“There are better vegetables than kohlrabi,” Jane Grigson wrote in her classic “Vegetable Book.” “And worse,” she added as an afterthought.
Faint praise can be so damning, and kohlrabi suffers more than most from this kind of lukewarm billing. This is a shame, and I’ve never fully understood the reasons. Raw, this curious bulbous vegetable makes a toothsome, crunchy salad that’s fairly bursting with goodness; cooked — stir-fried or gently steamed and lavishly buttered — its natural sweetness comes to the fore. And because it’s fairly neutral in flavor, it also lends itself to a bit of Indian or Mexican saucery.
The name, which elides Kohl (cabbage) with Rübe (turnip), gives a clue to what to expect. It belongs to the brassica family — think cabbage, sprouts, broccoli and today’s recently (re)discovered superfood, kale. As for the turnip part of the name, this refers to its size and shape rather than its flavor, which leans more toward the fresh sweetness of peeled broccoli stalks than the ripe barnyard aroma of turnips.
More from Zester Daily:
The fruiting body or edible part looks like a root but grows above rather than below ground. Slender stalks and leaves (also edible) sprout directly from its smooth outer skin, which can be either pale green or a rather fetching shade of purple.
According to the late Alan Davidson in his masterly “Oxford Companion to Food,” kohlrabi’s origins are shrouded in mystery, though the earliest records of its cultivation in Europe seem to place it in 14th-century France. It’s possible that medieval French cooks loved kohlrabi, but the love affair has long since faded: My (French) seed catalog describes it as an excellent vegetable that is “not yet well enough known or appreciated in France.” Jean Bardet, one of the first French chefs to take vegetable cookery seriously, observes wistfully in his book “A La Découverte des Saveurs du Potager“ that this great little bulb deserves to be far better known.
Kohlrabi’s true heartland is Germany and neighboring countries. Of late I’ve spotted it in all three countries here on my doorstep, whether in the superb farmers market in Freiburg, Germany, which gathers Saturday mornings around the city’s grand sandstone cathedral, or at my local farm shop in Switzerland, or in our friendly neighborhood supermarket here in Alsace, France. It’s less well-known in the United Kingdom and the United States, though it’s increasingly found in farmers markets, and it crops up regularly in community supported agriculture, or CSA, vegetable boxes.
Elsewhere, kohlrabi is a familiar sight piled high in markets throughout the Middle East — Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israel-born chef and best-selling food writer, describes Jerusalemites’ love affair with this vegetable, which they particularly value in fresh, crunchy salads. It’s also popular in India, where its gentle flavor and firm texture make it a fine candidate for a mixed vegetable curry (see recipe).
If you’re lucky enough to be able to buy kohlrabi, make sure the bulbs look fresh and sprightly, not tired and wrinkled. Look for ones that have greenery still attached (also edible; chop and cook it briefly in butter) as that’s a clue to their freshness. Above all, think small: The best kohlrabi are barely as big as a tennis ball.
Kohlrabi and Apple Salad With Lime Dressing
For the dressing:
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1 or 2 limes
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
A pinch of sugar
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
For the salad:
2 well-flavored dessert apples
Plenty of cilantro to garnish
1. Start the dressing by mixing together salt, pepper, juice of 1 lime, mustard and sugar in a bowl or jam jar, stirring or shaking until the salt and sugar dissolve.
2. Add the oil and mayonnaise and whisk or shake well to emulsify. Taste to see if it needs more lime juice and add more if necessary.
3. Trim away the thick root ends from the kohlrabi, peel (as if for an apple) and cut in thin strips or grate coarsely. Place in a colander, sprinkle with salt and leave for about 30 minutes — the salt will tenderize the kohlrabi and draw out any bitterness. Rinse under cold water, pat dry and put kohlrabi in a bowl.
4. Quarter and core the apples but do not peel, then cut in thin slices and add to the kohlrabi. Pour on the dressing.
5. Mix well and refrigerate till serving time.
6. Shower with chopped cilantro before serving.
Kohlrabi and Broccoli Quiche With Smoked Ham or Salami
8 ounces (250 grams) broccoli
1 ounce (25 grams) butter
½ cup water
Salt and pepper
1 cup (250 milliliters) whipping cream
¾ cup (150 milliliters) milk
A ready-rolled round of puff pastry (8 ounces or 230 grams)
2 ounces (50 grams) smoked ham or salami, finely sliced
4 ounces (100 grams) semi-hard cheese, cut in cubes
1. Peel the kohlrabi, cut it in half, slice thickly and then cut the slices in half.
2. Peel the broccoli stems and cut in manageable pieces. Separate the florets.
3. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the trimmed kohlrabi, broccoli and water and season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Cook over lively heat, shaking the pan from time to time until the water has evaporated and the vegetables are just tender and lightly browned — about 10 minutes.
5. Set them aside to cool.
6. Heat the oven to 400 F (200 C).
7. Unroll the pastry and settle it snugly into a lightly buttered 10-inch (26cm) quiche pan.
8. Scatter the kohlrabi and broccoli over the pastry with the ham or salami.
9. Combine the whipping cream, milk and eggs and whisk until blended.
10. Pour on the eggy mixture and tuck the cheese cubes into the custard.
11. Bake in the lower part of the preheated oven for about 45 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the pastry cooked through.
Kohlrabi, Carrot, Zucchini and Broccoli Curry With Coconut Milk
For the vegetables:
About 8 ounces (225 grams) of broccoli romanesco
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
For the curry:
2 onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, mashed
A walnut-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 10-ounce (400 grams) can chopped tomatoes
½ to 1 teaspoon crushed dried chilies
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (sunflower or peanut)
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, smashed in a mortar or roughly chopped
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 cups (500 milliliters) coconut milk
1 cup (250 milliliters) water or stock
Chopped cilantro or rucola to garnish
1. Peel the kohlrabi, cut in quarters and cut each quarter in half crosswise to give wedge-shaped pieces. Peel the carrots and cut in thick, slanting slices. Cut the (unpeeled) zucchini in similar-sized pieces. Separate the broccoli into small florets.
2. Put all vegetables in a shallow dish, sprinkle with salt and turmeric and mix the salt and spices in well. Cover with cling film and set aside.
3. For the curry, put the chopped onions, mashed garlic, grated ginger, chopped tomatoes and crushed chilies in a blender or food processor with 1 teaspoon salt and blend/process till smooth.
4. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the crushed coriander and cumin seeds briefly until fragrant — be careful they don’t burn.
5. Tip in the blended onion, garlic, ginger, tomatoes and chilies and fry, stirring, until it creates a thick paste – about 10 minutes
6. Stir in the coconut milk and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes until reduced and well-flavored.
7. Tip in all the vegetables, adding a little stock or water if necessary to give the consistency of pouring cream, bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for about 25 minutes. Taste the carrots (which take the longest to cook) to see if they are tender. Give the curry a few minutes more to cook if necessary.
8. Sprinkle with cilantro or rucola and serve over Basmati rice.
Top photo: Kohlrabi and other vegetables for a vegetable curry. Credit: Sue Style