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March, 2010

The Lonely Life of Kohlrabi

By Dennis Linden

Although Kohlrabi recipes are found in the cookbooks of ancient Rome and it has been a household staple throughout Eastern Europe and Northern India since the 1600s, the vegetable could still use a public relations campaign in most regions of this country

In fact, this need was apparent during the several purchases this writer made of the strange looking veggie during the process of preparing the stuffed kohlrabi dish featured in this month’s Guest Chef. As explained in that feature, the kohlrabi was bought on three separate occasions and, each time, the same scene was performed by different clerks as if they all had rehearsed it together. First, the bulbs were held high by their leafy tops for a puzzled inspection, always accompanied with an incredulous: “And what is this?” Then a frantic thumbing through a code book with no luck until the name was spelled for them. By the third visit, I was ready with a rapid-fire list of cooking techniques in anticipation of the next question, delivered right on cue: “So what do you do with it?”

Kohlrabi has a delicate cabbage flavor with a pleasant hint of radish aftertaste. While the turnip-shaped bulb looks like a root, it is actually the swollen stem of the plant. This globe develops above the ground with antennae-like stems that shoot up bare and tall into a cluster bunch of large, rust-tinged, green leaves. Botanically, kohlrabi belongs to the Brassica family, which also includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. It is sometimes sold in bunches of 4-5 globes; however, these tops yellow very quickly, so it is more common to find them trimmed off down to short antennae spikes. The word kohlrabi is German for cabbage turnip (kohl as in cole-slaw, and rübe for turnip). With only 36 calories, one cup of raw kohlrabi has nearly 5 grams of fiber and is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium. The vegetable also contains important phytochemicals that are believed to be significant anti-cancer compounds. Interestingly, not only are these important compounds not destroyed during cooking, but are increased in the process!

Kohlrabi can be either pale green or a deep royal purple. Though much of the purple does cook off when boiled, this variety is slightly sweeter than the green ones. Also, the purple variety peels to an ivory white, while the green globes maintain the same color inside and out. In its raw state, the texture is very much like an apple, but solid throughout, with no core. Use the purple if you intend to slice it into a salad of greens for a nice splash of color and crunchy consistency. It should be noted that research for this article produced a “to peel or not to peel” difference of opinion, which seems to be a matter of taste and tenderness. One undisputed fact is that small globes, meaning no more than 2½ to 3 inches in diameter, are much better tasting. Large kohlrabi tends to be woody and much less flavorful.

This is an extremely versatile vegetable that can either be served raw or cooked, combined with other ingredients or served alone. The simplest cooking preparation is to either steam it for about 12 minutes, or boil it for 20 minutes. In either case, the bulbs should be tender but not mushy when done. Simply serve these quartered with butter, salt and pepper, or a favorite sauce; kohlrabi pairs well with béarnaise, Alfredo or creamy mushroom sauce. Grilled kohlrabi on the barbeque is amazing; just quarter or slice, coat with a little balsamic vinegar and wrap in foil. When chopped or diced, it makes a great addition to any meat or vegetable stir-fry as it will pick up the flavors of the stir-fry sauce. Of course, there are directions for a very tasty stuffed kohlrabi in March’s Guest Chef Feature.

Using kohlrabi as a raw ingredient takes advantage of its crisp texture and subtle radish overtones. Coarsely grate kohlrabi into a tossed salad to add a little crunch and, again, it will absorb the flavor of the salad dressing. Since it matches with any dip or cheese spread, try a julienne cut into attractive strips to include as a mystery ingredient on a vegetable platter. Your guests will look as puzzled as grocery clerks, so be ready with the answers to those predictable questions and maybe counter with a query of your own by holding an impromptu spelling bee!