Ugly, stubby, yet flavorful

The Baltimore Sun

Celery root is awfully ugly, but exceptionally tasty. It's a winter vegetable that looks like a softball that was left in a moist basement and sprouted hair. It has a hide thicker than a two-term congressman. It is also known as celeriac.

If you get past its bug-ugly superficialities and use a sharp knife to scrape off its skin - it laughs at vegetable peelers - celery root delivers some pleasing and novel flavors.

One flavor is similar to that of celery, its distant cousin. While celery is long, green and supple, celeriac is round, dense and stubby. You wonder how they could be connected. Sort of like the short-lived Lyle Lovett-Julia Roberts pairing - an unlikely match, but it happened.

Celery root also adds a pleasing nutty note to other winter vegetables. It does not run with a large crowd. Like a new arrival moving into an old neighborhood, celery root tends to stick to its own kind - potatoes, turnips and other root vegetables, stuff grown underground.

One of my household's favorite celery-root treatments is to peel the vegetable, boil it, mash it and mix it with turnips and potatoes that have undergone the same treatment. There is also a little cream - OK, a lot of cream - that goes in this mixture as well.

This recipe passed along to me by Baltimore restaurateur Marc Dettori, one of the owners of the late Brasserie Tatin, calls for equal parts of mashed potatoes, mashed turnips and mashed celery root.

However, I have seen various recommended ratios of potatoes to turnips to celery root.

A recipe from Joseph Phelps Vineyards in California called for 6 pounds of potatoes (boiled and mashed separately) to 2 pounds of turnips cooked and mashed with 1 pound of celery root. The mashed mixtures are then blended.

Another recipe, from the Turnip Talk Web site, called for equal amounts - 1 1/2 pounds - of potatoes and celery root, and strangely omitted the turnips. The two vegetables are cooked together in water until tender, then passed through a ricer or food mill, and blended with cream.

Recently, I made a salad with celery root. I covered slices of a tart apple with a mixture of mayonnaise, sour cream, fresh dill and parsley. Then I added the celery root in very thin slices, about 1/8 inch thick, which had been cooked in boiling water until tender. The recipe said that this should take about 20 minutes. That was too long. Five minutes, I think, would have done the trick. The salad was pretty good, but mostly tasted of apples. The celery root, overcooked, had lost its snappy flavor.

A winning treatment of this less-than-beauteous root comes from Deborah Madison's The Greens Cookbook. You cut up some winter vegetables - leeks, potatoes and celery root, plus fennel - cover them with cream and bake them in a 375-degree oven.

Like the ugly duckling in the fairy tale, the celery root emerges looking gorgeous.

Correction: In last week's column I inadvertently added a fourth dimension to the description of a batonnet cut. It is 1/4 inch by 1/4 inch by 2 to 2 1/2 inches.

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