If you have ever gone to the farmers market and seen a green or purple vegetable that looks like it might have come from another planet, you might have been looking at a kohlrabi. Also called German turnip, kohlrabi is in the same family as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts and collard greens. Though it looks strange, this scrumptious cole crop is easy to grow in Maine and very versatile in the kitchen.
“It’s basically the bloated stem of a cabbage,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “It’s a strange looking vegetable. They come in purple and green and sometimes they have a hard little woody stem coming out of the bottom and a tuft of leaves coming out the top of them. I think they’re kind of beautiful honestly. They kind of look like a Martian vegetable.”
Kohlrabi is a storage vegetable, so it will last a long time in a cool place like your refrigerator or root cellar.
“They’re something you can put in the crisper drawer for months and they’ll be perfectly fine to eat,” Dumas said. “For farmers, it’s a good vegetable too because it’s easy to grow and easy to store. It’s one of those things that’s well acclimated to our climate, unlike a pepper or tomato or something.”
Kohlrabi is also relatively easy to grow. Dumas said you have to look out for common garden pests like flea beetles and cabbage loopers, as well as the balance of moisture — kohlrabi, like tomatoes, can split with fluctuations in moisture — but said he has successfully grown kohlrabi “without a whole lot of effort.”
Jay Demers, culinary arts instructor at Eastern Maine Community College, said that he grew kohlrabi for the first time by accident.
“I grew up in a family where we gardened everything and it wasn’t anything we ever planted,” said. “My first experience was planting some broccoli 20 years ago in a garden. I had a plant that didn’t look like broccoli and by the end of the season, I found out it was kohlrabi. It grows really easily.”
Demers said his kohlrabi was a happy accident.
“When I saw it, I looked it up and I sauteed it,” Demers said. “You can harvest some early if you want some that are a little more tender, but even large ones you can slice up — they’re pretty tasty.”
Cooking with kohlrabi
Though it is called a German turnip and somewhat resembles the root crop, Demers said that kohlrabi doesn’t taste anything like a turnip. He said it tastes more like a “slightly sweet cabbage” with some “cruciferous-ness.”
“It has the texture of an apple,” Dumas added. “It’s kind of crunchy and juicy but it has the flavor of very mild cabbage, [but] juicier and crunchier.”
Before you eat kohlrabi, you have to peel it, much like rutabaga. Kohlrabi’s tough outer skin that makes it a great storage vegetable is too fibrous to be palatable.
“If you peel them, you get to that juicy crunchy flesh underneath,” Dumas said. “The skin on them protects them and keeps them juicy.”
Once it is peeled, Dumas and Demers both said that kohlrabi can be used much like broccoli stems or other cole crops.
Kohlrabi can also be eaten raw. Dumas said that kohlrabi makes for a delicious slaw and can be sliced thinly to eat as a “crunchy little crudite.” Kohlrabi can also be quick pickled with flavorful mix-ins to use as a tasty snack or topping.
Cooking kohlrabi opens a whole world of possibilities as well. Dumas said that diced kohlrabi roasted with olive oil and a pinch of salt is “reminiscent of a roasted Brussels sprout.” Demers said that he has fried shredded kohlrabi into a crispy fritter (with a little bit of chorizo to boot). Kohlrabi is also found in a lot of Indian cuisine, and makes for a delicious curry.
“It holds up really nicely if you get a real soupy curry, like they have in Indian cuisine,” Demers said.
Dumas said that kohlrabi makes a wonderful casserole as well. He said that there is a delicious recipe for kohlrabi au gratin in a cookbook called “Six Seasons” by Joshua McFadden, who once worked for famed Maine farmer Eliot Coleman managing Four Seasons Farm.
“You’re basically taking the discs of kohlrabi and submerging them in a cheese sauce, layering it in a casserole, covering it with breadcrumbs and cooking it until it’s bubbly cheesy and absolutely amazing,” Dumas said. “I’ve tried that recipe a couple of times and it’s absolutely delicious.”
“It would be very reminiscent of cream of broccoli,” Dumas said. “The only thing for me about is that cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables can have that cabbagey, sulfur-y smell so boiling kohlrabi by itself and pureeing it might yield a sulfur-y smelling soup. It might smell a bit like a fart.”
The greens from kohlrabi can be saved for eating if they are tender (Dumas said that older greens may be a little tough) and used much like you would spinach or baby kale.
“I might toss them in a skillet with a little bit of olive oil and garlic and, if you’re a fan of spicy, a pinch of chili flakes,” Dumas said. “If it’s a particularly young tender leaf, add it right into a salad mix for a little bit of different texture contrasting flavor.”
Dumas said that kohlrabi is a “fun vegetable” that “everyone should try … at least once.”
“Don’t be intimidated by it,” Dumas said. “You can definitely make a really cool looking dish with kohlrabi.”