We may be into sausage with peppers and onions, smoked turkey legs, funnel cakes and ham biscuits this week, but there is something looming right behind the N.C. State Fair: the holidays.
Thanksgiving has its traditional foods and Christmas can be a little more wide open. We all like a few surprises for our tables, so this month and the next, I’ll give you some to try.
Over there near the Brussels sprouts in the produce section, looking about as ugly as any vegetable can, is celery root, or celeriac. This knobby, greenish brown monstrosity is a type of celery grown just for its root. The flavor is a cross between celery and fresh parsley, which makes it a refreshing winter vegetable. Choose a small one and quarter it to make peeling easier.
Now here’s where the fun starts. With its flavor profile, the root makes a great soup, either for lunch or brunch, but an even better first course for a dinner party.
That flavor profile also allows you to play with it. My favorite way to serve this soup is with poached oysters, becoming a fancy oyster stew. It’s simple to do. After you puree the soup, put it back in the pot and bring to a simmer. Slide in a dozen or so shucked oysters and cook until they are plump and just beginning to curl.
Or put some lump crabmeat into the soup bowls and pour the warm puree over and garnish with some chopped chives. You can make it kid-friendly with chopped bacon, shredded cheese and sour cream. Give the soup a Southern twist with finely chopped country ham and a spoonful of cream.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, you couldn’t ask for a better addition to a buffet. If you have some leftover soup, use it as a sauce under pan-seared or baked fish, or even grilled pork chops. I hope you see how versatile this recipe can be. The soup can be made ahead and even frozen.
Once you’ve had your fill of state fair foods, turn your thoughts to the menus you will need for the next few months. Like the Boy Scouts, be prepared.
Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. His latest cookbook is “Bacon: A Savor the South Cookbook.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Simple to special celery root soup
Fred Thompson recommends serving this soup with a salad as a simple supper or lunch. It also makes a perfect first course for any upcoming holiday meal or addition to a buffet. To drink, Thompson suggests champagne or a white Alsatian wine for a celebratory meal or replicate the wine in the soup for lunch.
3 leeks, pick ones with as much white as you can find
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup white wine
8 ounces celery root (celeriac), about one small or 1/2 of a large one
1 russet potato, about 7 ounces
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
Slice the white and pale-green part of the leeks in half lengthwise, then slice each half into thin half circles. Place the leeks in a large bowl of cold water and swirl around with your hands, shuffling to separate the layers of leek. Leave for a few minutes to let any dirt settle to the bottom of the bowl.
Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a large soup pot. Scoop the leeks out of the water and shake to drain somewhat. (Do not strain the leeks and water because the dirt will just fall back onto the leeks.) Then add to the melted butter. Stir to coat and then stir in the wine. Cook for a few minutes, until the leeks begin to reduce in bulk, then cover, lower the heat to low, and cook 20 to 25 minutes until the leeks are soft and semi-translucent. Stir occasionally during cooking and add a little water if needed. Do not let the leeks brown.
Peel the celery root while the leeks are cooking. Cut the celeriac into medium-sized chunks. Peel the potato and cut it into chunks as well. When the leeks are soft, add the celery root, potato, broth, 2 cups water and bay leaves to the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover the pot and cook 30 to 40 minutes until the vegetables are very soft.
Discard the bay leaves and the thyme. Use an immersion blender to purée the soup to a smooth consistency. You can also do this in batches in a blender, which will give you a smoother texture. Serve hot and top as discussed above.
Note: This soup can be covered and refrigerated for four days, or portioned and frozen, which makes it perfect for make-ahead entertaining.
Yield: 6 servings