Talk about kohlrabi

Last week’s column on kohlrabi spawned several e-mails, among them a message from Allison Keef. She and her husband, Ralph, have been gardening on 5 acres in Hermon since 1994, growing small fruits, tree fruits, asparagus, garlic, shallots and other vegetables. At the end of the garden year, their cold cellar is filled with “beets, Mokum and Bolero carrots, a variety of potatoes, Ruby Perfection cabbage, Laurentian rhutabaga, celeraic and soccer ball sized kohlrabi.”

Kohlrabi the size of soccer balls! Allison provided the catalog copy from the Fedco seed catalog as evidence that such a monster indeed exists. It is called, appropriately, ‘Gigante,’ a Czechoslovakian heirloom that, according to the catalog, “doesn’t get woody even when it grows enormous.”

“Breaking a big kohlrabi down is a challenge,” Allison says. “I haven’t resorted to a chainsaw yet, just a sharp chef’s knife to halve the kohlrabi and then break them down further as I use them. We eat kohlrabi raw, sliced or shredded on a grater or food processor, a great addition to salad. I cut up or grate for soups of all kinds. It’s a good potato substitute as well. It’s mild and cooks very quickly.”

The Keefs also grow the smaller short-season kohlrabi, both purple- and green-stemmed, interplanting them with lettuce for a beautiful early and late-season spot of color in the garden.

I enjoyed hearing from Ida Berg of Cushing — Damariscotta Pumpkin Festival territory — who recounted kohlrabi memories from her childhood on a truck farm on Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother used to prepare kohlrabi by peeling, cutting it in quarters, then slicing it. Then she simmered it in salted water until just tender and, just before it was done, she would add some of the very little, tender leaves and stems cut-up. This added some interest in an otherwise bland looking dish. Drain all but a small portion of the water, then add some corn starch to thicken, some butter and salt & pepper. It’s delicious! I also would pull them up, peel with my fingers and eat them raw.”

This was in the 1940s, Ida told me. Her father was a Long Island potato farmer, and her older brothers had their own patch of land where they grew vegetables that were unusual, at least to Long Islanders. “It was great being a little kid and having real food to play house with,” Ida recalled.

Kohlrabi, then, is not a new garden plant — it has been around longer than I have!

Real food

Ida’s last words echoed the message of a new little book by Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” and an avid gardener. “Food Rules, an Eater’s Manual” offers 64 rules for smart eating. It brings simplicity (seasoned with Pollan’s characteristic humor) to our daily decisions about what to eat.

I like Pollan’s jabs at fast food. “It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or Pringles.)” Or “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.”

Or, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

If you are a gardener who, like Allison and Ralph Keef, believe in trying to eat real food from your own garden through the year, you will appreciate Pollan’s advice to “Eat only foods that will eventually rot,” or rule 11, “Avoid foods you see advertised on television.”

Some of Pollan’s rules stand alone, others get a little elaboration. This little book is a Penguin paperback and it is in most bookstores. Buy one and read one rule a day at the dinner table.

The most important rule from a gardener’s point of view: “Eat well-grown food from healthy soil.” Amen.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to Include name, address and telephone number.