Celery root is one of those vegetables you can avoid your whole life without even trying. Its ugly exterior — all those brownish tendrils sticking out of the odd-shaped bulb — all but guarantees its placement in the back of the produce section. That is, if it’s there at all. I cooked happily for years before I brought celery root into my own kitchen, and then only because it was from my CSA and I didn’t want to waste it.
What we call celery root (or celeriac) is the root of a special variety of celery, so it’s not like farmers grow celery and then at the end of the season dig up the root. In taste, celery root is usually described as a cross between strong celery and parsley, but I’ve found our farm-share celeriac to be milder than regular celery, and thus a better choice for picky eaters. The texture is more like a flabby potato, so if you like celery but don’t like the strings, celery root might be a good vegetable for you to meet.
The first time I cooked it, I pureed it and added it to mashed potatoes. The celery root perked up the starch, but my kids objected to the intrusion, both in texture and flavor. I’ve also gently sauteed it with butter as a side dish, and the result was good but not worth repeating.
So I’ve continued to look for new preparations, and last week experimented with a Celery Root-Wild Rice Gratin. Normally, gratins have breadcrumbs on top but this one doesn’t. However, it does have a delicious white sauce to bind the ingredients together. Definitely a step up from the other recipes. A friend who came over for lunch the day after I made it liked the leftovers so much she’s already requested the recipe. My version is adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison.
Celery Root-Wild Rice Gratin
3 cups cooked wild rice, or brown and wild rice mix
1 small leek, washed well and sliced into very thin rings
4 T butter, divided
2 T white flour
1 1/2 cups whole or 2 % milk, heated in the microwave or over the stove until hot
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 celery root, washed, peeled and grated
1 lemon, juiced
3 T chopped parsley
3/4 cup grated Swiss cheese
1/4 cup parmesan
First, cook the rice according to package directions and set aside. (I like to make extra so I have leftovers for fried rice or salads later in the week.)
Next, make the white sauce. Melt 3 T butter and cook leeks for a few minutes over low heat, then add flour and cook, stirring, for two minutes. Add the hot milk and whisk out any lumps. Keep stirring and cook over low heat until thick, about 20 minutes. Add nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a round or oval baking dish. Melt 1 T butter over medium and add garlic. Cook for 30 seconds, then add grated celery root, half the lemon juice and parsley. Continue cooking until tender, about 7-10 minutes. In a large bowl, mix celery root, rice, white sauce, Swiss cheese and parmesan. Taste and add remaining lemon juice if desired, plus salt and pepper and additional nutmeg if necessary. Spoon into prepared dish and bake about 25 minutes.