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In Season: Savoring the celeriac

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Now, in March, celery root — or celeriac as it’s sometimes called — is finishing up its season in our markets, but it’s still fresh, and still mostly ignored by American cooks. And that’s a shame because, as we’ll see, this strange-looking root is a gourmet treat.

It’s a rough, brownish-beige hunk of root about the size of a softball, with lots of pits and little rootlets dangling from its surface. It looks hard to prepare but actually it’s simple.

Place the celery root on a cutting board, take a sharp, hefty knife, and go over its surface, slicing away the pitted outer layer and the root-y surface. If after this there are a few deeper pits with dirt inside, dig them out with a paring knife.

At this point you’ll be impressed with celery root’s chief virtue: its irresistible aroma of parsley, celery and parsnip are all very elegant. That’s why the French shred it raw as a slaw and mix it with remoulade’s flavors of mayonnaise, capers, gherkins, herbs, anchovies, Dijon mustard and maybe a squirt of lemon juice.

Besides remoulade, celery root finds common cause with potatoes, onions, winter squash, lemon, carrots, caraway seed and cream.

As opposed to celery, which is liberally doused with agricultural chemicals by conventional growers, almost all the chemicals used on celery root are snail and slug baits spread on the ground around the plants rather than sprayed on the plants themselves, and then only a couple of tons are used in the whole state of California. You can usually find organically grown celery root at Oliver’s and Whole Foods and at some stands at the few farmer’s markets open in March.

Celery root is a close relative of stalk celery that has been bred to grow an enlarged root. The leaf stalks that are the edible portion of ordinary celery are small and usually bitter in celery root and not the prized portion here, although they can be used to flavor soups and such. It’s not a nutritional powerhouse, but a cup is just 66 calories and contains three grams of dietary fiber, two grams of protein, and good stores of calcium and potassium.

Here’s how to choose a good root at the market. I’ve heard some old-timers say that small roots are better, but by the time you peel them, there’s hardly anything left.

Look for large roots that feel heavy in the hand and that are firm, with no “give” when squeezed, especially where the stalks emerge.

For years I simply avoided celery root because I had no idea how to use such an outlandish-looking thing. Did one boil it? Eat it like an apple? Fry it? Actually, one can do any or all of those things, as well as steam, bake, grate, pickle, shred, julienne, braise, sauté, roast, and microwave it; because it augments so many dishes of so many different types.

How to use it? Eastern Europeans have found dozens of uses, and variety names suggest the countries that love it: ‘Large Smooth Prague,’ for example. Include it in a medley of roasted root vegetables that might contain potatoes, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, carrots and even salsify and scorzonera.

Celery root’s real charm is as an adjunct to soups, stews, braised meats, purees, and as a partner with mashed potatoes — especially garlic mashed potatoes. Cut long strips of celery root and add them to the liquid when braising meats such as lamb shanks or other vegetables like Belgian endive. The strips then join roasted carrots as a side dish when the braised food is served.

This side dish couldn’t be simpler to prepare, but it makes something tasty, aromatic, and unusual to accompany grilled Middle Eastern and Turkish-style meats and sausages.

Celery Root with Rice, Bulgarian Style

Makes 4 servings

1 medium to large celery root

5 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup uncooked arborio rice

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1½ cups hot water

— Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Trim and cut the celery root into 1/2-inch cubes. Sauté them in the olive oil until nearly soft.

Add the rice and, stirring frequently, cook over low heat for five minutes.

Add the tomato paste, parsley, hot water, and salt and fresh ground pepper.

Simmer gently for 20-30 minutes, until the rice is done and the liquid mostly absorbed. Sprinkle with grated cheese and serve.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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