Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kaya's Celery Root Salad

Brought to you from a very unique cookbook!

I've said it before: Kaya can be difficult to find authentic recipes for. Between the fact that I'm literally on the other side of the continent from where she lived and the fact that making food the way she would have cooked and enjoyed it just isn't practical for someone who can't keep making fires outside her house, it's hard to feature her as often as I'd like to on my blog. I've found ways to work around this, but I still struggle sometimes to get excited about things to cook for her.

I'm pretty sure that's completely changed, and all because of one restaurant, one cookbook, and two sets of aunts and uncles who helped facilitate this.

Kaya and I went on a field trip. Where did we go?

The Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.! I was actually going to Washington for completely unrelated reasons - my dad's youngest sister and her husband live there (they're the aunt and uncle I was visiting with my dad in my nut and raisin bread post) but are moving to Hawaii soon (my uncle's in the Navy) and I wanted to visit them again before they left, plus the Library of Congress had an out of print book I really, really wanted to read. My other aunt and uncle (my mom's brother and his wife) know I've been struggling with finding ideas for Kaya posts - they're frequent taste testers for A Peek Into the Pantry - and asked if I'd ever been to the Museum of the American Indian. I said yes, actually, but wasn't sure what this had to do with Kaya.

As it turns out, the Museum of the American Indian has one of the best restaurants in any museum I've ever been to, and I've been to a lot of them. Mitsitam Cafe is far, far removed from the gigantic McDonalds at the Air and Space Museum, or the lousy cafeteria food available at a dozen other institutions. This is a quality restaurant with local and heritage ingredients, which rotates and changes up its menu to keep it fresh and in season, and takes inspiration from six different regions of the Americas to bring modern dishes using ingredients that have been important and valued in the Americas for centuries. So, I suggested it to my DC aunt and uncle, who were both interested to give it a shot. While they'd been to the museum before too, they'd never gone to the restaurant, and were happy to come along.

The Museum of the American Indian focuses very heavily on how Native Americans have contributed to society, especially in the modern era, and actively fight against the stereotype/misconception that Native people exist or are important only in the past. As you walk towards the restaurant, you pass by display cases that show historical Native utensils and cooking accessories, and then another that specifically breaks down the contributions American Indians have made to the global pantry. Things like quinoa, turkey, beans and salmon are highlighted, with a whole bunch of familiar brands on display.

Taking pictures inside the restaurant itself turned out to be harder than I expected, mostly because I got so excited by all the different options in front of me that I grabbed the food first, and then thought oh wait, I should be taking pictures. Juggling my tray full of food, a camera and Kaya didn't go so well, so you'll just have to bear with me as I continue explaining.

The restaurant is broken down into five sections, and it's served more or less cafeteria style. Think a really high quality college dining hall. Each station has at least two options for entrees, a few side dishes, and a dessert. Some have soups, some offer customization options, and there are a few familiar, kid friendly options for people who aren't feeling adventurous. It's a little pricey for a lunch restaurant, but it's so unlike other restaurants I've been to that I didn't mind.

The five stations are the Northern Woodlands, Mesoamerica, South America, the Great Plains, and the Northwest Coast. Because I was doing this largely for reconnaissance for Kaya, I stuck to the Northwest Coast. I got the cedar planked wild salmon which had an apricot and wild ginger reduction, a turnip and sweet potato hash, a black radish and celery salad, and a parsnip and carrot spice cake with blackberry compote and juniper honey cream.

(I also might have scored some blue corn bread, because corn bread is one of my favorite things. The Northern Woodlands station also had a pumpkin cornbread that sounded delicious, but since I was already getting the massive spice cake I figured I better not. Alas.)

Everything was delicious. Like, seriously, I don't even really like salmon and I still gobbled mine down pretty quickly. The portions are pretty substantial too, from what I could see, and honestly? Everything sounded so good, it was really hard to pick, and to stick with my original plan of just getting Northwest Coast foods. I especially loved the spice cake, and would love to feature that on the blog sometime!

The one exception to this was that wonderful looking chocolate cake up there. It's a flourless chocolate quinoa cake, and it looks great, but it tasted... strange. My uncle thought it tasted like tobacco, and I thought it had a weird, burnt plastic aftertaste. My aunt just thought it was strange. I'd love to know what was in it and why it tasted like that - I've never had quinoa in a dessert before, and besides that and the chocolate, I'm not sure what else went in it to make it taste like that. I'm very curious to see the recipe for it!

For those of us who don't live in DC, you can try your hand at making some of Mitsitam Cafe's recipes with the help of their cookbook! My copy is on loan from the aunt and uncle who tipped me off to the cafe being worth a visit... and a return visit. And another return visit. If only I lived in DC!

