By Mark Wieser
Kohlrabi is mentioned only twice in all of the editions of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cookbook. Both are rather appealing, but we never ever ate this remarkable vegetable prepared in such a way. In fact, my mother never served them at all. I have only known them from eating them raw. The Kallenbergs, an elderly, neighboring couple who were already in their late ‘70s by the time I was about ten years of age, grew them. I could walk on a path through the field that separated our place from theirs barefoot. I visited them often. They became like my grandparents. They had a Kaffeeklatsch every morning around 10 a.m. and another in the afternoon around 3 p.m. In winters, they offered me coffee, home-baked bread, and jam. In summers, the afternoon breaks included a fresh-cut watermelon. They lived in a three-room house with a screened north porch. They had a kitchen sink with running water, but no in-door bathroom. In one corner of the kitchen stood a beautiful black wood-burning stove near which I often sat to keep warm on visits in colder months. I learned to eat Quaker Puffed Oats out of a cereal box kept on that bench. (My mom would never buy them.) Next to their kitchen sink stood a kerosene stove for their use in summers. On a shelf, high up on a wall stood a shelf clock which chimed the hours. Times in the early ‘50s seemed endless.
The Kallenberg’s had a milk cow, just like we did and even horses which were used to plow the sandy fields. And dozens of free-rage chickens that provided them with fresh eggs. They Kallenbergs were largely self-sufficient. Their wood-fired kitchen stove heated their small home. Mrs. Kallenberg, who I called Oma, could bake the tightest bread I ever knew—with no large holes typically caused by trapped gasses from the yeast. To slice a fresh pieces of bread, she held the loaf close to her chest, and using a bread knife cut toward herself yielding the most perfect slices of bread I can remember. She made their preserves from fruits the Obstgarten that thrived around their small home. She loved flowers – they bloomed by the score around their tiny home. Their smoke house had a dirt floor and a sand bin in which they stored their harvested potatoes until needed. Such was typical in many rural homes in the county even into the ‘50s.
As they aged, they occasionally asked for my help in harvesting things like gathering their potatoes and sweet potatoes. Their soils were as sandy as ours. The digging was easy. One day I was asked to help harvest their kohlrabi, a biennial vegetable—a stout cultivar of wild cabbage. They hadn’t many, perhaps a row or two, but being curious, I took a bite out of one right there in the garden and became cavitated of this remarkable vegetable.
Kohlrabi is also called the German turnip although it does not belong to the turnip family. It is more closely related to cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. The round blubs are typically either purple, pale green or white outside, but the inside is always white yellow. Its taste and texture is similar to broccoli stems and cabbage, but sweeter. The taste was sensational. I ate the whole bulb. I discovered it was even better with salt and have never forgotten that scrumptious first bite.
Kohlrabi apparently developed from the marrow cabbage, a wild form of cabbage which frequently grows along the English Channel. The first written record date to the 1st century A.D. when Pliny the Elder briefly mentioned it. He apparently studied everything, was highly educated and able to travel widely throughout the Roman Empire. Apicius, who I have mentioned before, wrote the oldest known cookbook and mentioned many recipes for its presentations.
Nevertheless, Kohlrabi quickly found a home in Germany where it acquired its name. Seeds were certainly brought to the Hill Country by Meusebach’s first settlers. Cold frames allowed his settlers to start the seeds early before setting them out into their gardens. A second planting was even possible mid-summers.
Kohlrabi should be harvested when the bulbous stems are approximately 2 inches in diameter. The inner flesh is sweeter at this stage. Growing the harvest to bragging size often sacrifices flavor – not everything is better bigger. Sadly, in America, kohlrabi have been upstaged by broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus. Having scanned HEB’s vegetables for years I have found them only once—this spring. They were bigger than the ideal size and consequently I had to peel them, but chilled, sliced, and eaten raw with salt they brough back memories of that day I had first discovered them nearly 7 decades earlier.
It is best to remove the stems by pulling or cutting them off the globe. These can be chopped and included in a tossed salad and take well to a salad dressing. If the bulb is quite small, there is no need to peel it, however, you might cut off its tough base end. Kohlrabi can be julienned and included alongside others on a relish tray with dips. I still prefer to eat them raw with a little salt, but another enticing option is the recipe that follows. Or, one may turn to the recipe once included in the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cookbook.
Kohlrabi Siam Chopped Salad
4 medium kohlrabi, rinsed, peeled and diced
1 ½ cup chopped Napa cabbage
¼ pound fresh snow peas, chopped
½ to 1 fresh poblano pepper, diced or 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
½ red bell pepper, julienned to 1-inch lengths
3 green onions, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1 or 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
Juice of ½ lemon (about 1 tbsp)
2 tsp sesame oil
Dash of rice vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Black sesame seed
2 tbsp minced green onion.
Combine all ingredients, except the black sesame seeds and green onions, in large bowl and toss.
Transfer to an attractive serving bowl or platter and garnish with black sesame seeds and mince green onions.
Cover and chill. This salad is best when made several hours before serving.
Though Kohlrabi has never quite caught on in the United States, probably every garden created by our German ancestors likely grew it here. One is more likely to find it in northern European countries and has become quite popular in Japan, China and Southeast Asia. There are more recipes available for those who search. I’ve never eaten them any other way but raw.