Humble and familiar, the root-vegetable pantheon presides over the year's first farmers markets.

Humble and familiar, the root-vegetable pantheon presides over the year's first farmers markets.

Joining potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips and beets at this month's markets is an alien-looking species that puts an "esoteric" element on the plate, says Applegate farmer Mary Alionis.

"It's a celery that's been selected for the root."

Celeriac, says Alionis, is "all the rage" since it started crashing restaurant menus, food television and cooking magazines a few years ago. Although her Whistling Duck Farm has grown the vegetable — also known as celery root, knob celery or turnip-rooted celery — for about two decades, "last year was the first year it was selling out at market."

But virtually all the celeriac Whistling Duck overwintered for last year's March markets perished in an unexpected freeze, and the vegetable wasn't available again until fall. Whereas fall celeriac is fairly "refined," says Alionis, the frost-hardy variety that spent the whole winter in her fields could scare off the most enlightened gourmets.

"It's a lot more gnarly, octopus-looking," says Alionis.

Bulbous, pocked and hairy, celeriac had to work hard to woo the American palate with its celerylike flavor and starchless-potato texture. In Europe, it's not only a wintertime staple but enjoys status as an aphrodisiac.

Celeriac was so beloved last winter at Ashland Food Co-op that the store's supplier, Blue Fox Farm in Applegate, sold the entire crop it had planned to overwinter, says farmer Chris Jagger. He'll have more this fall, as will nearby Barking Moon Farm, which lost its crop and couldn't satisfy customer requests for the past few months.

Like potatoes and beets, celeriac can be stored for weeks, even months, if kept cool and slightly moist, says Alionis. When the rough, outer skin is removed, celeriac boasts a smooth, white interior. Sometimes, the center is spongy and has to be removed.

"They're deep-rooted, so they draw up a lot of minerals," says Alionis. "And it's got that slightly salty flavor."

Cooked and mashed with potatoes, she says, celeriac cuts down on the dish's total carbohydrates. It also replaces celery flavor in soups and salads. The slawlike French dish "celeri remoulade," in which celeriac is cut into matchsticks, blanched in lemon juice, then dressed with mayonnaise and mustard or creme fraiche, is the most classic preparation.

Large celery roots can weigh up to 4 pounds. Whistling Duck charges approximately $2 per pound for its organic celeriac.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail