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Celery Root Chowder - february 10, 2013

At the end of every winter there is one recipe that pulls me through to the spring, as my family’s enjoyment of particular fruits or vegetables dulls with the repetition of eating them over and over. It happens predictably and without fail, this tiring of seasonal produce, every season, every year. The temperature rises, or drops, and we begin to crave something new - our sense of taste and ability to be satisfied adapting with the weather. It takes a truly stellar recipe to rise up, assert its power and prevent much of the farm share or CSA box from going straight into the compost bin during these times.

Last winter it was Deborah Madison’s Celery Root and Wild Rice Chowder, from her cookbook Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. This soup manages to elevate an often maligned vegetable above the usual sloggy puree we find it served as (when we find it at all) while also recreating the salty, herby, chickeny goodness of 1970s Uncle Ben’s boxed wild rice, a childhood favorite of mine. Here, and throughout her book, Madison shows how easy it is to make meals that are healthier, more environmentally sound and much more delicious than their packaged and processed counterparts, with only a small investment of additional time and care. Thankfully, she also covers many less familiar vegetables that can create challenges when they arrive in the CSA box, like parsnip, radish and celery root.

Celery root is a hairy, knobby looking thing that also goes by the names celeriac, turnip rooted celery and, I hope infrequently, celery knob. It has the flavor of celery without strings or bitterness and a texture similar to a creamy, waterlogged potato. In addition to tasting better than its stalky cousin, it keeps well in the fridge, far longer than celery. Which explains partially why it arrives in seasonal produce boxes during winter’s darkest days and helps me understand how it became popular in European cooking, back before there was refrigeration (ever heard of Céleri Rémoulade?). The plant is also easy to grow and develops into a patient vegetable that will hold in cold ground for a while, unlike more hasty plants (cauliflower, cilantro) that can be harvested at their peak only for a few days. That said, celery root is a slow grower, taking nearly twice as long as most other food crops. In my own garden, it hogged an entire row while two consecutive plantings of carrots, more salads than I can count and all of summer’s flowers came and went. By Christmastime it was ready for harvest, and once the new year began, I was ready for it. 

But unluckily for me, so was our resident backyard gopher, who beat me to the roots. By the time I went out for harvest he had already devoured them, leaving their green tops floating magically above celery root sized holes in the ground. Since then, celeriac and leeks have continued to arrive almost weekly in our farm share box, saving me the humiliation of having to replace my loss at the market and allowing for plenty of chowder making practice, so that I am ready for the transition from winter’s dark and rooty dinners to the delightful freshness of spring. 

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Celery Root Chowder: (adapted from Deborah Madison's Local Flavors)

With bread and cheese for the kids and an arugula salad for grown-ups, Celery Root Chowder makes a hearty meal on cold, wet days. It is delicious and after only three or four "trial" dinners, my children finish their bowls without complaint.

1/2 cup wild rice (uncooked)

1 celery root

2 large leeks (white parts only)

2 Tablespoons butter (unsalted)

1 small potato (russet, yellow fin, whatever)

1/4 cup chopped parsley (plus extra for garnish)

2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (these trimmings make a good one)

1 bay leaf

1 thyme sprig

salt 

pepper

Put the rice and 5 cups of water into a small pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer partially covered for 45 minutes or until tender, then drain.

Cut away the skins of the celery roots, they are very thick and you’ll want to get all of it off. Chop them into squarish pieces, 1/2 inch or so. Chop and wash the leeks, being careful to remove dirt from between the layers. The easiest way I’ve found to do this is to cut the greens and root off the leek, then slice it in half lengthwise. Wash each half, removing any grit that is trapped between the layers, then cut them in half lengthwise again and then slice it into thin, horizontal slices. Peel the potato if it has a thick skin, cut it in half and then slice each piece it thinly.

 

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Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the vegetables, parsley, bay leaf, thyme and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes, then add the stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.

Taste for salt and pepper, if the chowder seems to thick, thin it with a little water or stock. Divide the rice into bowls, ladle the chowder on top and sprinkle with parsley.

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