"Love and Level" by Hoa Nguyen + Celery Root and Potato Puree

It's useful to remember the simple things. Certain dishes are impressive feats, like bubbling homemade lasagna or triple-layer cakes, but there's also something to be said for the ingredients that anchor a recipe. Take mirepoix, the humble blend of carrots, celery and onion that serves as a flavor base for soups and braises, or the potato that makes its home firmly on the plate as juices from a roasted duck slide into its crevices.

Today, celery root. Its skin is craggy, tough, and dusted with dirt from being pulled up from the ground. It takes some wrangling to cut off the outer layer, but once you reach the inside, its flesh permeates with the subtle scent of celery that adds complexity to whatever it's paired with.

I've been making a version of this puree for several years now. It goes well under juicy roast chicken and braised short ribs, especially. To dress it up, you could add some toasted, herbed breadcrumbs and pop it in the oven for more of a gratin presentation, but it doesn't mind simply being spread on the base of a plate, holding up the rest of the meal.

I recently finished reading a new poetry collection by Hoa Nguyen. In her work, I found a great abundance of space to interpret the poems differently depending on the day I was reading, a detail I didn't notice during the first read, or a word placement.

The poems are graceful, and provide an opportunity to use your imagination in a way you might not always allow yourself. The title of today's poem, "Love and Level," invokes a tenderness, like the way a wrist moves to scrape excess flour with a butter knife, leveling it off so the measurement is just right. Although we begin with a softness, a laughter, and celery root, the poem quickly turns. I'll share more after you read it.

Love and Level

by Hoa Nguyen

Love and level the sleeves
              Eating is a hand
here        Leave laughing if you must
like leave this creamy celery root

We push out                     jerking
a sleeve of we    & I cover you
horses sourced in sea

(weave in waves and manes)

Hoa Nguyen, "Love and Level" from As Long As Trees Last. Copyright 2012. Posted with permission of Wave Books and the author.

The line "We push out      jerking" made me think about birth, how it's not always glamorous or easy, yet the end result is transformative and beautiful. While it's unclear if this relationship is with a mother and child, a spouse, or someone else, a sense of protectiveness rings clear: "I cover you," serves both a relationship, and the celery root, the way its skin is a fierce protector of the subtle flesh within.

The last line is really where my imagination took over. I arrived at a picture of waves barreling towards the sand with the power of horses rushing into battle. All this is juxtaposed by something more lovely, the length and flow of waves and manes tangling together, like seaweed piled high in sand after surviving the latest storm. And after a journey like that, sometimes the simplest, least profound recipes, become the most memorable.


2 small celery roots
6-8 medium Yukon potatoes
1 1/2 to 2 cups whole milk (the measurement will depend on your preference)
4 tablespoons butter, cut into pats

Peel the potatoes and celery root, and cut into a large dice. Place in a double boiler (I use a colander that fits into my saucepan, filled with 1-inch of water; you could also boil them in a large pot of water). When the water is boiling, cover with a lid and cook for 15-20 minutes, until very tender.

Pass the celery root and potatoes through a food mill into a large bowl. Add half the butter, half the milk, and stir to combine. Begin adding salt 1/2 teaspoon at a time, until it tastes good to you. Continue adding more butter and milk as you go, until the mash is creamy, but not soupy. If you prefer them thicker, that's fine too.

If not serving immediately, place the bowl over a pot with 1 inch of simmering water to keep warm.