Quick quiz. Kohlrabi is a:
A. Sun-drenched city.
C. “Star Wars” character.
If you chose B, either you happen to be a farmer or surmised that because this is the weekly food page those green and purple ... things ... must be of the edible variety.
Kohlrabi, the “cabbage turnip,” as it is so aptly nicknamed, is something that grows well in northeastern Kansas, even if most of the people who live here probably have no idea what to do with it and likely couldn’t pick it out of a vegetable lineup. But Nancy O’Connor says it’s a shame kohlrabi is not as seductive as, say, an artichoke.
“I think it’s unfamiliar. I think that when it comes to those vegetables that just haven’t come into the limelight, people don’t buy them because they don’t know what to do with them,” says O’Connor, author of “The Rolling Prairie Cookbook” and education and outreach coordinator at The Community Mercantile, 901 S. Iowa. “And kohlrabi is definitely like that because it really is a humble vegetable in its taste. So I don’t think it’s as sexy as something like — not that we grow artichokes here — but kohlrabi is certainly a lot easier to use than an artichoke or easier to prepare, but it isn’t quite as glamorous.”
Though more Norma Jean than Marilyn, kohlrabi is a health-packed powerhouse, squeezing 140 percent of a day’s vitamin C and 5 grams of fiber into a single cup, all to the tune of 36 calories, according to www.nutritiondata.com. That “cabbage turnip” nickname also nicely describes its sweet-spicy flavor and crunchy texture. Incredibly versatile, kohlrabi makes itself at home in soup, stir-fry and raw with dip.
Despite being a food educator herself, O’Connor didn’t run across the vegetable until she began taking a bag from the Rolling Prairie CSA, a subscription produce service in Lawrence.
“I didn’t grow up eating them,” she says. “And it’s hard to challenge yourself to buy a fruit or vegetable that is completely unfamiliar to you. But that’s how you learn to eat them, and that’s the best way to learn how to eat them is to buy them, read about them and prepare them.”
One local who could not only pick kohlrabi out of a lineup but cook with it, too, is Mary Czupor. The longtime Lawrence resident is a native of Hungary, where the use of kohlrabi is much more common. Unlike O’Connor and most of the people she knows in the United States, Czupor grew up eating the vegetable. After coming to the United States in 1949, she even grew it in her backyard garden. Czupor says the most traditional way to eat it in Hungary is in soup.
“Generally, our method is you peel them, and after you slice it, then you cut it up into matchsticks, maybe a little bigger, and after you make a roux and chopped onions and paprika and ... put the kohlrabi in it,” Czupor says. “Another way you can do it, too, is you can peel them and make a hole and make a stuffing for it, like maybe half-pork ... and put some rice in there and egg and salt and pepper and slowly cook. Make an extra roux and serve with sour cream if you like to.”
Since discovering the vegetable more than a decade or so ago, kohlrabi with pasta has become a favorite dish of O’Connor’s. She says when the kohlrabi is young and sweet, it can be a fun spring dish. But the size and kohlrabi is especially important — with age and size, the vegetable can become woody. O’Connor says that she once bought kohlrabi so out-of-season, “I could’ve built a house with it.
“It is true for most produce that bigger is not always better, and that is definitely the case with kohlrabi, because when vegetables are allowed to get too big, that’s when they start converting some of their sugars to starches and do start getting woodier,” O’Connor says. “So with the case of kohlrabi, small and fresh, if it still has the greens attached to it, so much the better because that means that it’s fresher.”
Because of the problems with size and age, producer Horace Creighton of Riverbluff Gardens near Pomona only brings kohlrabi to the Lawrence Farmers’ Market for three weeks. This week will probably be his final week, he says, as he usually plants just one 300-foot row each season. And because the vegetable isn’t common nor something that has made it big on food television, the demand isn’t the same as for other vegetables he sells.
“It’s a limited market for the stuff,” Creighton says. “Many times I come back home with it. It’ll keep in the refrigerator, for at least a week, maybe longer.”
