You are not alone. The cashier at our local grocery store didn’t know what it was either.
When I explained to her that it was celery root, or celeriac, I remembered the day when I first encountered celery root (beware, gentle reader, a somewhat Proustian moment is about to ensue).
I was a (not-very-enthusiastic and rather undocumented) jeune fille au pair in Paris – a nanny/housekeeper for a divorced, working mom with two kids. I understand Madame D. a lot better now that I am a single parent, but back then, all I could understand was that she was underpaying me for a lot of domestic work that didn’t let me take French lessons or frequent cafés in the manner which I thought more befitting my station. It didn’t even let me buy enough food. At the weekends, when I didn’t eat with the family, I skipped a lot of meals. In turn, Madame D. was clear that, while I had certain likeable qualities, I was pretty much an American brat who did not know much about anything at all. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
- Celery root has a certain je ne sais quoi, non?
Anyhoo, I pretended not to be able to cook in order to avoid having to cook, but when she brought home this homely, knobbly, ugly softball of a vegetable, I was not faking my ignorance. I was truly mystified. Qu’est-ce que c’est? Or, in today’s common parlance: WTF?
Madame D. explained that because Americans are wasteful, they don’t use the bulby root of celery stalks, while the French, in their infinite superiority, understood its sublime nature and made it a national dish – celeriac remoulade (which we are not doing today, so don’t get excited, but coming soon!).
I nodded and watched her make the remoulade (celeriac slaw with mayo and mustard powder, basically) and it was indeed sublime ( breath of relief, as Madame. D. French or not, was not much of a cook, but since I was pretending not to be able to cook myself, I ate what I was given. And took seconds if they were ever offered, even if I shocked the family. I was hungry!!!!!).
As it turns out, Madame D. was correct that celeriac is good stuff, but this time, it wasn’t a case of Americans chopping off the best part of a plant out of stupidity. Celeriac (Apium graveolens rapaceum) is not at all the root of the celery stalk (Apium graveolens dulce) so ubiquitous in the American supermarket. They are all celery, but distinct forms of it. And in fact, it turns out to have a lot of uses in the Puerto Rican kitchen, but I have only just begun to explore that.
Which brings me back to the local IGA (independent grocery) and the lumpy celeriac sitting in a corner, ignored. I was actually charged with taking a salad to a St. Patrick’s Day dinner party and was hoping to find something novel to add to it. And there was my answer. The Mystery Root.
When you get your celery root ready, pop it into a bowl of cold salted water until ready to cut up. It will oxidize and like Princess Fiona, return to its natural ogre-like state.
To prepare, rinse. Slice off each end and pare off the tough skin with a knife. plunge in cold salted water until ready to use. You can boil it with potatoes (1 part celeriac: 2-3 parts potato) in your favorite mashed potato recipe, or make remoulade (again, I may just make some today. I’ll keep you “posted”) or, do as I did: grate it raw into a green salad and add apples and grated carrot. Mustardy-mayonnaise-y dressings are good matches for the celeriac, which tastes a lot like…well, celery!