Discover celery root in a produce bin and it will not be love at first sight. What, you ponder, would anyone do with these bumpy beige orbs, from which someone has removed the nice green tops?
Pull one out of the ground and you’ll be even more daunted, faced with a tangle of gnarly roots. But persevere. Chop off those tentacles with a large knife or cleaver, and then keep chopping until all the bumps and soil-choked crevices are gone. By now the thing might be half its original weight and size. Scrub it some more, then chop it up, boil it and puree it with a little cream. Then you will see why my friend C.R. Lawn of Fedco Seeds calls it “the frog prince of vegetables.” Imagine a pile of very smooth mashed potatoes with the flavors of celery and parsley and a bit of sweetness — so rich and elegant it doesn’t need butter.
Celery root is a celery plant that’s been bred not for succulent, crunchy stalks, but for its root or, more accurately, a tuberlike enlarged stem base. (Its top growth can be used to season a soup but is not tender enough for nibbling.) Other names for it include celeriac, turnip-rooted celery and knob celery. In Europe, where it is more popular and better known than stem celery, it’s often grated or julienned and used raw in a salad, absorbing the dressing like a sponge.
Over here, not every store carries this delicacy, so it pays to grow your own. It’s not a quick crop. Make a note now to buy seeds in early spring from one of the more eclectic catalogues such as Fedco, Southern Exposure, Baker Creek, John Scheepers, the Cook’s Garden, Seeds of Change or Johnny’s.
You’ll need to sow the seeds indoors at least eight weeks before setting transplants out in the garden, and after that, even with the fertile soil the plant loves, it’ll take 100 days to get harvestable globes. I wait until they’re softball size, which takes a little longer, but I like to have jumbo ones for storage. And that’s where this crop really pays off. In a root cellar or fridge, the globes often keep eight months or more. Even when they start to sprout little green tufts of foliage on top, they are still good to eat; in fact, you sometimes see them sprouted like that in European markets, perhaps to reassure you that they are living things.
In the garden, celery root is quite beautiful to look at throughout the long stretch of time it spends there before harvest. Well cared for, it presents a tidy row of bright green foliage, the round root tops half-buried in the soil beneath. It’s an easy crop to grow, without the constant watering that stem celery demands. The lower stems will start to bend over, and it’s a good idea to pull these off. Not only will this cause a smoother, less bumpy root to form, it will also make the plants look much tidier, crowned as they are with upright plumes, and downright princely ones at that.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of The Garden Primer.
Interested in growing your own food? Read more at washingtonpost.com/vegetablegardens.