The Root of the Matter
Add celery’s cousin to roasts, soups, and pastas.
Photos by Lori Eanes
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On a good day, celery root looks like a pale tentacular sea monster out of a Jules Verne story. On a bad one, its gnarled, shaggy cluster of hairy roots makes it feel like a ball of wet dirt. But peel its manky exterior away, and you’re left with smooth-textured, stone-white flesh that lends a complexity to roast, soup, or pasta.
While its relative, celery, has a startling zing, celery root’s green notes are subtler and mingle with more earthier flavors. Even its crispness is quieter in the teeth.
Celery root generally doesn’t come to market until the cold sets in, and the plant’s taproot develops into the ugly yet tasty lump that starts showing up at the market beginning in the fall. But it’s a slow grower.
“I always start it early in the spring, when I’m starting tomatoes and eggplants, in containers, but the seeds are so tiny, I’ll put a bunch in a six pack and then transplant,” said Birgitt Evans, who co-owns and propagates the vegetable starts for Pollinate, an urban farm store in Fruitvale. “It probably takes 2 and a half months for those seedlings to get to any kind of appreciable size where you can put them out in the garden. Once you get them in the garden, it’s easy.”
While celery is the prettier, more noticeable vegetable, celery root has its fans. “I don’t care for celery. I’m more likely to use celery root instead,” said Evans. Because of its versatility, “you can use it in place of celery wherever a recipe calls for it.”
For Suzanne Drexhage, who owns Berkeley wine bar Bartavelle, celery root is “the gateway back to celery. I used to leave celery completely out of things, but as I learned more about celery root, I started appreciating it, and celery, and lovage, too.”
Inserting the herbaceous qualities of celery root gives a bowl of mashed potatoes complexity—simply shave it into a batch of potatoes before mashing them. But you can also insert it into wintertime pastas, soups, and sautés. Drexhage especially likes it paired with artichokes and drizzled with parsley oil, as in Bartavelle’s roasted vegetable sandwich from last winter.
When shopping, choose celery root that’s on the smaller side, because they’re sweeter—but don’t pick them too small. “If they’re bigger,” said Drexhage, “you’ll still have something left when you cut off the outside.” If available, choose ones with the leaves still attached. You can add the leaves to stock. The roots keep extremely well in the fridge, for a couple of weeks.
Celery root may not be as common this year at the farmers’ markets. Full Belly, which has grown it in the past, has opted out this year due to the drought. But you should be able to find some from Riverdog’s farm stand and at others throughout the winter.