Celery root, or celeriac, is to leafy stalk celery as, say, onions are to chives. They’re in the same family, yes (parsley/carrot family), but the resemblance gets kind of sketchy from there. I suppose you could cut the top off the celeriac, like a carrot, and sprout leaves for decoration, but that’s not the part you eat. The gnarly, knobby root is the part you hack and wack at, revealing a creamy aromatic center from which to culinate (culinate?)…
Referencing from the book Edible – An Illustrated Guide to the World’s Food Plants (published by National Geographic, Washington, D.C.), celeriac – Apium graveolens var. rapaceum – was “developed from traditional celery in areas around the Mediterranean sometime in the late 1500s to early 1600s” by breeding celery plants sporting enlarged roots. By the 1700s this ugly duckling root vegetable was popular throughout Europe, but never took off too well in the United States, until recently that is. This root takes up to 200 days to grow to full maturity, which makes it difficult to grow in northern climates, although some shorter day varieties do exist. Stalk celery, sometimes called smallage, can still be found growing wild in the Mediterranean region and warmer Asian climes; it is much smaller and more bitter than the juicy stalks we are accustomed to, but is nevertheless the real thing.
Cooking with celery root is only as challenging as getting your heavy-duty chef’s knife to carefully split it down the center in order to pare away at the thick peel. Be careful! I love how it’s tentacle-like smaller rootlets swirl and curl, looking not unlike some sort of sea-creature. The smell is aromatic, starchy yet celery-like. Once cooked, the aroma lessens a bit, and adds a nice, velvety texture to the soup or stew you’re fixing. Which is what we’ll be doing here.
If you have read my book The Wild & Weedy Apothecary then you’ll be familiar with making chicken soup stock/broth. If not (get on with it!), just follow along with me here and the soup will turn out just fine. You can purchase organic chicken stock at most grocery stores; if you can’t find organic, look for broth without MSG or other nasty chemicals. Check for sodium content as well.
What I’m making here is simply an incarnation of regular old chicken soup, but this soup is to be served for supper, so it needs some body. Let’s get started.
I remember reading a Chinese cooking book many years ago which talked about flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and “golden”, which I would equate with “umami” or “savory mouth-feel”. Uh-huh. Some flavorologists would also add metallic and pungent to this list of flavors our tongue can distinguish, but pungent might be considered less of a flavor and more of a physiological response. As we all know, aromas are not merely physical sensations, but also and more importantly psychological connections – especially to memories!
Once you taste this soup, you will remember that Celery Root, or Celeriac, is not to be ignored in the produce section of your grocery store, or farmer’s market if you live somewhere with a long enough growing season. Let it’s somewhat homely exterior soften your heart like a bulldog pup – you gotta love it!