If there is an uglier vegetable on the planet Earth than celeriac (Apium graveolens variety rapaceum), I have yet to find it. Fortunately, much as beauty is only skin deep, in the case of this magnificent and underappreciated vegetable, so is ugly.
While celeriac itself doesn’t grow very deep — maybe six inches or so beneath the surface of your average garden plot — its roots in food history are deep indeed. In Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s described as a component of Calypso’s garden, albeit in the Greek it is referred to as selinon. In one passage, Hermes admires the environs of Calypso’s cave, festooned with grapes, violets, and wild celery before stepping inside to beseech her to let Odysseus go and finish his journey back to Ithaca. But that’s another, much longer, story.
In ancient times, and for much of their early history, both celery and celeriac were regarded more as medicines than as foodstuffs. Pliny the Elder claimed that the so-called helioselinon was “possessed of peculiar virtues against the bites of spiders.” He also suggested that it could be used to revive sick fish. But by the 17th century, it was being cultivated in France, and by the 18th, it was being used in England for soups and broths.
Fast forward to today: soups and broths! For your consideration, here’s a soup that contains not just one, but two of the planet’s least photogenic vegetables (the latter being parsnips), along with a little ginger (no beauty contest winner itself), some onion, tarragon, and lemon thyme.
CELERIAC AND PARSNIP VELOUTÉ WITH GINGER AND LEMON THYME
48 oz./1.42 litres vegetable broth
2 large celeriac roots, peeled and roughly cubed
3 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon (or more, to taste) fresh ginger root, finely chopped
2 tsp./1.2g dried tarragon (it’s what I had at the time; fresh is good too, but use less)
4 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1 carrot, cut into “coins” (optional)
Before you get all huffy, this is not technically a velouté, inasmuch as it is not thickened with a roux and cream, but it resembles one in texture. If you just want to call it soup, you have my blessing.
Cleaning the celeriac is best done with a very sharp knife, and it may be treated the same way you would strip off the rough outer skin of a pineapple; ideally, you’ll get off all the brown bits underneath the skin, but don’t make yourself crazy (or whittle the vegetable down to half its original size) getting there. Chopping the peeled celeriac is a bit of a chore, and may require rocking your knife back and forth a bit to get through the dense root. Alternatively, you can use a cleaver, if you have one. The parsnips should be scraped with a vegetable peeler, much like carrots, then chopped. As for the ginger, I started with a segment that was about the size of my thumb and scraped off the peel with a spoon before mincing it as finely as my admittedly mediocre knife skills would permit.
Once the prep is completed, making the soup is a snap; basically, you just dump all the ingredients into a big pot, bring it to a boil, and back it off to a simmer for about an hour to soften up the veggies and give the flavours a chance to blend. Then remove the thyme sprigs (which will have shed their leaves), and transfer the soup, in batches, to a food processor, blender, or Vita-Mix. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT clamp down the lid on your food processor/blender in such a way that steam cannot easily escape, or you will run the risk of both scalding yourself and decorating your walls with hot soup. I leave the top plug out of my Vita-Mix’s “Action Dome” and drape a tea towel over the opening to allow steam, but not solids, to egress.] Alternatively, the soup can be processed in situ with an immersion blender. Process until smooth.
You might note that salt is not a component of the ingredients list, and that’s because the vegetable broth I used (I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have any vegetable stock of my own lying around) contained 570mg of sodium, presumably in the form of sodium chloride, which was plenty salty for my taste. Your taste (and your broth) may vary.
To finish the soup off, I sliced a small carrot on a hand-held mandoline, arranged the carrot “coins” into a small “flower,” and sprinkled a few leftover thyme leaves on top. I might drizzle a few drops of olive oil on it as well next time, but it’s by no means necessary. Serves 6-8 (easily!) as an opening course.