Dear Readers, was there ever a more characterful vegetable than the kohlrabi? The one on the left looks as if it is grinning maniacally, and the one on the right seems to be waving its little arms or begging to be picked up. What a shame that they taste so much like turnips, a vegetable that fills me with little enthusiasm. Still, these chaps have appeared in my fortnightly organic box, and so I shall find something exciting to do with them.
Gary Rhodes, beloved pointy-haired chef from the 80s, suggests making a remoulade with them – as this features mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, capers and gherkins I am hoping that this will take the edge off the flavour. Rhodes was one of the first chefs to really pioneer British ingredients and recipes (though I remember Mum being very dismissive of his deconstructed steak and kidney pudding). His recipes included steamed syrup puddings, pies, pot roasts and trifles, and they all seemed to work, so I have high hopes for my kohlrabi. Sadly, Rhodes died aged only 59, but he was seen as an inspiration by everyone from Marcus Wareing to Jamie Oliver.
The esteemed Nigel Slater, however, describes the kohlrabi as ‘more or less useless‘. Over to you, readers!
Now, although it looks like a turnip, kohlrabi is actually Brassica olearacea, the wild cabbage. This humble wild plant has given us not only our cultivated versions of cabbage, including the dreaded/revered Brussels sprout, but also the cauliflower, broccoli and collard greens. Although it looks like a turnip it isn’t actually one, although the confusion is long-lived: the name comes from the German Kohl (meaning cabbage) plus Rübe (meaning turnip). The vegetable is eaten right across southern Asia, from India to Vietnam, and is also popular in Eastern Europe. It is also a popular vegetable in Cyprus, where it’s eaten as an appetiser with lemon and salt.
Kohlrabi was first recorded in Europe in 1554, where the botanist Mattioli recorded that it has ‘lately come into Italy’. It was widely grown across Europe by the end of the 16th century, including in the UK – the soil seems to favour a wide range of root crops, from swedes and turnips to carrots and the much beloved (by me at least) potato. In some places, these same roots were used to feed cattle. Just about the only root vegetable that I can think of that hasn’t been used by both humans and animals is the sugar beet: it provides us with most of our sugar these days, but I have never heard of anyone roasting it or popping it into a coleslaw. Do let me know if you’ve heard otherwise.
‘My’ kohlrabi are purple-skinned ( I think the variety is known as Purple Vienna) but the colour doesn’t affect the taste or the colour of the flesh, which is always creamy white. You might be more familiar with the green variety.
Kohlrabi is a good source of fibre and Vitamin C and K, and contains trace amounts of potassium, phosphorus and copper. Medicinally it has been used as everything from a cancer preventative to a weight-loss promoter, though studies haven’t proved its efficacy except as part of a well-balanced and varied diet. However, all members of the Brassica family punch above their weight in terms of all-round nutrition – there was a reason that my Mum always told me to ‘eat my greens’.
Now, you might think that a vegetable as striking as a kohlrabi would have appeared in numerous still life paintings, but in fact it is often disregarded in favour of more picturesque vegetables such as the cauliflower. I was very impressed by this work by a contemporary German artist, Manfred W. Jürgens – and as you can see he paints the humble kohlrabi with loving care and attention.
And here is a slightly menacing kohlrabi.
And finally, a poem. I bet you thought that it would be difficult to find something featuring this strange and bulbous plant, but in fact I was spoiled for choice. Here’s the one that I liked best, with its intimations of the abundance of harvest, and the need, sometimes, to trust and to be generous. I hadn’t come across Donna Hilbert before, but I love this!
In Plowboy’s Produce Market
I push my cart through Plowboy’s produce market
gleaning this song for the first days of fall:
broccoli cauliflower cabbage kohlrabi The price of red pepper is dropping.
Eggplant shines purple.
Bell pepper is green.
I watch an old couple choose stringbeans:
she fills their sack by handfuls. He frowns,
empties the bag back into the bin,
then turns each bean to the light
before dropping it in.
pattypan crook-neck pumpkin zucchini
A woman wearing a scarf tight at her chin
eats Thompson’s seedless from the grape bin.
Tokay Exotic Muscat Red Flame
At the melons, a man in white shorts, skin brown
as russet potatoes, swings a cantaloupe into his cart.
I think I’m in love.
Winesap Pippin Golden Delicious
where last week there were plums.
Old man, kiss your wife.
Wash your face in the juice of ripe fruit.
Put beans into your sack without looking.
Old man, we’re in Plowboys’s
every bean is perfect, every bean is right.
Photo One by By Mecca Ibrahim from Richmond, UK – Me and Gary Rhodes, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4331970
Photo Two By Secretlondon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=361214