Celery root rears its ugly head, and great taste


Celery root (Barbara Damrosch)
May 14

Celery root, also known as celeriac, grows in a tentative way, half in and half out of the ground, as if trying to decide whether to be a root or a stem. Strictly speaking, it’s a swollen stem base — a celery plant bred to bulge below rather than make succulent, extra-tender stems above. And it’s delicious, as a growing number of gardeners and cooks are finding out.

Uninspiring to look at, with its scruffy tan shoulders and gnarly Medusa-like roots, it rewards the adventurous with its flavor. Though entirely unrelated to the potato, it is a bit like a potato with a mild celery taste and a less starchy texture.

Because of this crop’s recent spurt of popularity, we planted a ton of it this year at our farm, and gave it star status. It got the most fertile beds we had, amended with lots of well-composted manure and a full complement of micronutrients, especially the boron in which our soil is sometimes deficient. We watered the heck out of it in dry weather. It’s not as fussy about water as its stemmy sister, but it’s still a thirsty plant.

We aim for orbs the size of softballs, which become somewhat smaller when peeled and shorn of those tangled roots. In a few disappointing years they’ve been more like baseballs and have not stored well in the root cellar. This year they were all huge and magnificent. One champion, nearly volleyball size, weighed in at eight pounds. As for keeping, it’s now mid-May and those that remain in the cellar are as perfect and solid as they were in October when we put them there.

People still hold one up at our farmers market and ask, “What on Earth do I do with this thing?” I usually start off with the idea of boiling and mashing them half-and-half with potatoes, for a lighter version of this classic dish. But they are even more wonderful cooked and pureed by themselves, with a little cream. They are low in starch, so the cream is not fully absorbed; the mash, once mounded, tends to seep a bit at the edges. If that detracts from your presentation, just add a potato or two and it will weep no more.

Because potatoes were outnumbered in the cellar this year, I found myself turning to the celery root over the spuds. The biggest winner was shepherd’s pie. This economical and fortifying casserole dates back to the time when potatoes first reached the British Isles. Instead of making a pastry crust to top or encase chopped meat (lamb or beef), a potato crust is used.

In my version there are a lot of vegetables mixed in with the meat — carrots, onions, corn, peas or whatever I have — as well as herbs and some flour and wine to bind it all together. I also scatter coarse, buttery bread crumbs on top of the potatoes. It’s a full meal in itself, and a hearty one. The celeriac-crusted version is now a favorite.

If a fan of raw foods asks the question, I suggest he or she shred or julienne a celery root, then toss with a favorite salad dressing. Or juice it along with other vegetables such as carrots and beets — anything, in fact, but the toxic-when-raw potato.

Tip of the week:

Tying and braiding daffodil foliage will reduce the energy the leaves put into restoring and increasing bulbs for next year. A hoop of green string will tidy a splayed clump. Long-established daffodils that are weak bloomers should be lifted, divided and replanted in a sunny and well-drained location in full sun or partial shade. Do this in about a month’s time as the leaves fade. — Adrian Higgins

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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