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Rooting around

Lightly toast fennel seeds and pink peppercorns, and then grind them to make a flavorful slaw.

March 10, 2014

By this time every winter, the promise of spring becomes almost painfully tantalizing. Though we still gravitate to the soups, stews and casseroles that insulate us from those howling storms, thoughts drift to baby greens and the first tender asparagus of the season. But those are weeks away, and we who like to eat local must try to make do with our dwindling stockpile of root vegetables. One of my favorites, for its incredible versatility and nutty sweetness, is celery root (Apium graveolens rapaceum), also known as celeriac, turnip-rooted celery or knob celery. You’ve probably come across this rather gnarly creature at farmers’ markets and in neglected bins at the grocery store. It’s actually a kind of celery grown for its bulbous root rather than for its stems and leaves. A good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals, it’s only about 5% starch, which is much lighter than potatoes or yams. Stored between 32 and 41 degrees, celery root keeps well for several months and so is a staple of the winter pantry.

One of my favorite ways to eat this celery-flavored root is as soup, first braised in a combination of stock and milk, then pureed for a smooth texture. Because it pairs exceptionally well with dairy, I’ll often stir in a handful of sharp cheddar or smoked gouda and garnish a bowl of this with a few toasted walnuts. Celery root is also wonderful with potatoes, both of them sliced paper-thin and layered in a casserole dish with a little butter and cream and a few gratings of fresh nutmeg for a delicious baked gratin. It even roasts up nicely in chunks alongside a whole chicken. Danish chef René Redzepi, known for his sublime renditions of everyday ingredients, pot-roasts whole celery roots with butter and herbs, and then serves them with a creamy sauce of buttermilk and black olives. This sounds like something I’d be happy to eat in any season.

But when I’ve got a real hankering for something that smacks of spring, or simply want a dish that can lighten up a heavy meal, I like to eat celery root in its crunchy raw state. This is not an original idea, as the French have long enjoyed their céléri rémoulade, with its creamy, Dijon mustard-spiked dressing, particularly good alongside pan-fried crab cakes. I make a different kind of slaw, with tangy apples to complement the celery root and a piquant dressing infused with citrus zest, horseradish and pink peppercorns. If you’re feeling creative, you can experiment with adding other kinds of raw root vegetables, including beets, fennel, carrots, parsnips and radishes.