On a recent trip to Montreal, amongst a sea of bagels, smoked meat and poutine, I was surprised to find an abundance of celery root. Okay, maybe it didn’t quite have an incredibly abundant presence at the poutineries I visited, but I was happy to see a variety of restaurants around the city featuring it in one way or another on their menus.
It’s about time. Also known as celeriac, this dense, bulbous and craggy root vegetable is one of my favourites. It’s incredibly versatile, which may be why so many chefs in Montreal are putting it on their plates.
The farm-to-table and Nordic food movements have helped bring lesser appreciated “ugly” vegetables, such as celeriac, back into our hearts and minds. And as celery root thrives in colder climates, it makes sense that local farmers in Quebec would grow it. In turn, chefs who follow these movements and their practices are more likely to be asking for vegetables such as this. The two phenomena combined create an opportunity for this local ingredient to become the new exotic, in a way, and that’s something that really excites me. We can all benefit from reclaiming food that is grown naturally in our own backyards, rather than shipped around the world to make it to our dinner tables.
Still, celery root isn’t much to look at. It is easily missed in favour of brightly coloured butternut squash or the well-understood cauliflower. I get it. This beastly bulb, ranging in size anywhere from that of an apple to a small melon, can be intimidating. But what it lacks in polished exterior, it certainly makes up for in delicious flavour. Distinctive and herbaceous in a parsley meets celery kind of way, celery root’s inherent nutty flavour is enhanced with roasting. It is delicious served alongside pork or seafood, but can just as easily be cooked into soups or purées, and it can also be eaten raw.
Despite being related, celery and celery root are not grown from the same plant. Celeriac comes from a varietal of celery that favours the root as opposed to the light green, stringy stalks we are used to snacking on. And though very similar in flavour, they are not really interchangeable in recipes as their textures vary greatly.
One of my favourite ways to prepare celery root is to salt bake it. Salt baking is an ancient technique that requires coating the root in a simple paste made from salt, flour, sugar and water. The resulting shell hardens as it bakes, sealing in any moisture that is released from the root and in turn seasoning it as it steams and cooks in its own juices.
Before getting started, I always like to give the celeriac a good rinse in order to remove any dirt that may still be left clinging to the surface. Run the root under cold water and use a vegetable brush to rub away any bits of soil that might be stuck between the bumps of its rooty exterior.
Salt-Baked Celery Root with Warm Bacon and Wild Mushroom Vinaigrette
Ingredients (Serves 6)
Thyme-infused sea salt crust
- 3⅓ cups flour
- 1 cup coarse grey sea salt
- ⅓ cup sugar
- ¼ cup fresh thyme, hard stems removed, loosely packed
- 1⅛ cup cold water
- 2 medium-sized celery root (approximately 1 lb each)
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Combine the dry ingredients and the fresh thyme in a medium-sized bowl. Add the water and stir. Knead together well until the mixture becomes a smooth, soft dough flecked with pieces of coarse salt and thyme.
Divide the dough into two balls. Roll each ball to 1 cm thickness on a well-floured surface and place one celery root in the middle of each circle of dough. Wrap the pastry up around each celery root so that it is completely sealed inside the dough. Use your hands to work the pastry as necessary to ensure there are no gaps or holes.
Place the wrapped celery root on a parchment-lined tray and bake in the oven for 1-1 1/2 hours. The salt-crust will brown and harden and the celery root will become completely cooked and tender all the way to its core. To test the doneness, insert a skewer through the salt crust into the middle of the celery root.
When the celery root is cooked, remove from the oven and allow to cool for 15-20 minutes or until it is cool enough to handle. Using your hands, break off the salt crust and discard.
Using a knife, cut off the top and the bottom of each celery root. Cut away the outermost layer of skin from the root and discard. Portion each root into quarters and then cut each piece in half crosswise. Set aside.
Celery root purée
- 1 medium-sized celery root, diced, peel removed (approximately 3 cups)
- ½ cup whipping cream or 2 per cent milk
- ½ cup water
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 sprigs thyme
Heat all ingredients in a pot over medium heat until it comes to a simmer. Cover the surface with a piece of parchment paper and cook at a low simmer for around 25 minutes or until the celery root is tender. The parchment paper helps steam the celery root while minimizing evaporation of the cooking liquid.
Once cooked, strain the celery root, but make sure to conserve the cooking liquid. Discard the thyme sprigs. Place the celery root in the blender or a food processor. Add half the reserved cooking liquid and begin to blend into a purée. Continue to blend and add more of the remaining cooking liquid as necessary until a very smooth and shiny puree is achieved. Keep warm and set aside.
Warm bacon and wild mushroom vinaigrette
- 1 cup bacon, sliced into lardons
- 2 cups wild mushrooms (such as yellowfoots or chanterelles), cleaned
- 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (can substitute red wine or apple cider vinegar)
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- ¼ cup shallot, finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ⅛ cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, stems removed
- 10 grinds freshly cracked black pepper
Render the bacon over high heat with 2 tablespoons water in a frying pan. Once water has evaporated, reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until bacon is brown and crisped. Add the mushrooms and sautee with the bacon for 1-2 minutes until softened. Add the vinegar, maple syrup, shallots and ¼ cup water. Simmer and reduce by half.
Remove from heat and stir in the garlic, olive oil, fresh parsley and thyme. Season with black pepper. Set aside and keep warm until ready to plate.
Putting it all together
- 2 salt-baked celery root, portioned
- Warm bacon and wild mushroom vinaigrette
- Celery root purée, warmed
- Fresh thyme and parsley, for garnish
Toss the trimmed and portioned celery root pieces in the warm vinaigrette. Serve this mixture on a bed of warmed celery root purée. Garnish with fresh thyme and parsley. Serve immediately.