Growing and cooking celery root

Celery root next to a dish of celery root and parsley puree.

Barbara Damrosch - Celery root next to a dish of celery root and parsley puree.

Fall is the time to clean up the garden’s debris, harvest storage crops and take stock of how things went. The record is never perfect, and gardeners will obsess about why a crop failed or never quite measured up. That can be instructive, but you learn much from your successes, too.

One year our potatoes were both abundant and pristine, with not a potato beetle in sight. Why? It rained all summer, and we’ve found over and over that potatoes resist the beetles if well watered. This year it was not only moist but cool. The heat-loving melons expressed their dissatisfaction by lacking any rich flavor. But for the celery root (also called celeriac), 2013 was a triumph.

Celery root is the same plant as regular celery, but its varieties have been selected over the years to produce swollen, bulbous lower stems instead of tender crunchy stalks. As we watched these tan-colored orbs begin to form, half under the ground and half above, we marveled at their size. Whereas last year’s were softballs at best, these were coconuts. The coolness and moisture certainly helped (celery is a marsh plant), but we also took credit for setting our transplants out early, a few weeks before the last predicted frost. Celeriac will take a bit of a freeze, but too much cold will make it go to seed — though not as readily as stem celery.

We gave the plants a fertile soil rich in organic matter, which retains moisture well. We kept them weeded. We grew them where family relatives — carrots, fennel, parsnips — had not grown in recent years. But what probably made the most difference was adding boron, a micronutrient needed for cell growth and plant metabolism.For beets and carrots as well as celeriac, boron is a key element for ensuring general quality and, in the case of celery root, avoiding disorders such as hollow heart. We’re pretty sure that treating the bed did the trick. We used a commercial preparation on our farm, but in the cleaning products aisle of the supermarket you’ll find a product called 20 Mule Team Borax. One tablespoonful dissolved in four gallons of water is the dose for 100 square feet of bed — a more useful formula than the per-acre rate a soil test lab might give you.

The gnarly appearance of a celery root will hardly persuade you to take such pains with its cultivation. But try cooking with it just once and you’ll understand what it means to have lots in the cellar for winter eating. Cooked, it’s rather like a firm potato with a wonderful mild celery taste. Right now we’re crowing over our haul of oversized beauties, and we’re celebrating with celery root simmered until tender and then pureed along with great fistfuls of parsley. Yes, the two are in the same family, but while they must not share a garden bed, they make a perfect match in this dish, laced with cream and garnished with a bit more parsley on top. Let it snow. We’re all set.

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

— Adrian Higgins

 
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