For the record, unfortunately the quinoa cake was not included in the cookbook, so the exact make up is a mystery. Actually, most of the things we ate at the restaurant weren't included in the book, and while I'm sure I can find a recipe to recreate the spice cake, I'm still a little bit bummed. That said, it's a really nice cookbook, with a lot of information about where the author draws his inspiration from in creating recipes for the Cafe. It has pretty equal representation of the cultures, too, unlike most of the other cookbooks I've seen that boast to feature authentic Native recipes and dishes. Although all the recipes are grouped together in the book itself, there's a guide in the back that specifically breaks down what part of the country each dish is from if you're not certain of what you're looking at in the text itself.

It took a lot of debate for what I wanted to feature first, especially because of course I'm me, and immediately flipped open to the desserts chapter when I first got my hands on the book. After eating at the restaurant, I decided to give the celery root salad a try. While this isn't a historical recipe, the cookbook notes that it was included and developed for the Cafe because in many Pacific Northwest cultures, roots are considered a sacred food and are extremely important staples in the average person's diet.

Now, some of you are probably wondering: what on Earth is a celery root? Well, it looks like this:

And is basically the root of a celery plant. It's texture reminded me a little bit of a spongy jicama, but the flavor is completely different, and jicama is a little wetter. My mom found mine at my local giant farmer's market store, so it might be something you'll need to look around for a little bit rather than finding it in just any grocery store.

One of the reasons I picked this recipe is that it kind of reminded me of the salad I got at the restaurant. The one I ordered there featured celery, radishes and red onions, while this is celery root, radishes and scallions. I was curious to see how similar the two were!

The recipe instructs you to slice up an entire celery root (which you need to cut the skin before cooking or eating!) into two inch long matchsticks. This. Took. Forever. I'm a very slow cutter when I'm trying to be careful and precise with my knife cuts, partially because I'm nervous about cutting my fingers off, but also because our knives can be kind of dull, so this whole thing took about forty five minutes to slice up. Admittedly, I did take a break somewhere in the middle, but I was very, very ready to be done when it was finished.

And I still needed to cut up a half cup of radishes and a half cup of scallions! Which fortunately went a lot easier. The recipe says you need to get the radishes into two inch matchsticks too, but there was no way that was happening with my radishes. You need both the white and green parts of the scallion. Do your best to get these well mixed in a salad bowl so you're not eating all the radishes or scallions at once.

Next comes the dressing. It's a pretty simple one: a half cup of mayonnaise, a half cup of sour cream, two tablespoons of Dijon mustard and two tablespoons of lemon juice. I just used the juice of a whole lemon.

It's a pretty thick, gloppy dressing. I don't remember the dressing I had at the restaurant being quite so thick, but it still tasted good!

Mix it all together, let it sit in the fridge for about two hours, and you have a salad:

I'm bad: I'm not a big salad eater. I'll eat if it's put in front of me, but it's not someting I generally go looking for as a snack, or lunch, or above most other menu items. But I do enjoy eating them! And this one was definitely tasty. The dressing was a little heavy for me (I'm not a big dressing person), but it had a pleasantly sour flavor that helped bring the salad to life. Without it, it definitely would have been very, very bland.

My one complaint apart from the heaviness of the dressing is the fact that I don't think the ratio of celery root to radish to scallions was really correct. Celery roots are big, and when they're chopped up so finely, you're really getting quite a lot of them in a forkful compared to not very many radishes or scallions. Now, obviously you don't want to overload the salad with radishes, but some more would have been welcome, in my opinion. The celery root was very bland, with a milder taste than celery, which is already a very mild vegetable!

Overall though, this was a very tasty salad, and I'm glad we have leftovers to enjoy it a little longer. I actually had some for lunch today! The book says it makes enough for four to six people, but I wonder if you could stretch it a little beyond that. It's definitely not a difficult recipe to double if you're looking to bring it to a party or something!

A special thanks to both sets of aunt and uncles for helping me out with this post! I really appreciate your help and enthusiasm for my blog, and look forward to trying out or recreating some of the recipes from Cafe Mitsitam!

And going back to the restaurant to try some of that pumpkin cornbread...


  1. This is an awesome post! I'm glad you and Kaya enjoyed the field trip!

    1. Thank you! It was a lot of fun, I'm already fantasizing about going back, ahaha.

  2. Celery root is an interesting vegetable. You wonder about the first brave soul to try it since it looks so odd. I made a soup from one once. It was tasty, but very labor intensive when it came to chopping up the root. Kudos to you for all those matchstick slices!

    1. It definitely requires a lot of work to get it broken down. I often wonder about stuff like that, like whoever thought a lobster looked appetizing! Especially back when they were six feet long.