In addition to being one of medieval Europe's busiest rulers, Charlemagne was a great promoter of obscure vegetables. Sometime between regulating weights and measures and legislating against serfdom, the Germanic emperor decreed that kohlrabi should be grown in every part of his domain. Where is Charlemagne when you need him?
While his favorite brassica is still popular in Germany (that country produces 40,000 tons of kohlrabi and also imports it from neighboring countries to satisfy demand), it has largely fallen out of favor in other parts of Europe and never caught on at all in the United States. That's why you may not recognize the knobby, pale-green bulbs with the protruding stems when you see them in the produce aisle, and you may not know that they are related to cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
I'm no Charlemagne, but I say it's time to get to know kohlrabi. If you are like me, you are growing weary of the regular rotation of vegetables available at the market in January. Cooking kohlrabi is a way to get out of the midwinter vegetable rut. Its mild flavor (less peppery than cabbage but with a similar sweetness) is pleasing to most palates, and it plays well with other ingredients. Kohlrabi is as at home when stuffed with ground beef, onions and caraway seeds as it is in an Indian curry. You can steam kohlrabi, fry it, roast it or chop it up and serve it raw in salads.
Getting ready to cook kohlrabi is easy. Wash the bulbs right before cooking. Small bulbs don't have to be peeled. Larger ones will have a tough outer skin that you can remove with a sharp paring knife. Next, use your imagination. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Kohlrabi chips Slice kohlrabi thinly, spray with vegetable oil, sprinkle with sea salt and roast on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven, turning once, until crisp.
Kohlrabi puree Cut kohlrabi into 1-inch chunks. Boil in salted water until soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Puree in a food processor with some butter. Season with salt and pepper.
Stir-fried kohlrabi Cook some garlic, ginger, scallions and hot red pepper flakes in a little peanut oil for 30 seconds in your wok or a large skillet, add the kohlrabi (cut into matchsticks), and stir-fry a few minutes longer. Add 1/2 cup water, cover and steam until kohlrabi is softened, about 5 minutes. Remove the lid and cook until liquid is almost evaporated. Stir in some soy sauce, a little sesame oil, some toasted sesame seeds, and serve.
KOHLRABI WITH LENTILS
This hearty but not heavy, winter salad makes an outstanding luncheon dish or light supper. If your grocer isn't stocking kohlrabi (you may have to ask for it), you can use young turnips, celery root or even broccoli stems in its place. Serve over salad greens, with dark rye bread and a wedge of Gouda or Emmentaler cheese.
3/4 cup brown lentils
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon grainy mustard
1 small shallot, finely chopped
Ground black pepper
1 (1/4-inch-thick) slice Black Forest Ham, cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 small kohlrabi bulbs, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil and add lentils. Cook until just tender but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.
2. While lentils are cooking, make dressing: Whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard and shallot in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste. Pour dressing over hot lentils. Stir in ham, kohlrabi, apple and dill. Serve immediately over salad greens or refrigerate for up to 1 day and let come to room temperature before serving. Makes 4 servings.