On Good Friday, 1690, the Duc d’Orleans provided a feast of only root vegetables. It became the talk of the town, no doubt, because he was a rich aristocrat and slumming it with root vegetables instead of, say, cockscomb fricasée, was a revolutionary move. It was the punk rock of state dinners – a glimpse of what the poor classes ate, served in high style.
The Duke could afford to maintain a greenhouse and several employees, including hunter gatherers, whose days consisted of procuring wonderous foodstuffs for his table. Roots, however, were the mainstay of the oppressed classes, food that grew beneath the ground and lasted the entire winter if properly stored.
The gnarly root of the celery plant is of a particular variety - one that has a fat, tasty bulb and somewhat lackluster stalks. It can be the size of a turnip or grow the width of a cantaloupe and has a delightful, mild, celery scent, due to the essential oil called “apiol”.
In Europe this root, also called celeriac, is used much more than the stalks and is considered appropriate in the hautest cuisine. Kurt Gutenbrunner, the Austrian chef-owner of Manhattan's acclaimed Wallsé restaurant, says the vegetable even has sentimental value. "Celery root is a touchstone for people in Germany," he claims.
In France we find it grated raw and tossed with mayonnaise or crème fraiche and chives. But it can also be braised, sautéed, baked, sliced thin and deepfried, gratinéed and puréed, and probably even vaporized and flash-frozen in nitrogen if you like.
In some of the more archaic English botanical writings, the celery plant is referred to as “smallage”, which comes from “small ache”-- “ache” being an old French name for the vegetable. In Homer’s Odyssey it is called “selinon”, from which our modern name is derived. Used during his time as an herbal flavoring more than a vegetable, it also made appearances at funerals where the stalks were woven into garlands.
Celery-root is hard as a rock and best peeled before eating. Like potato or apple, it needs acid to prevent it from discoloring after it is cut. Irish chef Cathal Armstrong roasts the vegetable with his Christmas Rib Roast. His advice in dealing with the gnarled root is to "think of it like a pineapple--cut off the top and bottom and peel it with a big knife."
Celery Root Hashbrowns
1 celery root, approx 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound
1 russet potato, approx 1/2 to 3/4 of a pound
4 green onions, minced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Peel and grate the celery root and potato. Toss them with your hands, along with the green onion, salt and pepper. Preheat a 10" heavy skillet and add one tablespoon of the oil. Heat the oil until it ripples, about 1 minute, then add the celery root & potato mixture. Flatten it with the spatula, add a lid and let it cook over medium heat about 7 minutes.
Flip the mixture over and add more olive oil as needed - the mixture will be a little damp and may stick a little and break, but that is fine. Cook until the bottom gets color, about another 5-7 minutes. Great with eggs or on its own with crumbled goat cheese or thick Greek yogurt on top.