'Do you have any zeller,' I asked the old woman vendor in Hungarian, meaning the vegetable I knew as celery. She nodded and presented me with a large lumpy, turnip-like object with scrawny dark green stalks that had completely withered in the forty-two degree C heat of the day.
Despite being a food writer with a keen interest in fresh produce, I hadn't yet seen celeriac at our Australian markets and therefore couldn’t help laughing, as I asked — 'What on earth is it?'. 'It’s zeller,' said my cousin. He stressed the word quietly through gritted teeth, while looking straight ahead at the woman. I noticed that he was suddenly flushed and embarrassed. Oops, sort of. I suppose I was having a moment of food culture shock. It was already curious and mildy offensive to me that market shoppers were not permitted under any circumstances to touch or select their fruit and vegetable purchases. And on that topic, my father had been yelled at by a vendor because he had spoken out at the mouldy peaches the vendor had tried to sell us! Times must have been tough back then, I guess. A few years later when my aunt (said cousin's mother) visited from Hungary, she was in awe of our celery (and other produce) and I think she felt she'd landed in food heaven when she visited the markets I was managing!
But now, back to the original topic. Also known as poor man’s celery, celery root, turnip-rooted celery, German celery and celery-knob — celeriac is a native to southern Europe. It was a fashionable vegetable in the 18th and 19th century, particularly in France and Germany. Recent food trends have rekindled this vegetable’s popularity. And rightly so!
Ripe for the market basket between about March and December, celeriac’s versatility makes it perfect for autumn and winter cookery. It's yummy in soups, casseroles, stir fries, salads — or as a base for appetisers instead of bread sticks or crackers. Celeriac can be boiled or steamed for 10-15 minutes until just tender. The cooking time will vary depending on the size of the pieces that you cut. A little lemon juice added to the water will keep older celeriac crisp and white.
Once cooked, serve celeriac piping hot with a cheese sauce, or tossed in butter and fresh herbs. Alternatively, do as the French do — serve celeriac with a decadent hollandaise sauce. Delicieux! You can also add a new dimension to a serving of dull mashed potatoes: simply fold in some mashed celeriac. Simple!
When shopping for at the markets or your greengrocer for celeriac, select a firm small to medium-sized root that feels heavy for its size. Those that feel light are generally hollow or spongy and don't have dense flesh, while the very large tubers can be woody. Choose celeriac with fresh-looking leaves and stalks — and look for those with as smooth a skin as possible. This will make peeling easier and reduce wastage. Store your celeriac in a cool, dark, dry place or pop it into the fridhge, unwashed in a plastic bag. Celeriac should be used within a week of purchase.
In this snippet, I'm sharing with you one of my favourite celeriac recipes. This is my take on a recipe from my colleague, Sue Dodd, at the Sydney Markets Limited and is one I presented years ago on my ABC radio segment. It's based on just a few simple, fresh and flavoursome ingredients: celeriac, capsicum, basil, lemon, garlic, Spanish onions or eschallots, and chicken. I cooked it for my Peter for the first time recently and he loved it.
CHICKEN WITH CELERIAC, BASIL, LEMON & CAPSICUM
1 medium celeriac
2 Spanish onions or eschallots
1 green capsicum
4 chicken breast fillets
1/4 cup plain flour
sea salt and white pepper, to season
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup cream
10 fresh basil leaves
steamed Koshihikari brown rice, serve
Peel and dice the celeriac into bite sized cubes. Slice the onions (or eschallots) and the capsicum. Dust the chicken fillets in seasoned flour (I usually combine the flour, salt and pepper in an oven bag and then pop the meat in with the flour. This ensures an even coating). Heat the oil in a heavy based pan. Saute the onions (or eschallots), capsicum and garlic for a minute or two over a medium heat. Add the chicken fillets and cook until golden brown on each side. Stir in the celeriac and add the remaining ingredients. Cover the pan, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. This recipes serves 4-6 and is particularly tasty when with steamed organic brown Koshihikari rice. Tastes great on day two as well, just reheat it gently!
If you would like to experiment further with celeriac, there are some other delicious recipes from the Sydney Markets Limited here and here and BBC Food also features celeriac dishes here.