He began growing it years ago while tending to a small garden plot in Massachusetts. Though a spinach lover, the leaves didn’t do well with the amount of sun his plot received, so he decided to give the vegetable with a strange name a try.
“I had a garden plot that only had about four hours’ sun each day and I just planted it for my own use then,” Creighton says. “And I found it to be a rather good-tasting vegetable, even something I could boil up.”
O’Connor says if everyone were so adventurous, kohlrabi might finally get some recognition by veggie lovers in the United States for what it is, not for its funny look, taste and smelly family members like cabbage and turnips.
“I think all of those qualities of that family of vegetables are kind of off-putting to people, which is such a shame because vegetables like kohlrabi, like I said, prepared properly are so sweet,” O’Connor says. “And to buy them locally grown is the absolute the best.”
A NEW LEAF
What it is: A crunchy member of the cabbage family, it comes in varieties of green and white. It is commonly used in Central Europe and Asia.
Season: Available year-round, the supply peaks in early summer, when it is also available locally in northeastern Kansas. Select ones that are smaller than the size of a tennis ball. If the leaves are attached, look for unpitted, firm leaves.
Nutrition: For 1 cup raw, it provides 140 percent of one’s daily vitamin C and 5 grams of fiber for 36 calories.
How to store: Store unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about a week. If it still has leaves, trim them and store separately for up to a few days. The leaves can be sautéed.
1 pound kohlrabi
1/4 cup oil
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups veal or chicken broth
1/4 cup sour cream
Peel the kohlrabi bulbs and cut in 1/2-inch pieces. If kohlrabi look woody, use only the top half. Heat oil in a heavy saucepan and sauté the kohlrabi pieces until golden. Sprinkle with flour and continue cooking until light brown. Add the parsley, salt and pepper. Stir in the broth, bring to boil and simmer for 45 minutes or until kohlrabi is tender. Remove from heat and cool. Slightly dilute the sour cream with 2 tablespoons of soup and slowly pour the mixture into the soup. Bring back to a boil and take off the heat. Serve hot.
— Recipe from Mary Czupor.
Rotini Pasta with Kohlrabi
1/2 pound rotini pasta (or other spiral shape)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 small onion, cut in slivers
3 or 4 small kohlrabi bulbs, coarsely shredded
1 large carrot, coarsely shredded
1 large bell pepper, chopped (red, yellow or green)
Leaves from 1 sprig of fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
Put on a large pot of water and boil the pasta while you prepare the vegetables. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Sauté the garlic and onions for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the kohlrabi, carrot, bell pepper, thyme leaves, salt and black pepper. Continue cooking, stirring often, until all vegetables are just barely tender-crisp. If vegetables begin to stick add several tablespoons of water to the skillet. Drain the cooked pasta and place hot pasta in a large, shallow bowl. Heap cooked vegetables on top of pasta. Sprinkle with Parmesan or Asiago and garnish with sprigs of fresh thyme. Serves 6.
— Recipe from the “Rolling Prairie Cookbook” by Nancy O’Connor.
Fall Stew with Kohlrabi
2 or 3 medium-sized kohlrabi, bulbs and greens
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, cut in slivers
3 medium carrots, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
2 medium potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
1 cup peeled, chopped tomatoes (Italian-style tomatoes are particularly good)
4 cups vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon molasses
Separate leaves from kohlrabi bulbs. Peel bulbs and cut into large chunks. Derib leaves and cut into thin strips. Set aside. Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté for several minutes. Add kohlrabi bulb chunks, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, broth, bay leaf, oregano, slat, black pepper, molasses and mustard. Turn heat up to medium-high and bring stew to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer stew for approximately 15 minutes or until vegetables are not quite tender. Add kohlrabi leaves and simmer, uncovered for another 10 minutes or until vegetables are just cooked. Serves 6.
— Recipe from the “Rolling Prairie Cookbook” by Nancy O’Connor.