Adventures with Celeriac
By Dani Lind | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
Once upon a time I grew way too much celeriac in my garden. It was the year after I had tasted it for the first time: as the new produce buyer at the Viroqua Food Co-op, I thought I was experienced. After all, I had been growing a big vegetable garden for many years, had CSA shares in college and been a cook in a natural foods cafe. But Harmony Valley Farm, the co-op’s main local grower just outside of Viroqua, had all sorts of strange vegetables available that I had never experienced, like scorzonera and crosnes and, well, celeriac. It was ugly and intimidating and I didn’t think anyone would buy it, but after trying it I was hooked by its smooth texture and nutty celery/parsley flavor. I liked it so much that I practically forced it in customers’ shopping baskets that first fall and winter (I confess, I still do). I simply had to grow it the next year in my garden!
I did my homework and found it takes some commitment to grow celeriac. It’s a slow germinator and even slower grower—it can take up to six months from sowing to harvest. So I ordered seeds in January, planted them in trays in February, and babied them with fluorescent lights and careful watering in my living room until they were big enough to transplant outside in May. Fast forward through more watering (it likes quite a bit of water), composting, mulching and weeding, we arrive at September when I was blessed with dozens and dozens (and dozens) of beautifully gnarly, softball-sized celeriac roots. Even after giving lots away to friends and neighbors, it was still a lot of celeriac for one girl to contend with. Needless to say, I had to get really creative with celeriac that winter. I discarded most of the stems and leaves, which are much more pungent and bitter than celery and mostly just good in broths, but the bulbs went in everything! Salads, mashes, gratins, roasts, stews, soups—you name it, I tried it.
Celeriac’s warty-Medusa-space alien appearance never fails to elicit curiosity in first-time shoppers at the co-op, but like me, they have fallen in love with it too, and we currently sell over 10 times as much as we did 10 years ago. Many Wisconsin farmers now grow it, but Harmony Valley is probably still the area’s largest producer.
Richard DeWilde, owner and founder of the farm and pioneer of growing weird vegetables in the Midwest for over 30 years, says he started growing celeriac in the mid 1980s after seeing it in some big city grocery store and thinking it looked enticingly goofy enough to grow. Since then, he’s learned to appreciate this still somewhat obscure vegetable for more than its strange appearance: it’s easier to grow than celery, being more resistant to disease and pests; it stores well through the winter; and it’s tastier and more versatile than celery. It used to be that only the finest chefs and most upscale grocers would purchase it, but in recent years all sorts of Midwest foodies and locavores have caught on, and Richard now grows 1.25 acres of it, about 30,000 plants, which he sells to Madison and Twin Cities food co-ops, restaurants and Whole Foods.