A Cook's Garden: No Space Oddity, Kohlrabi Is an Underappreciated Orb

Versatile kohlrabi is a brassica that's sweeter and milder than cabbage.
Versatile kohlrabi is a brassica that's sweeter and milder than cabbage. (Johnny's Selected Seeds)
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By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into space. It was called Sputnik, and it looked something like a kohlrabi, with four rods protruding upward from the base of a sphere. Since that time, space hardware has grown increasingly complex, but most people still know more about Sputnik than they do about kohlrabi. This is strange, because the vegetable appears in just about every seed catalogue. Someone must be growing and eating it.

Kohlrabi is an excellent vegetable, even if it never makes dramatic headlines. Although somewhat turnip-like, it's not a root vegetable but an enlarged, round, fleshy stem base with long, narrow leaf stems protruding upward from points around the sides as well as from the top. If you buy it in a market, the side foliage will have been removed, and in many cases the top growth as well, which is a waste, because the leaves are as edible as turnip greens or any other brassicas.

Kohlrabi shares that family name with cabbage, broccoli and other familiar favorites, so the flavor of the round part has a bit of that brassica tang but is milder and sweeter, especially when touched by frost. The plant looks beautiful in the garden. Its unique shape is clearly displayed because the leaves don't begin until a considerable height, revealing the smooth orbs that sit just at the soil surface in shades of pale green or vibrant purple, depending on the variety.

Easily grown in fertile soil with consistent moisture, kohlrabi can be a spring crop or a fall one, which could be started right now. Summer is not kind to it, because heat turns the orbs woody. But I find that if I set out transplants in early to mid-spring and plant a small, quickly maturing variety, such as Kongo or the purple Kolibri, I can easily get a tasty early crop, then choose a larger one such as Kossack or Gigante (also known as Superschmelz) for fall eating and winter storage. Even the big ones take less than 80 days, are frost-tolerant and keep up to six months in the cellar or the fridge. Prize winners can be grown to the size of melons, a worthy goal if your aim is producing as much food as possible.

My guess is that kohlrabi lovers are divided into two categories. On the one hand, you have immigrants who ate a lot of kohlrabi back home. First developed in northern Europe in the 16th century, the vegetable orbited the planet and was soon as popular in India, China and Africa as it was in Ireland and Germany. On the other hand, you have gourmet cooks who have lately discovered its hidden charms.

Uses for kohlrabi include mashing it like a turnip, chopping it like a cabbage for coleslaw or saucing it with cheese. I love to slice the small ones thinly and use them raw as I would crackers, for canapes and dips. I also boil kohlrabi and puree it with cream and lots of parsley, adding a boiled potato, whose starch keeps the water from separating out on the plate. It's a green, fresh-tasting dish, slightly mysterious, and a pleasant surprise for those to whom it is served.

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