The Beauty of the Ugly Celery Root

Celery Root and Potato Gratin Recipe

It looks like something from the prop room of Star Trek. It could easily double for a whorled alien brain, a hairless Tribble, or an E.T. with one hell of an ugly mug. As if its low score in the looks department weren’t enough, it goes by several aliases: celeriac, turnip-rooted celery, knob celery. I even saw it christened celery globes at my local supermarket. To confuse matters even more, it isn’t the root of the popular stalk celery we all buy to add to a crudité platter, but rather the root of the less common variety, rapaceum. So it’s no wonder that for nearly 200 years people have been reaching past celery root to choose other vegetables for dinner.

“It’s not a pretty sight,” says Suzanne Tracht, co-owner and executive chef of Jar, “but it has a lot of uses.” Tracht, practically the doyenne of celery root in LA, uses it in soups, salads, purées, roasted vegetable platters, and even in slaws to accompany her whole-belly fried clams. “It has an assertive, refreshing taste,” she adds. It has flavor notes of celery and parsley but with the crunch of a crisp, just-picked apple. Even baked, as in a celery root–potato gratin, it can hold its own; it refuses to take on the mellow, buttery flavor of the potato, but instead offers up a slight tang guaranteed to keep guests guessing.

Tracht gives some tips to help ease the approach-avoidance dance most shoppers experience when encountering celery root. First, she says, realize it will be dirty, dirtier than most vegetables because of all of the nooks created by the gnarl of rootlets. Don’t let that be a turn off. In fact, it’s a good sign. “It’s probably fresh if it still has a lot of good earth clinging to it.” She also counsels that it should be heavy feeling, not hollow.

When you get your alien vegetable home, scrub and dry it. If you’re not going to use it immediately, store it in a cool place. “A root cellar is perfect,” says Tracht, laughing. At last count, not too many LA apartments come with their own root cellars, so she capitulated and added the vegetable drawer of the fridge as a suitable substitution.

So there you are finally standing in front of your celery root, ready to cook. Now what? “Lop off the bottom quarter,” Tracht says, “then slice off the stem piece.” For the vegetably challenged among us, think of the root as the earth, and slice off a good portion of Antarctica and the North Pole. Then peel as you would a potato or turnip, using a vegetable peeler or a sharp paring knife.

But do yourself a favor before cooking with it, and slice off a sliver and pop it in your mouth. The fresh, clean taste will win your over, disproving the notion that beauty is only skin deep. With celery root, you must boldly go where no man has gone before.

David Leite's signature

Recipe
Celery Root Gratin

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Comments
Comments
  1. Rose says:

    Great post on a unique root veggie! I love exploring some of these lesser known veggies and a gratin looks perfect :)

  2. Love your description of celery root as something that looks alien, David! To me, it’s also reminiscent of the kooky, root-like beasts they grow in the greenhouse in a Harry Potter movie! Since you mentioned that they’re also yummy raw, maybe your readers would be interested in this recipe for Celery Root, Radish, and Watercress Salad with Mustard Seed Dressing that I created for Bon Appétit.

    Celery Root, Radish, and Watercress Salad with Mustard Seed Dressing
    Serves 8

    Ingredients
    2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
    1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
    1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
    1/4 cup minced shallots (2 medium)
    2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
    2 large bunches watercress, thick stems trimmed (about 6 cups packed)
    1 1/2 pounds celery root (celeriac), trimmed, peeled, coarsely grated in processor or with box grater
    20 radishes, trimmed, thinly sliced

    Method
    1. Stir mustard seeds in dry skillet over medium heat until lightly toasted and starting to pop, about 3 minutes. Transfer to bowl; cool. Add vinegar, mustard, and shallots; whisk to blend. Gradually whisk in oil. Season with salt and pepper.

    2. Toss watercress in large bowl with enough dressing to coat lightly. Divide watercress among plates. Combine celery root and radishes in same bowl; toss with enough of remaining dressing to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Top watercress with celery root mixture and serve.

  3. Stephanie says:

    David, I love your piece on celery root. Funny, I’ve never entertained the thought of eating it raw. I really enjoy it but I don’t make it as often as I should. Your gratin recipe is a great way to bring it back to center stage. Last year for Thanksgiving, I made a celery root purée in place of mashed potatoes (my dad is diabetic), and it was so delicious. It’s so versatile.

    Hope you have a wonderful holiday.

    Stephanie

    • David Leite says:

      Sorry for this late reply, Stephanie. Just saw it. Glad you like the piece. I love celery root purée–of course, with lots of butter…

  4. Daghead says:

    I eat various raw produce and tried some celery root when its description label said it can be eaten raw. Just imagine the smell and flavor of celery and the hardness of carrot, without the stringy fibery texture.

    If you have a little extra time, you don’t have to lop off half at the ends; just use the peeler over the whole thing and use the paring knife to cut the skin out of the remaining grooves at the bottom. I have found that leaving a little skin has a more funky, unpleasant taste.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi, LC Editor-in-Chief says:

      We’re with you, Daghead. I’m not a big fan of celery, but I have been known to shave celery root with a handheld slicer or a mandoline into ribbons and toss it with sour cream and a hint of lemon and lots of black pepper. Some folks add mustard or horseradish. A lovely little side of sorts for seared salmon or roast chicken or so many other things…

    • David Leite says:

      Daghead, cool way of peeling it. And cool avatar!!

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