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The Vegetable World's Ugly Duckling: Celeriac

Underneath its warty exterior lies celeriac's perfect, ivory flesh.
Underneath its warty exterior lies celeriac's perfect, ivory flesh.

Greet celeriac, the unsung frog prince of winter vegetables. Pare off its warty exterior and you'll uncover the royal vegetable within: a perfect, ivory-fleshed, winter alternative to potatoes and other starches.

It is surprising that a vegetable that is so delicious, wonderfully hearty and eminently storable -- and makes such a boldly verdant show in the garden -- is practically unrecognized in the try-anything United States.

In Europe, however, celeriac is a historic favorite. The vegetable's most classic employment is in the cold French salad celerie remoulade, in which the root is peeled, grated, "cooked" in lemon juice (or blanched briefly in acidulated water) to lose a bit of its rawness, then dressed with a mustardy mayonnaise.

Celeriac is cousin to anise, carrots, parsley and parsnips, some of which are bred for their edible stalks and tops, others for their edible roots. Celeriac is a celery variety refined over time to produce an increasingly large, solid, globular root just below the soil surface.

Also known as celery root, knob celery and turnip-rooted celery, celeriac developed from the same wild species as did stalk celery. It had medicinal and religious uses in many early civilizations, including those of Egypt, Greece and Italy.

While what the early Greeks called selinon is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey in 800 B.C., celeriac did not become an important vegetable until the Middle Ages. It was first recorded as a food plant in France in 1623, and was commonly cultivated in most of Europe by the end of the 17th century.

Admittedly, celeriac does have a couple of slight drawbacks. If you are going to grow it, it is a rather long-season plant, clocking in at about 112 days from seeding. It's also rather odd-looking.

Aboveground is a gorgeously symmetrical crown of green, celery-like growth radiating from the central knob to about 12 inches. However, pull up this pretty green crown and what you unearth looks like a troll's orb of warts and roots.

Do not be dissuaded. When peeled, celery root's creamy white flesh resembles that of a turnip and tastes like a subtle blend of celery and parsley. Additionally, half a cup contains only 30 calories, no fat and provides an excellent source of dietary fiber.

This time of year, celeriac can be a perfect non-starch substitute for potatoes in a warming meal, and can be prepared in a similar way. Mashed, shaped into batons and boiled, or even French fried, celery root can provide a winning accompaniment to a fresh green vegetable or salad and anything roasted or grilled.

I find a paring knife, rather than a peeler, works best for peeling the root. Shave downward with the blade in broad strokes to remove the thick skin. Drop the peeled bits into a bowl of acidulated water (water into which some lemon juice has been squeezed) immediately after cutting to prevent discoloration. Even if you are planning to fry or bake the celeriac later, parboiling it first for 5 or 10 minutes in acidulated water will soften its raw edge.

When peeled and cooked, this ugly duckling vegetable will become a true culinary swan.

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Jack Staub