January’s toe-numbingly cold weather in New York discouraged long walks to our favorite farmers’ market, and for days on end my wife and I didn’t feel like looking much beyond the refrigerator for ingredients. This was a challenge one evening when we needed a dish to share the menu with Chinese-style red-cooked pork belly drawn from Fuchsia Dunlop’s book Land of Plenty (published in the U.K. as Sichuan Cookery).
The least unlikely vegetable in the fridge was a celery root (celeriac). True, it is not commonly used in Chinese cooking, yet it has a fine flavor and, when shredded and eaten raw or cooked as in this recipe, an appealing crunchy texture. Its spheroid form and solidity reminded me of potatoes, which in turn evoked an excellent stir-fry that a Chinese friend used to cook for us: julienned potatoes with chiles (I think she used poblanos, but I could be wrong). The potatoes were left slightly al dente; though underdone potatoes are taboo in most cooking traditions, the thin shreds were delightful to eat, and the potato flavor was somehow heightened by quick cooking.
Using celery root in the same way was an experiment that succeeded; absent any fresh chiles, I used a sweet pepper and infused the frying oil with Sichuan peppercorns to add heat and tie the dish to the regional origin of Ms. Dunlop’s red-cooked pork. This worked well in a subtle but palpable way, and the simple, clear-flavored dish provided just what we needed: a contrast with the intense, fat-heavy pork belly.
- 3 Tablespoons oil (peanut or a neutral vegetable oil)
- 1 generous teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (or substitute a couple of dried chiles of your choice)
- 1 medium celery root (celeriac), about 1 1/2 pounds
- 1 medium bell pepper (red or green) or mild poblano chile
- 2 scallions
- 1 -inch piece of fresh ginger
- 1/4 Cup stock (chicken, mixed meat or vegetable) or water
- 2 Teaspoons soy sauce
Put the oil into a wok or a 10-inch skillet over medium heat; when it is hot, add the Sichuan peppercorns and cook until they darken in color but have not burned. Turn off the heat and, with a slotted spoon or a fork, remove the peppercorns and discard: the oil will retain enough of their virtues to add a gentle jolt to the dish.
Cut the top and bottom off the celery root to provide a flat surface to rest on your cutting board, and peel it ruthlessly, right down to the ivory colored flesh. Rinse it and wipe the cutting board clean of soil and root fibers. Halve the celery root top to bottom and cut each half crosswise into thin slices: aim for a thickness of 1/8 inch. Then pile up three or four slices at a time and cut them into strips of about the same thickness: You’ve made a julienne.
Trim the pepper and cut it into strips of a similar size or a little thicker.
Cut the scallions (white and green parts) into 1/4-inch lengths; peel and finely chop the ginger.
Reheat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and ginger, sprinkled with salt. Stir fry until they smell delicious and the scallions have softened, about a minute.
Raise the heat to high and add the strips of pepper. Stir fry for about a minute and a half, then add the celery root and another sprinkling of salt. Cook, tossing and stirring frequently, for 90 seconds; the celery should be heated through and just beginning to soften.
Lower the heat to medium-high and add the stock or water and soy sauce. Cover the pan and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, checking frequently at the 90-second mark: the celery root should retain a little crunch, and it certainly must not begin to fall apart. Make sure that the liquid is mostly gone, leaving just a coating on the vegetables: there’s plenty of moisture in the peppers, so the dish won’t seem dry.
Check for salt and serve with plenty of plain rice — and another Chinese dish or two if you like.