It may be because of how it looks - a ball that’s been severely kicked then put through the hot wash bleach cycle, or because it can be dauntingly large - but celeriac doesn’t seem to be much revered. The French make the most of it in celeri remoulade, which is surely on no-one’s Hate List. But celeriac can give so much more.
It’s the same plant as celery, but is cultivated for its root, not its stalks. You can’t swop celery for celeriac and vice versa in recipes that call for them by name. Like celery, it can be eaten raw or cooked, and while it has the same flavour as the stalks, that flavour is sweetened and mellowed when exposed to heat.
You may have assumed it was a cold region vegetable exclusive to the northern hemisphere where it’s grown across Northern Europe, Siberia and North America. But it’s also cultivated in North Africa and Southwest Asia, albeit in their cooler high regions. And a close relation, Cepa de apio criollo (Creole celery root), is a tuber with a similar flavour to celeriac, common in farmers markets from Dominica and Puerto Rico, where it is used to make traditional soups, to Venezuela and other Latin American countries, again, grown in highland regions.
I dare to propose that along with potato, celeriac is the most versatile vegetable we cultivate in the West. You can boil it, steam it, roast it, mash it, grate it, fry it, and turn it into the most soothing of winter soups. All that’s required for that, at its most simple, is a base of finely chopped leek and onion stewed in butter till soft, chunks of peeled celeriac thrown in and everything softened in milk or stock, then blitzed and a generous pour of cream added. Crumble crisp cooked bacon over to serve.
But that’s just the start of it. Look up a Latkes recipe and swop the potato for celeriac. Fry the Latkes not in the traditional chicken schmaltz (chicken fat) but in duck fat for a Perigord take, and dab each golden disc with a blob of creme fraiche to serve, possibly with a teaspoon of horseradish mixed into it.
Celeriac roasted whole has been on hip restaurant menus for a year or two. Scrub the celeriac thoroughly and rub it well with olive oil and the leaves from 6 sprigs of thyme or a spice like finely ground cumin or coriander, or simply salt it well. Wrap it tightly in foil, set in a pan and roast for 2 hours until soft. Spread the foil open and roast 30 minutes more to crisp up the skin. Cut into wedges, drizzle hazelnut oil and lemon juice over it, sprinkle with sea salt and serve with a seared steak, a roast of meat, or just by itself with a vinegary salad.
For a comforting gratin, slice equal quantities of peeled potatoes and celeriac and layer them with thin slices of one onion in a gratin dish. Season, cover with cream and dot with butter. Bake in 180C oven for about an hour or until bubbling and gold.
These wedges marry well with any meat dish - from roast to braise.
Roasted celeriac wedges with sage and walnuts
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 135ml maple syrup or honey
- 1kg celeriac, scrubbed clean then peeled
- 15g fresh sage leaves, shredded
- 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
- 175g walnuts
Preheat oven to 400F/200°C.
Beat the oil and syrup together in a jug. Cut the celeriac into 2.5cm wide wedges, and spread over a roasting pan. Drizzle half the maple syrup and oil over the wedges and toss them with clean hands to coat thoroughly. Roast for 20-25 minutes till the wedges begin to soften, turning them halfway through.
Add the sage, salt and walnuts to the remaining maple syrup and oil, whisk then spoon over the celeriac. Continue to roast for 10-12 minutes more, or until the celeriac just begins to caramelise.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of The Bugle.