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Celery Root: The Soup That Ate Manhattan

The celery root soup at Gramercy Tavern is an enigma capped by a Parmesan puzzle. It comes in a tall bowl completely covered by a crunchy sheet of melted cheese, and topped with a mound of crème fraîche, black truffles and celery leaves. Your first few spoonfuls are spent trying to figure out how to get through the fripperies and into the soup.

Eating it is a strange experience, but it's not uncommon anymore. Celery root has become the inspiration for extravagance in all the high-end kitchens.

Chefs always work in mysterious ways, but their romance with celery root is one of the oddest in recent culinary history. This is a vegetable that makes freshly dug potatoes look pretty, a big gnarly knob with a tough hide that leaves no doubt about its underground origins. Its faint scent is literally earthy, with just a hint of regular green stalk celery. With its leafy top still attached, in fact, it looks like the mutant in the celery family.

Raw, it's a spectacular ingredient, pungent and crunchy and almost nutty. Those virtues are tasted to best effect in céleri rémoulade, with skinny strips of it well dressed with mayonnaise, mustard and parsley. After cooking, its flavor is notorious for playing hard to get.

And yet a surprising number of chefs are simmering away, converting the crunchy bulbs into smooth purées and then trying to add a little excitement with slabs of foie gras or shavings of black truffles or spoonfuls of caviar. In the process, they turn a simple bowl of soup into a knife-and-fork affair. You wind up filling up on the garnishes and neglecting the soup.

In the last week I had celery root soup not just at Gramercy Tavern but also at Daniel (with foie gras and apples), Jean Georges (with maple syrup), Gotham Bar and Grill (with foie gras and pears) and Mercer Kitchen (with great pleasure, and great surprise). I heard it had been featured from Balthazar in SoHo to Payard on the Upper East Side to Ouest on the Upper West Side and is occasionally even on the blackboard at the new Cafe Medina, off Union Square.

After a while I started conjuring wicked images of chefs as schoolgirls, not calling each other to coordinate what outfits they would wear the next day but secretly making plans to form a soup clique. Menus are among the most competitive forms of writing, but often they read like echoes. Especially when they all call a root a root rather than using the more enticing name celeriac.

Great minds generally tend to blend alike when it comes to soup; last winter, the word was rarely seen on a menu without butternut squash and apple preceding it. But the outbreak of celery root is still puzzling.

When I asked chefs about it, most seemed shocked, shocked to hear that their unique creations had rivals. Alfred Portale, of Gotham, was particularly indignant. "I don't see it as such a trend," he said. "I've been using it for years - I made celery root purée with gamy-type dishes in France in 1983." Daniel Boulud smilingly said he did not eat out enough to know what the competition might be cooking.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten said his celery root soup with chestnuts and pancetta had been on the menu at his Mercer Kitchen in winters past. Now, he has a foamy one sweetened with maple syrup as part of the amuse-bouche at Jean Georges, a raised- pinky production you sip from a dainty cup.

John Schaefer, the chef de cuisine at Gramercy Tavern, said the Parmesan- capped celery root soup served there had also been on the menu in previous winters. The virtue of the vegetable, he said, is that it is "very hearty without starchiness." Mr. Vongerichten had a similar sentiment, saying celery root is "earthy but delicate."

Mr. Boulud had a more obvious answer. Because his menus are so seasonal, he said, celery root is a natural choice in February, especially in combination with winter's apples and chestnuts. "I think more and more chefs are cooking seasonally," he said. "And for cooks who are trying to find their soul and balance, the seasons are very important."

Certainly any chefs trying to build a menu with primarily local ingredients would reach for celery root. Along with potatoes, squash, onions, salsify and Jerusalem artichokes, it is one of the few vegetables consistently available this time of year at the Greenmarket at Union Square. Nationally, the best supplies are in supermarkets from October to April.

But seasonal correctness alone does not explain celery root's takeover of the stockpot. Chefs are also still using squash, as well as white beans, wild mushrooms or onions for their February soups (refreshingly, not one restaurant seems to be doing asparagus or fresh pea).

Mr. Boulud acknowledged that chefs are influenced by trends they read or hear about. Mentioning rutabagas, he said: "There's no fashion for it yet. Who knows? Maybe that will be the next craze. Or parsnips."

