Some things are so classic, so perfectly right as they are that it seems like a total disgrace to “reinvent” them. There is a reason some dishes have been around for a long time, on and off restaurant menu’s, but always there. There is a tricky knife edge here though. You can fall one way in to classic stardom of a recipe – something so good, so simple that it should never be changed. A quick shake on the edge however and things can fall drastically apart. The dish can be flat, boring, dated.
Celery root (or celariac as it is often called) remoulade when done with care falls head first into the first category of classic stardom. But like all things simple, the devil is hiding in the details. If you coarsely chop a celery root, mix it with store bought mayo, season with table salt you are going to think I am a grade A idiot for even suggesting this dish was a classic never to be changed. If, however, care is taken to create perfect little matchsticks of clean tasting celery root, and mixed with just the right amount of characterful homemade Dijon mayonnaise, spruced up with fresh lemon and herbs the you are on to a winner.
I first got thinking about celariac remoulade towards the end of last year when we had a family vacation to southern California. We rode bikes along the strand, all the way to god knows where (well at a guess close to LAX, given the fact I nearly fell off my bike being buzzed by a 747). We stopped and were hungry. There was a dicey looking “Italian” joint, a dive bar (we had our son with us..) or this crusty old French place that looked like you could blow the thing down.
Everyone knows how much the English love the crusty French, so we obviously headed straight there. Locking the bikes up next to the outside toilet one thought was going through my mind – “this place is either going to be fucking good, or I am going to be hoping to god that I can cycle back to out apartment in time before the lunch really hits home..” No fast cycling was required that afternoon I am happy to say, quite the contrary in fact.
The place was genius. I don’t think the decor or menu had changed since the 30s. Nor had the server (most likely the owner too), who must have been well in to her 80s, walked with a huge stoop, and berating the other younger waiter for not doing things right. The whole place just oozed old French. Sitting down I still had the same thought I did when we locked the bikes up. We ordered. Danika had some salmon, I had a roast lamb open sandwich, and a salad.
This was seriously one of the most perfectly prepared meals I have ever eaten. The salmon was ridiculously perfect. The lamb sandwich was fantastically balanced – rich, a little sweet, then a pop of cornichons. Nice. The highlight however was the side salads. A perfectly simple green salad, with just the right amount of fines herbs, dressing and salt. It was so fresh, clean and perfect. Just like the little heap of Céleri Rémoulade that sat unassumingly next to the roast lamb. You know they had been making these for decades, could do them in their sleep and them down right perfect.
A couple of hours over lunch (80 year old hunched over servers aren’t fast), a glass of wine, and a tired 4 year old meant that we rather reluctantly had to leave the place and cycle back past the noisy airplanes, and in to the rush of city (well, OK.. vacation) life again.
So back to the celery root. Whilst you might think it is the root of the celery stalks we all hate to eat raw(seriously, who enjoys chewing on a stringy celery stick?) it is different. It is a kind of celery, but harvested for the root, not stalk. Often I end up either roasting them in a bit of duck fat, or making a puree from them, with a little potato for body. Celeriac soup is lovely too, especially with a tiny dice of fresh tart apple and pancetta.
The French would absolutely argue that the classic of chopped celery root and mayonnaise cannot be improved upon, and I pretty much agree (as per my first statement in this blog post – keep it simple, don’t muck it up). I do however like to add just enough chopped fresh parsley and tarragon to make it even fresher. This time I finished the plateful with a sprinkling of Piment d’Espelette really just because I had bought a new jar and wanted an excuse to try it out.
Turns out it is great on this remoulade.
So there you have it really. A very simple clean French winter raw vegetable salad.
Raw celery root salad recipe
NOTE: this salad uses a lovely pungent homemade mayo based on a recipe from Anne Willian’s lovely “Country Cooking of France” book. It uses raw eggs. People get squiffy about raw eggs, mainly thanks to poor quality eggs from chickens on an incredibly cruel battery farm. Use good quality farm fresh eggs. The taste difference is incredible, and they are safer too.
Be sure to use a good quality Dijon mustard, and clean olive oil. Personally I like the Dijon from Trader Joes very much.
2 medium celery roots
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
3/4 cup olive oil (scant)
small bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley, hard stems removed
a few stalks of fresh taragon, leaves picked
Piment d’Espelette to taste (optionalish)
salt and pepper
Start by making the mustard mayo. Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature. Whisk together the egg yolks, mustard and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice. Whisk until this thickens a bit. Slowly start adding in the lemon juice, pretty much a drop at a time, whisking constantly. After you have added about a tablespoon of oil this way, it can be added a little faster – in a slow stream – but whisk that arm of yours off. If at any point it looks like you have oil to whisk in, then slow down adding the oil, and whisk like mad. Now whisk in the remaining lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper.
Trim the skin off the celery root. A wash to remove any excess dirt. Slice the celery root into 3mm slices. This is best done on a mandolin or deli slicer. Stack some of these slices up and now slice them in to thin matchsticks.
Cover the unused pieces of celery root with a damp towel, to stop them from going brown.
Once sliced put in a large bowl. Add the mayo a tablespoon or so at a time, mixing the celery root in well. Add just enough to liberally coat the celery root. Finely chop the fresh herbs and toss enough in to make things interesting. Season well with good sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
Let this stand, covered in the fridge for a couple of hours to let the celery root soften a bit. When it comes time to serve, dish it up, and sprinkle each plate with a little Espelette if you like.