As you may recall, I am fond of celery root, aka celeriac. Its potato-like texture and gentle, nutty flavor are lovely in gratins, soups, and all the other usual suspects for root vegetables. I also like it cold or at room temperature: cut into batons, planks, or cubes, cooked, and dressed with a simple vinaigrette, it is tasty and substantial, but refreshing. As long as your olive oil is good, this and perhaps some scallions or red onions are really all you need to make a very satisfying salad. And as you can see, it's also delicately pretty and pale. It is thus especially nice for this time of year, when the markets are largely still full of winter vegetables but your heart is crying SPRING!
The trouble with celery root is that you lose so much of it to peeling. The same gnarled, hairy form that makes it look so much less appetizing than it truly is also makes prep a bit of a hassle and disappointment. Dirt and tough skin are trapped in deep, narrow crevasses that you must cut out ruthlessly, which means you can lose up to a third of the original mass to your preparatory ministrations. However, my recent reading of Lidia Bastianich's Lidia's Family Table has taught me that there is another way.
You can boil or roast the root whole, let it cool a bit, and then the skin will come right off, just as with a potato. You'll still have to do a little bit of excavation in the deeper cracks, but you'll lose much less of the tasty edible part, and it will be much quicker and easier. This works great for gratins -- rather than peel, cut and parboil, you use this method, then slice up the cooked globe and continue on your merry way. It's a snap. And for salads, it's just perfect. Brilliant.
MASTER RECIPE FOR PRE-COOKED CELERIAC
To cook a whole celery root, first give it a quick wash to remove any surface dirt. Put it in a large pan with enough, or nearly enough, cold water to cover it. The root will float, though, so you can either use a pot lid or plate to weight it down (a hassle, in my opinion), or just give it a turn every now and then so that it cooks evenly. With the root in the water, bring the water to a boil. Cook at a gentle boil until the root is tender (when you can pierce it with a thin knife or skewer all the way to the center). This will take about an hour for larger roots, or as little as 30-40 minutes for little ones. Drain and let cool for about ten minutes, or until you can handle it. Scrape off the skin with the side of a spoon or a not-too-sharp butterknife. Use a sharp knife to cut away the bits of skin that remain in folds. Then cut the skinned celeriac into slabs, cubes, matchsticks, or whatever you like.
CELERY ROOT SALAD
One sizable celery root, prepared as above.
1/4 to 1/2 t. salt, to taste
1/2 of a small red onion
3 T. olive oil
1 T. red wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
Sprinkle the peeled, cut celery root with 1/4 t. of salt while it's still warm. Slice the onion into very thin quarter-rounds; that is, cut the half onion in half again, lengthwise, and slice it as thin as you can. Separate the slices into individual shreds. Toss the celery root with the onions and dress with the olive oil and vinegar. Grind plenty of black pepper over top and toss again. Add more salt if needed. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Adapted from a recipe in Lidia's Family Table, by Lidia Bastianich