Either of those could fill in just as easily in the celery root bowl. In years past, Mr. Boulud has made similar soups with apples and chestnuts both at Daniel and Cafe Boulud. Mr. Portale, too, had a very similar soup, enhanced with diver scallops and caviar, on previous menus, but it was based on cauliflower instead.

That interchangeability is why the French Culinary Institute includes celery root purée in its curriculum. According to Alain Sailhac, the school's senior dean of studies, students learn that all they have to do to make a smooth soup is sweat onions and leeks in butter, add chicken stock and a diced vegetable and simmer everything until it's very soft, then purée it in a blender. What works with celery root is just as good with carrots, and in the school's restaurant, L'École, a special features the two purées ladled into one orange-and-white bowlful.

None of this, of course, explains why chefs looking for an unusual ingredient don't just scrub Jerusalem artichokes and be done with it. Celery root has a thick, nubbly skin that has to be scraped away; the yellowish- white flesh within will turn rusty brown unless it is immersed in water with something acidic like lemon added. And because it is so woody, it needs long cooking to soften up for the blender or food processor.

In short, it's a lot of work for a little trendiness.

I had pretty much lost faith in the whole concept by the time I ordered the soup at Mercer Kitchen. What arrived was not encouraging, either, a chunky taupe bowlful that made me think of dinner in Dickens. In that see-and-be-seen setting, it had all the subtlety of a lumberjack in a spa.

But with the first spoonful, I understood. The more you refine celery root, the less taste you get. This one had clearly bypassed the blender. Cubes of the root were mingled with rough chunks of chestnut and slabs of pancetta. Every bite was three-part harmony, even before the crème fraîche and slices of Parmesan kicked in.

This time, I didn't wonder where the flavor went.

Celery Root and Pear Soup
Time: 1 hour

2 tablespoons canola oil
2 medium celery roots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 leek, white part only, chopped
2 quarts chicken stock, more as needed
1 Idaho potato, peeled and diced
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and chopped
Bouquet garni (2 sprigs thyme, 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, tied in cheesecloth)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons butter, optional.

In a large soup pot over medium heat, heat oil and add celery root, celery, onion, garlic and leek. Sauté until vegetables begin to soften without browning, 10 to 15 minutes.

Add stock, potato, pears and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 35 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Strain soup through a coarse strainer, reserving vegetables and stock separately. Remove and discard bouquet garni. Using a blender or food processor, purée vegetables in batches, adding stock as necessary to blend smoothly. Strain soup through a fine- meshed strainer, and return to stove. Adjust consistency: if soup is too thick, add a little stock. If too thin, simmer until thickened to taste. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, and if desired, swirl in butter to richen soup.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Adapted from Alfred Portale

Chestnut and Celery Root Soup
Time: 30 minutes

4 1/2 tablespoons butter
6 ounces thinly sliced pancetta, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
4 small or 2 large celery roots, peeled and diced
2 celery hearts (white part only), finely diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 pound chestnuts, cooked and peeled (available in specialty markets)
5 juniper berries, crushed
4 bay leaves, center spine removed, finely chopped
4 1/2 cups chicken stock, or as needed
Extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup crème fraîche.

In large pot, combine butter and pancetta. Sauté gently over medium-low heat until pancetta is translucent. Add celery root and celery; cover and cook 2 minutes.

Add garlic, chestnuts, juniper, bay leaves and enough stock to just cover vegetables. Bring to a boil and simmer until celery root is soft, about 20 minutes. In the pot, mash half the vegetables and stir.

To serve, place equal portions of soup in serving bowls, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Add a dollop of crème fraîche to each bowl, and serve.

Yield: 8 servings.
Adapted from Jean-Georges Vongerichten

467 Posts
Hmm...celery root!:lips:

I've always had it at home when I was young as my mom loved it, but exclusively raw, with Aurora sauce (don't know if you call it with the same name- I mean a sauce made with Mayo, ketchup, lemon or yoghurt, and Worchester). When grown up, I discovered that it's wonderful also cooked!

My favourite recipes are Celery Root Ravioli (I put the C.R. both in the filling and in the sauce) and Celery Root Soup with Langoustines (this recipe is not by me, but by Bernard Loiseau :) and, as you can imagine, is wonderful)
I haven't the recipes with me now, but if someone is interested, I can post them afterwards...

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