Game changer celeriac
I have a feeling that celeriac is best understood in Turkish cuisine. Stem celery is much used in kitchens around the world, but not so much in Turkey. On the contrary, celeriac is a regular winter vegetable in Turkish kitchens, quite unlike its limited use in other cuisines. The typical celeriac dish in Turkey is zeytinyağlı kereviz, literally meaning celeriac with olive oil. Thick slices of celeriac are braised slowly with a little water and olive oil, together with onions, carrots and sometimes potato, until the juices are reduced to almost none, leaving behind a wonderful sauce-like consistency. Such olive oil braised dishes are eaten at room temperature, or as some prefer, almost fridge cold.
Now there is a rising trend to use orange juice instead of water when cooking celeriac. The sauce of the dish ends up in a syrupy consistency, like tangy and orangey nectar. Whoever first initiated this trend has certainly changed the game in olive oil braised dishes where now many other vegetables are cooked in the same way as well. Many people have turned to cook not only celeriac but also artichoke hearts and Jerusalem artichokes in this way. When it comes to celeriac and orange juice combination, I can say that it has become a classic now, with variations including tangerine juice or a mix of orange and carrot juice.
Like many cuisines, Turkish cuisine is regarded as resistant to change and variations. This theory applies very much to Italian cuisine, where people are very fussy about what type of pasta goes with what kind of sauce. People belonging to any region and city, down to the smallest village, have their set ways, and they will not change their grandma’s recipe for anything. People in Turkey may also be fussy about regional favorites, but they are also fond of trying out new flavors, of course, provided that it remains in their comfort zone, not pushing the boundaries of their palate so much.
The reason why cooking celeriac with orange juice has been a favorite is that it has hit that taste target, that fondness for sweetness combined with tanginess, which is much sought-after in such olive oil braised vegetables. It must be noted that in such dishes, a teaspoonful or two of sugar is always added to bring out the natural sweetness of the vegetable used, and there is always the sweetness that comes from the onions, which is omnipresent in considerable amounts. Depending on the vegetable, a usual squeeze of lemon may be added either during the cooking stage or when eaten, of course, according to the taste preference. For example, many people prefer to cook artichoke bottoms with lemon juice, and when it comes to celeriac, lemon juice is almost always used, not only for taste but also to keep the ivory color of the vegetable. The acidulated medium prevents the celeriac from turning dark.
Interestingly in Western kitchens, celeriac is usually used in combination with butter, cream or cheese, or when used cold in salads with mayonnaise. Celeriac has a fresh flavor, and though it is both earthy and nutty, it also has this unique freshness, which is hard to describe. Certainly, it tastes amazingly good with dairy products, but its taste profile really shines when used with olive oil, of course with that touch of acidity. When it comes to using celeriac raw, we always mix the grated root with yogurt, which again has a certain sourness akin to smetana.
In the past decade, many young Turkish chefs started to experiment with celeriac by combining it with tart fruits, which worked wonders. One of the very first attempts came from chef Civan Er, who wrote a recipe for combining celeriac with quince tart with a bit of white brined cheese to enhance the tartness. I had the chance to taste this version in his restaurant named Yeni Lokanta in Istanbul. It was delightfully pleasing, and I hope that he finds the right ingredients for this incredible dish to serve it in his Soho branch in London. Another amazing celeriac recipe came from chef Pınar Taşdemir of Araka, where she layered celeriac slices with green apple slices, resulting in an incredibly fresh finish.
Last but not the least, another version came from chef Maksut Aşkar, the owner of the restaurant Neolokal located in Salt Galata Museum in Istanbul. In a recent dinner before the closure of restaurants by the government in line with the measures against the ongoing pandemic, he managed to gather devoted guests for an anniversary dinner to mark the sixth year of Neolokal. His version was a celeriac börek, a savory pie, but instead of using layers of dough layers, he used layers of thinly cut celeriac slices, brushed with an emulsion of cold-pressed celeriac, apple juice and early harvest olive oil. The only dough layer was the top and bottom layers, where the top layer covered the dish almost like a veil with minuscule herb leaves trapped between the two sheets of the finest flaky baklava dough, adding that crisp crunch and contrasting the velvety layers of slightly tangy celeriac slices. The anniversary dinner menu included highlights from each year of the restaurant, and the celeriac börek represented 2020. It was surely the highlight of the year, and along with the other noted celeriac dishes from other chefs, it deserves its place in the hall of game-changer celeriac dishes.