Have you ever walked into a fruit and vegetable grocer with a perfectly mundane shopping list in mind - perhaps something simple as tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce - only to be confronted with a bizarre and totally alien vegetable that defies description? Something that makes you wonder, "Is that a fruit? Is it a vegetable? Is it edible? - and what the hell do I do with it?"
There are plenty of bizarre fruits and vegetables out there, yet there is a fair chance that one of those freaky looking edibles you came across could have been celeriac.
This tuberous vegetable looks like some curious moon rock; knobby, bulbous and intimidating to the uninitiated, with a tuft of bright green stems sticking out the top. If it were all up to some corporate marketing manager rather that Mother Nature, this baby would have been sent back to the factory before it even got close to the public eye. It's just as well it wasn't, because this fearsome looking vegetable has a delicious and addictive flavour once you get past the gruff exterior.
Celeriac is the corm, or the underground starch-storing lower stem of a particular variety of the regular celery plant, Apium graveolens. It is also commonly known as celery root and turnip-rooted celery. When harvested and selected for sale, the celeriac bulb can vary in size from that of a tennis ball up to almost a soccer ball. The corm itself is pale beige in colour, with darker brown highlights in the rough edges. If your local grocer sells celeriac with the stems attached, they will bear a passing resemblance to celery, albeit with much thinner, and more separate stalks.
This fascinating vegetable was introduced to Britain from Egypt sometime during the eighteenth century, although it never caught on as a major food crop in that country, or its colonies. Rather, central European countries latched onto celeriac for its distinctive, brisk celery flavour. It is with émigrés from those countries that celeriac eventually spread to the wider world, and the traditional dishes it forms the centrepiece of reflect these origins.
So what the hell does a celeriac taste like? - and why would you want to eat one of these ugly beasties anyway? Well, put simply, they are utterly unique and addictively delicious. If I were to tell you that they were like a cross between celery and a potato, I would be wrong - but I would be getting sorta close. They are starchy, yes - but not as starchy as potatoes. They have a more fluid and yielding texture than those tubers. And at the same time, they don't have the forthright, fresh taste of celery. Instead, they have all they subtle nuances of celery, without the clean, vegetal, almost watery bite of celery. The celery flavour in celeriac is much more muted - almost warm, if that seems possible. It is very delicious indeed.
You can use celeriac in all the same fashions that you use other tubers - such as potatoes. Slice them, simmer them, add then add them to a rustic salad. Cut them into small chunks and add them to a soup or meaty braise. Mash them up, by themselves, or in half-half proportions with potato. This however, is just the beginning.
Celeriac can also be eaten raw. Cut or grated finely enough, celeriac has a mildly pungent flavour and a texture not dissimilar to much softer vegetables, such as zucchini, squash or other marrows. Used in this manner, grated celeriac shines in the classic recipe of celeriac remoulade, which is like a thickly textured mayonnaise - and wickedly addictive. Check the recipe that follows.
When you get your celeriac home and onto the kitchen bench, it can be a fairly daunting proposal to prepare, and it requires slightly different treatment to other tuberous vegetables. Here's how you deal with them.
The top quarter of a celeriac is very woody. This is where the stems grab hold and this portion is coarse and inedible. Cut this top section of the celeriac away, and discard. You will also need to peel away the coarse skin, and I use the term coarse advisedly. You may need more than a vegetable peeler - perhaps a sharp paring knife. Celeriac also oxidizes quickly. You can't peel them and let them sit in the open air like you can with potatoes for a few minutes. The will first turn dark, then brown, and eventually black. Like with most of the vegetable kingdom, this discoloration is simply due to oxidation - and to counter it, you will need an anti-oxidant. Lemon juice is perfect - but any edible acidulant will do just as well.
Here is a recipe for celeriac remoulade. It is a classic French sauce, and the classics are always the best. Consider it a mayonnaise, but one with much more oomph. Just like mayonnaise, this remoulade has multiple applications. It will sit beside chicken just as well as fish. It will make a sensational dip using nice fresh bread. It makes a spanker of a sandwich filling, and don't tell my GP, but I also like to stick my pinky finger in and have a taste as I am making it.
Here's how to.
This sauce will be nice if you make it with supermarket mayonnaise. But you really want to aim for higher than nice, so try and make your own mayonnaise, using Evil Catullus' recipe here.
Peel the thick skin off the celeriac, then rub with a cut lemon. Cut the coarse top off the corm, and then rub again with lemon. This will stop the celeriac from turning black. Grate the celeriac, and immediately plunge into the mayonnaise. Add the mustard, lemon and seasonings.
Serve with so many things. Grilled chicken, barbecued fish steaks, wrapped in flatbread with asparagus, roasted capsicum and avocado, or even just dip into it with pita bread.
- Now this is a new one on me, never the less - I am reliably informed that celeriac can on occasion turn out carrot-shaped. Coupled with celeriac's pale colour, this could lead to confusion with parsnips. Here are two tips to help tell these vegetables apart, should you be confronted with an elongated celeriac. Parsnips will in the main have comparitively smoother skin than a celeriac. In addition, parsnips tend to have a slightly soft and yielding texture when handled, whereas a fresh celeriac will be nearly as firm as a potato.