Ruffian Roots: Celeriac
There exists in the world of chefs and food writers a collective consciousness in which like-minded souls simultaneously but independently develop an enthusiasm for an overlooked or little-known ingredient. They gradually start using it, word spreads and the ingredient takes centre stage. Social media has certainly speeded up the process, but I remember pre-Instagram days when Puy lentils and smoked paprika, for example, emerged from obscurity and became must-have ingredients.
Celeriac is enjoying a similar renaissance, and as a die-hard fan I am jumping on the bandwagon. As the name implies, celeriac is related to celery but grown for the bulbous underground part rather than above-ground stalks. With its sombre pockmarked skin and Medusa-like tangle of roots, celeriac is certainly a ruffian, but it is also delicious – the vegetable to use when you want the fresh flavour of celery along with the starchy comfort of potato.
Greengrocers and farm shops are good hunting grounds. They are more likely to sell whole celeriac, freshly dug, with an appetising aroma coming from slightly damp skin. Supermarkets tend to straight-jacket celeriac in cling-film, denuded of roots, and much of its character too.
Regardless of whether cling-filmed or freshly dug, begin by scrubbing your celeriac under running water. Then, using a very sharp knife, cut a horizontal slice from the base so that it doesn’t wobble when placed on a chopping board. Slice it lengthways into quarters, then trim away a thin layer of skin, following the contours of the root. Once cut, the flesh discolours quickly, so plunge the peeled quarters into a bowl of water to which you’ve added the juice of half a lemon. Otherwise, if your celeriac is destined for a salad, chop or slice the flesh as specified in your chosen recipe and mix with the dressing right away.
Celeriac is one of the most versatile of vegetables, offering plenty of culinary possibilities. Eat it raw, steamed, boiled, roasted, grilled or fried – all are good and will bring out the earthy flavour in different ways.
If you’re a first-timer, start off with celeriac and potato mash. Boil or steam a half-and-half mix of celeriac and potato chunks for about 20 minutes or until tender (put them in the same pan and save on the washing up). Drain, mash to a purée and stir in plenty of butter, nutmeg, chopped parsley and seasoning. For a full-on experience, ditch the potato and enrich the mash with double cream. Add little lemon juice to sharpen the flavour.
Even easier is to add a few chunks to a hearty winter casserole, or roast some around a leg of pork or rib of beef. They will soak up the meaty juices and develop a fabulously rich flavour.
Celeriac also makes a superb soup, simple to prepare but deeply satisfying. Soften small cubes of celeriac and finely chopped onion with a generous knob of butter and a fresh bay leaf if you have one. Pour in about 900ml of hot stock – chicken or vegetable – then cover and simmer for 30 minutes until tender. Whiz to a purée, then reheat gently with a spritz of lemon juice plus salt and pepper. Decant into bowls and top with a swirl of soured cream and chopped fresh dill – and maybe a few toasted chopped hazelnuts.
Another way is to finely grate the raw flesh and add it to a wintry salad of mixed white roots – parsnips, kohlrabi, mooli are all good – tossed in a creamy yogurt dressing with plenty of snipped chives. Otherwise anoint the grated flesh with mustardy mayo to make the French classic celeriac rémoulade – delicious served with grilled sausages or crisp slices of fried black pudding.
Best of all are celeriac steaks – sturdy slabs sliced crossways around the middle, sizzled in an indecent amount of butter, or brushed with oil and roasted in the oven. The steaks are served with a topping of some sort –you’ll find plenty of ideas on-line and in food magazines. Most successful are those that share compatible flavours with celeriac – earthy and meaty, as in my recipe for Celeriac Steaks with Mushrooms, Parmesan and Sizzled Sage.
Celeriac is at its peak now until the end of winter so it’s a good time to give this ruffian root a try. It’s nourishing, refreshing and filling – perfect for autumn and Lockdown 2.
© Christine McFadden, November 2020