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Celery root: The butterfly of vegetables

Posted Oct 07 2011 12:00am
Last April, to reward ourselves for surviving an especially grueling winter, my husband and I drove up to Montreal for the weekend. Now, Montreal might not seem like an obvious spot for an early-spring getaway, but we wanted to visit the Butterflies Go Free exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Garden. Piles of dirty snow still lingered on the street corners, but inside the greenhouse it was nice and toasty. Huge exotic butterflies floated through the air and weightlessly landed on our shoulders, as if they were (ill-advisedly) trying to hitch a ride out of there.

Afterward, we wandered through the other greenhouses feasting our winter-weary eyes on all the lush vegetation. I was in the middle of admiring the pineapple and lemon trees in the Tropical Food Plants section when my stomach announced it was lunchtime.

I’ll spare you my usual griping about how difficult it is to eat well when you’re traveling. Suffice it to say, I haven’t come up with the perfect solution yet. For a day trip, no problem: I carry lunch and/or snacks. For trips longer than that, I bring homemade granola and fruit and soy milk for breakfast and throw myself upon the mercy of the universe the rest of the time, which, it must be said, doesn’t always work out. Too much of the time I wind up eating something I’d rather not.

There’s also serendipity to consider. I mean, I don’t want to eat only from my cooler full of familiar foods. I want to taste the local specialties. I want to luck into a really good meal in an out-of-the-way restaurant. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to eat something exceptional.

At the Montreal Botanical Garden, the sole place to eat within walking distance was the cafeteria, so there we went. As you’d expect, the offerings ran mainly to burgers, tepid-looking pizza, plastic-wrapped sandwiches, and packaged chips. I picked up a little container of coleslaw - the only vegetable in sight - and examined the label. Chemicals aplenty. I put it down again.

That's when I saw some other little containers that read “Celeriac Salad.” The ingredients list: celery root, mayonnaise, vinegar, raisins, salt, and pepper.

Celeriac salad? Without chemicals? Lurking among burgers, pizza, and chips?

Even better: it was delicious. Like a Waldorf salad, but more vegetable-y, not as sweet. Yummy fresh celeriac salad in a museum cafeteria. Who woulda thought?

When I saw celery root for sale at my favorite farm stand last week, I had to buy it. Truthfully, if I hadn’t tried that salad at the Montreal Botanical Garden and loved it, I would have walked right on by. Celery root, also called celeriac, is possibly the ugliest edible object on the planet. It’s gnarly and bumpy and hairy. It looks like something you’d scrape off the bottom of a boat.

Celery root tastes like a mild version of celery. It’s used in casseroles and gratins, mashed like potatoes, or shredded and used raw in salads. It keeps for a long time and stays crisp, so it’s a great fall and winter vegetable. Turns out celeriac salad is a classic French side dish. So that’s what it was doing in the Montreal Botanical Garden cafeteria. Not as out of context as I thought!

But back to the butterflies.

Years ago, when I was first starting to garden, I came upon a strange green pod attached to the underside of a leaf. It was slimy looking and had a row of gold beads on the outside. I couldn’t tell if it was a bug, a worm, or an alien spacecraft, but it looked threatening, so I smashed it with a long-handled shovel, my weapon of choice for annihilating garden pests.

Later, I found out it was a monarch butterfly chrysalis.

I still feel horrible and stupid for having squished it. It’s so easy to reject things when their exteriors are odd and unfamiliar, without giving ourselves a chance to appreciate what might be inside.

Anyway, the homely celery root is one thing that definitely rewards you for looking past its appearance.

Here’s my version of celeriac salad like the one I ate in Montreal.

Butterfly Celeriac Salad

1 1/2 - 2 lbs. celery root, peeled and julienned (about 2 medium)
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and julienned
1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
3/4 cup toasted walnuts
1/2 cup golden raisins
a pinch of sugar
salt and pepper to taste

(To peel celery root, forget the vegetable peeler and use a sharp knife to cut off the knobby brown skin. A mandoline or the grating disc of a food processor is the perfect tool for cutting it into thin matchsticks.)

Mix mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, shallots, sugar, and salt and pepper in a large bowl.

Add julienned celery root and apples and mix to coat with the dressing. Then fold in walnuts and raisins.

This keeps well in the fridge for several days.
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