Good old reliable celery is so commonplace, it's often overlooked by chefs searching for more vegetable excitement. Celery root—which comes from a different but related plant—is a stranger in many American kitchens.
But both of these crisp, refreshing ingredients can add a lively dimension to any number of preparations. And unlike many other fresh vegetables, they're available at relatively low cost all year round.
Celery (from the Greek sélinon) belongs to the same botanical family as carrots and is close kin to parsley and parsnips. Its use dates back to ancient times, when wreaths of celery leaves were woven to decorate Egyptian tombs, crown Greek athletes, and protect the heads of Roman revelers suffering from hangovers. Before the 16th century, celery was used mostly for medicinal purposes, and the word doesn't appear in the English language until 1664—nearly 32 years after it was first cultivated in France as a soup ingredient.
Celery still grows wild in Europe and Asia, but these days, the major crops are farmed in California and Florida, with smaller quantities coming from Michigan during the summer and fall. The most prevalent variety is pascal celery, which is light green in color with tall, straight stalks and flat leaves. Golden celery is more exotic; it's grown entirely beneath the soil or under a layer of paper so it doesn't develop the chlorophyll that turns it green. All celery grows in bunches (more often referred to as stalks) with long ribs surrounding the tender, prized heart.
Fresh celery is commonly packaged in 50-60 lb. cartons or crates. For top quality, refrigerate at 32-36°F, and use within seven days. To keep those stalks standing tall and straight (celery is very susceptible to wilting), the walk-in should have adequate air circulation and a humidity level of 90-98%.
Raw celery is a popular addition to seafood salads, relish trays, and the salad bowl. For cooking, the ribs are often cut up and added along with the leaves to soups, stuffings, and stews. But celery is also delicious braised as a vegetable, stir-fried Asian-style, gratinée with cream or cheese, or simmered in a hearty pasta sauce.
Celery root (also known as celeriac or celery knob) is from a specific variety of celery cultivated exclusively for its root; its leaves are not edible. This gnarled vegetable looks like a rough-skinned, brown turnip, and can range in diameter from the size of an apple to that of a cantaloupe. Some describe the flavor as a cross between celery, parsley, and walnuts.
To prepare celery root, it's necessary to cut off the knob-like protrusions or rootlets and peel it first. Then soak the pared and trimmed vegetable in acidulated water to prevent discoloration and to mellow the flavor. The French typically julienne raw celery root and combine it with a mustard mayonnaise for the bistro classic—céleri remoulade. Grated or shredded, it partners well with grated beets, carrots, and sliced tomatoes. But it's just as tasty cooked and pureed or mashed like potatoes, braised with other root vegetables and meats, or tossed into the soup pot.
Celery root is available in 20- and 35-lb. crates, as well as in prepackaged containers. It should be stored in the walk-in under the same conditions as celery.