Celery Root/Celeriac

Seeing celery root for the first time in a winter vegetable garden, it’s easy to imagine that the leafy green, stalk-like tops are the edible parts.  They do look a lot like celery, but in fact they are tough and bitter.  The part to eat is the gnarly-looking, softball-sized bulb that sits beneath the stalks and above the soil line.

Loosen and pull it from the ground and there’s another surprise.  Celery root is not a single root like carrots, parsnips or turnips.  Instead, a wild tangle of inedible roots covers the bottom of the bulb.  To get to the tasty bulb, you need to cut away both the celery-like top (no more celery) and root-covered bottom (no more roots).  Its other name, celeriac, is much less misleading.

I discovered celery root/celeraic in books on winter gardening when I moved to the northwest thirty years ago. Once I became aware of it, I started noticing intriguing recipes for it in cookbooks and magazines, inspiration for putting some effort into figuring out how to grow this odd-looking but delicious winter vegetable.

Over the years, I’ve learned that celery root is not difficult to grow here in the marine northwest but it does take a long time to mature.  I start seeds indoors around the end of March and set seedlings out in the garden in mid-May.  By late September the bulbs are mature, weighing one to two pounds trimmed, but I usually wait until we’ve had a frost or two to harvest it because celery root is one of the many winter vegetables that is sweeter after a frost.

The seeds are a bit smaller than carrot seeds and germinate slowly and unevenly over several weeks.  I start them in 2” pots filled with fine potting soil, planting two or three seeds per pot, covering them lightly, setting the pots on a heat mat and keeping the soil moist.  My goal is to have forty plants to set out so I plant that many pots and thin to the strongest plant in each pot.  When they are about three inches tall, I harden them off and set them out in the garden eight inches apart in rows one foot apart.  I’ve learned that the plants won’t thrive if nighttime temperatures stay cool so I usually cover the new transplants with Reemay for the first month or so.

The transplants grow slowly but steadily over the summer.  I mulch them once they are established and then the only thing I need to do until fall harvest is to keep them well watered.  Some sources I’ve read suggest that if they dry out or are watered unevenly, they can become bitter.  Aside from this watering requirement, they are like so many winter vegetables: trouble and pest-free.

I prefer to leave them in the ground rather than pick and store them all so in late fall I mulch them very heavily, piling old hay up over the bulbs and around the stems.  If temperatures in the low twenties are forecast, I’ll cover them with lumber wrap and if temperatures in the teens are forecast I’ll pile more hay over the lumber wrap.  This cold protection is a bit of a fuss but it’s worth it to have this tasty vegetable in the kitchen garden all winter long.

For the last several years, my favorite way to fix celery root has been to turn it into raw salads.  After cutting the bulb in half and slicing off the thick outer skin, I cut the creamy white inner flesh into matchstick-sized strips, toss them in cider or white wine vinegar to which I’ve added diced shallots, salt and perhaps some Dijon mustard and let them sit for an hour or so.  For a pound and a half of celery root, I use a quarter cup of vinegar, half a teaspoon of sea salt, one to two tablespoons of minced shallot and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard.  Some recipes suggest blanching the celery root pieces for a minute in boiling water first, but I’ve found that simply marinating works better to slightly soften the strips but keep their crispness.  Celery root does discolor unless it’s put in a vinegar marinade or a lemon juice and water mixture soon after cutting so I make the marinade first.

Add some olive oil and you have a simple salad that features the nutty, subtly sweet celery and parsley flavors of celery root.  For a richer experience, add some mayonnaise and heavy cream to create the classic French remoulade.  For more flavors and visual interest, however, I often add diced apples, skins still on for color, maybe some toasted hazelnuts or pecans, some crumbled Gorgonzola or blue cheese if I have it, some chopped parsley or some mache.  The mix of crisp and crunchy textures and nutty, sweet and sharp flavors makes a perfect winter salad.

But celery root is wonderful cooked too.  One classic recipe I return to at least once a winter is Alice Waters’ Delicata Squash, Potato and Celery Root Puree from Chez Panisse Vegetables (1996).  It’s sweet and softly orange from the squash, earthy from the potatoes and mysteriously nutty from the celery root.  This Christmas I served it with a pork roast and apples sautéed with onions.

As this recipe shows, celery root blends well with other winter vegetables—squash, potatoes, turnips, carrots, leeks—in purees and also in soups. Mixed with winter roots and roasted its flavor adds another earthy note.  It’s also delicious by itself roughly mashed, pureed or roasted in chunks or slices. Google recipes for celery root and you’ll find pages of inspiration.

And if you’re inspired to try growing celery root this year, the most available variety is Brilliant.  I get my seeds from Fedco whose catalog description will convince you to try it if this post hasn’t already.