The Forgotten Root, Celeriac, and a Gratin To Use it Up
By Taryn Hubbard
Come March, my body starts to crave new, fresh foods—soft baby arugula, emerald green spinach, and the glowing red of rhubarb. Those cravings usually begin at the first sight of snowdrops poking up from beneath their white wintry blanket. Because of this year’s mild winter, those cravings have come early (and I’ve even seen snowdrops already in the Ithaca Commons). However, it is still February, and I am lucky to find any fresh greens at the farmers market to please my appetite.
Reality hits when I open my refrigerator. The crisper is still packed with winter’s storage—a few rutabaga, a bag full of beets, a bunch of carrots, and the last of the cabbage reserved for sauerkraut making. While these are all great staples, there is one root that sits, unwashed, in the back of my fridge, destined to be an ingredient in nearly any root-heavy meal: celeriac.
Dirty, knobby, and generally funky-shaped, celeriac is delicious. Its flavor has a kick of celery and its texture, smoother than the best potato. When I first met celeriac years ago, I was intimidated. Though I am ashamed of it now, I have let a few end up in the compost because of ugliness and unfamiliarity. What do you do with celeriac? The answer: everything (just peel it first).
Roast it with other roots and cloves of garlic with a dab of butter and a squeeze of lemon; peel it into ribbons for a roots-y salad, or shred some with a cheese grater atop winter greens. Mash it up with potatoes, or sneak it into a winter vegetable soup or stew—think potato-leek-celeriac soup or a winter vegetable stew with squash, potatoes, celeriac, and kale.
Celeriac is one of the most all purpose winter root vegetables; in fact, many of my favorite winter dishes would not be the same without its inclusion. But to really show it off, crisp it up in a gratin.
Celeriac Potato Gratin
1 tablespoon butter, plus extra for greasing baking dish
2 cloves garlic, minced, plus one clove for baking dish
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 leek, white and light green parts, washed thoroughly and sliced thin
1 cup whole milk (I love Ithaca Milk‘s cream on top)
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 sprigs thyme, removed from stems and chopped
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 pound celeriac, peeled
1 pound gold potatoes, peeling optional
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated
½ cup shredded gruyere or a nutty local cheese such as Northland Sheep Dairy‘s Folie Bergère, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 400° F. Rub an 8×8 baking dish with one clove of garlic and grease liberally with butter.
Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a medium skillet. Sauté onion and leek until softened. Add minced garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes until fragrant. Remove from heat.
Gently heat milk and cream in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally until bubbles begin to form around the outside and milk is steamy. Stir in thyme and parsley and set aside. The original recipe calls for you to steep whole sprigs of thyme and 2 cloves of garlic in the warm milk & cream for 30 minutes. Feel free to try this if you plan ahead, but the dish is still delicious without the steeping. If you do this, omit garlic from the onions, strain out solids, stir in the parsley just before pouring into baking dish.
Slice celeriac and potatoes into thin rounds. Season them with salt and pepper in separate bowls. Combine cheeses in an additional bowl.
Arrange gratin layers on top of one another: potato, celeriac, leek & onion, and cheese, continually, until ingredients have been finished. Pour warm milk and cream over layers and top with freshly grated nutmeg.
Bake 40-50 minutes, until all of the liquid is absorbed and the top is browned and bubbly. Let cool for a few minutes and serve hot with a side of greens as a reminder of warmer days to come.
Taryn Hubbard works at West Haven Farm in Ithaca, where she also cooks, bakes and preserves local food, tends to her community garden plot and plays with her cat, Acorn.