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Rooting for celeriac

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Gnarly, pocked and bulbous, celeriac's looks could kill appetites.

The root vegetable sprouts a Muppet-like shock of bright green stalks that wave pleasantly enough from a mound of soil. The tuber that lies just beneath, however, looks like a candidate for surgical-strength nose-hair trimmers.

Even cleanshaven, its ivory flesh hardly screams "Bite me!" — except in the sardonic sense.

Which would partly explain why American cooks regard celeriac suspiciously, despite its long tradition in the Old World as both an aphrodisiac and a winter staple.

Also called celery root, knob celery or turnip-rooted celery, celeriac is best known in the slawlike French classic celeri remoulade, cut into matchsticks, blanched in lemon juice, then dressed with mayonnaise and mustard or creme fraiche.

Its flavor is reminiscent of parsley and celery. Its texture, however, resembles potato, without the starch.

Moving from France, Beatrice Peltre shopped in vain for celeriac her first year in the United States in 1995.

"My mother made it as a salad at least once or twice a week, and she always added it to the broth in pot-au-feu, a very old dish of boiled beef, with onion, carrots, leek and potatoes," said Peltre, whose award-winning blog La Tartine Gourmande has engendered a cookbook, out this fall.

Scottish-born celebrity chef and international restaurateur Gordon Ramsay also has praised celeriac's nutty note in soups, stews, curries and gratins.

Celeriac is, bit by bit, gaining ground in the U.S.

Jack Staub, whose vegetable and herb gardens at Hortulus Farm in Wrightstown, Pa., have been featured in many publications, deemed celeriac worthy of his book "75 Exciting Vegetables for Your Garden."

He describes celeriac as a cousin to anise, carrots, parsley and parsnips.

"I love the taste of celeriac, even though you can tell it's a vegetable oddity — a troll-like bundle of roots about sums it up," he said. "But all you have to do is cut off that exterior and you've got a lovely white, turniplike substance inside.

"I'm crazy about mashing it with potatoes and some cream and butter and all the bad things that go with the potatoes. And adding truffle oil is superb. I also like roasting it with turnips and carrots and some fennel."

Half a cup of celeriac contains about 30 calories, no cholesterol or fat, and provides dietary fiber, Staub said. Like other root vegetables, celeriac can be stored for weeks, even months, if kept cool and dry, making it a winter workhorse.

Peltre happily finds it in Boston now, not only at seasonal farmers markets but also supermarkets.

"One of the first times I bought it in a more common place, the people asked me, 'What do you do with this thing?'" she said.

Where to begin? she thought: soups, salad, roasted, French-fried, in gratin dauphinois (combined with thin slices of potatoes, milk, cream and nutmeg — "no need of cheese," she insists).

But proper handling requires some skill.

"You have to cut it in half, and sometimes it has a spongy texture in the middle that you have to remove," Peltre said.

"If you have a mandoline to slice the vegetable, it makes the job much easier. It wouldn't slice as easily as potatoes because it's much firmer."

She has even mashed it with vanilla, added fresh pomegranate seeds and drizzled pomegranate molasses on the side, which makes for two aphrodisiacs in one dish.

Valentine's dinner, anyone?

wdonahue@tribune.com

To grow your own celeriac

Celeriac typically takes about six months from seeding to maturity, although the root is edible at any earlier stage, Jack Staub writes in his book "75 Exciting Vegetables for Your Garden." He recommends starting seeds indoors three months before first frost date; germination can take three to four weeks. Transplant just after the last frost, 10 inches apart, and keep soil well-watered. Consider adding a layer of mulch. "Harvest the roots when baseball-size and, just like the Frog Prince, when you pare off the warty exterior, you will magically reveal the enchanting pale flesh within," Staub writes.

— W.D.

Potato and celeriac gratin

Adapted from a recipe from Beatrice Peltre (latartinegourmande.com),

Prep: 45 minutes

Infuse: 30 minutes

Cook: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Makes: 8 servings

1 1/2 cups each: whole milk, whipping cream

3 cloves garlic, 2 crushed, 1 whole

3 sprigs thyme

1 1/2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced

1 1/4 pounds celeriac, peeled, thinly sliced

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons butter

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

1. Heat milk and cream just to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the 2 crushed garlic cloves and the thyme. Remove from the heat; cover. Let infuse 30 minutes. Strain.

2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place the potatoes and celeriac on two different plates; season with salt and pepper. Rub the inside of a large gratin or baking dish (or individual gratin dishes) with the garlic clove; grease dish liberally with butter. Arrange the vegetables in alternating layers, starting and ending with potatoes. Add the chopped parsley to the milk/cream mixture; pour over the vegetables. Sprinkle with nutmeg.

3. Bake until the vegetables are tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 1 hour, 15 minutes (if your molds are small, check after 35 or 40 minutes).

Nutrition information

Per serving: 287 calories, 60% of calories from fat, 19 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 69 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 320 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Vanilla-flavored celery mash with pomegranate sauce

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 30 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

Adapted from a recipe by Beatrice Peltre (latartinegourmande.com), who writes, "If you cannot find pomegranate molasses — I find mine in a Lebanese delicatessen — I suggest buying pomegranate juice (with sugar) and reducing it on low heat until the consistency is syrup-like."

1 tablespoon each: butter, olive oil

1 pound celery root, peeled, cut in chunks

1 cup whole milk

2 sprigs thyme

1/2 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped out

Freshly ground pepper

1/3 cup pomegranate molasses

2 to 3 tablespoons fresh pomegranate seeds, optional

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat; add the olive oil. Heat; add the celery root. Cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Add the milk, thyme and vanilla bean. Heat to a simmer; cook until the celery root is tender, about 20 minutes.

2. Discard the vanilla bean and thyme. Transfer the celery root and milk to a food processor; puree. Season with pepper.

3. Heat the pomegranate molasses in a saucepan on low heat. Divide the puree among 4 plates. Drizzle pomegranate sauce over each; sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and salt.

Nutrition information

Per serving: 209 calories, 36% of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 372 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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