-acre Oregon Tilth-certified organic farm, is a big fan of celeriac, but wasn't able to grow any this year due to time constraints.
'I think celeriac is one of the most underrated vegetables,' he says. 'It's very popular in Europe but hasn't caught on here. One great way to prepare it is to cut it like French fries and then fry or bake it.' Celeriac also can be served raw in salads.
Leaves can be used, too
Celeriac's flavor is often described as a slightly nutty and anise-tinged, while its texture is similar to a waxy potato.
Most market celeriac has been trimmed of its leaves, but they can be thrown into a soup stock or added to a salad.
Katie Sharrow, a produce buyer for Food Front, says, 'We've been selling a lot more celery root lately, now that it's colder and we're into soup season.' Food Front sells celeriac from Organically Grown Co., Your Kitchen Garden and Gee Creek Farm.
However you prepare celeriac, it's important to know a couple of things. Celeriac skin is usually tough and stringy and should be removed. If, however, the skin is thin and tender, scrub it with a vegetable brush and make sure that all of the small crevices are cleared of dirt before cooking with it.
Also, like apples and potatoes, celeriac has a creamy white interior that discolors quickly after cutting. Avoid this by keeping cut celeriac in water mixed with one tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar per cup of water until just before cooking time. At that point, give the celeriac a quick rinse, and it's ready to go.
Celeriac and citrus salad
• 1 small (1- to 1 1/2-pound) celeriac (retain leaves)
• 1 head fennel
• 2 medium-size ruby grapefruits
• 1 Meyer lemon
• 1 blood orange
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
• Olive oil to taste
• Champagne vinegar to taste
• Pecorino cheese to taste (optional)
Shave celeriac on a mandoline into matchstick size or thinly slice by hand.
Prepare fennel in the same way.
Segment grapefruit and blood orange and toss with celeriac and fennel.
Take about 1/4 cup of thinly sliced celeriac leaves and fold into the ingredients.
Squeeze Meyer lemon into a cup, add taragon, and balance this with olive oil and champagne vinegar for vinaigrette.
Toss vegetables and fruit in vinaigrette.
Finish with shaved cheese (optional).
Courtesy of Peter Gadd, sous-chef at Gilt Club