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Groundwork: A cabbage named kohlrabi

Bread poppies, seed sown in the fall, spruce up the late spring vegetable garden at Green Spring. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Kohlrabi, our featured vegetable this week, is the weirdest of all members of the cabbage family, with the possible exception of Romanesco broccoli. Kohlrabi produces a bulb-like swelling just above the soil, and the leaf stalks erupt from it. There is something distinctly Sputnik about it, for those who can recall that strangely cute but ominous satellite of the Soviet Onion.

Cindy Brown at Green Spring Gardens west of Alexandria grows lots of cabbage-family plants, as I mentioned last week, but the kohlrabi is the easiest to cultivate. As with the others, though, the key to success is to get it ready for harvest now before the heat is unrelenting. This requires sowing seed in late January, early February, growing the seedlings inside under lights (or if you have one, a cool greenhouse) and planting out in late March, after hardening off.

The cook is most interested in the bulb, which delivers a delicate cabbage flavor, but the somewhat sparse leaves are yummy as well. This is a fresh vegetable too tasty to boil to death. Cindy loves it for its coleslaw. (By the way, cole and kohl come from the same German root, no pun intended.)

There are two basic varieties of kohlrabi: white (palest green) and purple. They both look nifty. The knack is to take them at the right time, when they grow to about the size of a baseball. Too small, and you defeat the object of raising them, too large and they get pithy and hollow. Cindy says that even the latter sort, though, can be redeemed by putting bulbs through a ricer to remove the woody bits.

A white variety of kohlrabi. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Purple and white varieties taste just the same, though the purple is arguably prettier and is held aloft more on a stalk than the white. If you missed the spring boat, you can sow seeds again next month, put out seedlings in late August, and enjoy kohlrabi in October and November. Why not spice up your Thanksgiving dinner with this underrated and underused brassica?

We are at a threshold of sorts in the gardening year. (Not counting the fact that the days are going to start getting shorter in a couple of week, a rather unsettling thought.) All the cool-season veggies like radicchios and lettuce are crying out to be eaten before the heat sends them haywire, and the warm-season stuff is at various stages of getting established. I have a friend whose pepper plants are beginning to fruit, but he's just showing off.

This year, like so many at this latitude, was a bit of a bust for English or garden peas, but the snap and snow peas bloomed and fruited well in spite of this season's seesawing temperatures, uneven rain and heat spells. The English peas just grew old and died before setting a good crop, a product of heat and dryness in May. Moral: Plant snow or snap peas instead.

The benefit of mulching cannot be overstated, not just in keeping soil moist but suppressing all the germinating weed seeds that infect any bare soil. You can use something as easy and cheap as straw, or the type of half-rotten chopped leaves, leafmold, used at Green Spring. Avoid hay, which has its own seeds ready to germinate, but if you can find it, salt marsh hay is a fabulous and attractive organic mulch for the garden. If you are rescuing a neglected bed, the order of battle is: weed, water until the soil is thoroughly soaked, and then mulch.

The robust head of radicchio ready for harvest. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The asparagus patch at Green Spring has failed to rejuvenate, becoming instead a bed of lovely but inedible self-seeded larkspur. Seeing the bed as crowded and weedy, the gardeners lifted the mature asparagus crowns last summer, divided them, amended the bed and put them back. This, in theory, should invigorate the divisions, but the asparagus didn't get the memo. The growth this spring has been more than feeble; it is barely discernible. If it were my garden, I would buy fresh young crowns next winter, and start again.

The fava beans have finished blooming and are just setting their pods, and the radicchio, robust but in need of harvest, seems an odd bedfellow now next to the young bell peppers.

-- Adrian Higgins (Follow me on Twitter.)

Asian Kohlrabi Slaw
4 to 6 servings

When you search cookbooks for recommendations on how to prepare kohlrabi, they often suggest treating it like a turnip. Mashing, steaming or enrobing the sputnik orb in cheese and baking it au gratin style, are delicious ways to cook the German vegetable. But raw is the way to go. Its crunchy sweetness makes great crudites, especially served with a favorite dip. Or try it with the Asian flavors in this "kohl-slaw."

Use a large-hole grating disk with a food processor or a hand grater for the kohlrabi and carrots.

MAKE AHEAD: The salad can be refrigerated a day in advance.

From Cynthia A. Brown.

3 medium kohlrabi stems, peeled and grated (3 cups; see headnote)
2 carrots, grated (see headnote)
2 scallions, white and light-green parts, chopped
Leaves from 10 to 15 stems parsley, chopped (1/3 cup)
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon sesame oil
4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Thai sweet red chili sauce
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot chili sauce (optional)

Combine the kohlrabi, carrots, green onions and parsley in a large bowl.

Whisk together the sesame oil, vinegar and the sweet and hot chili sauces, if using, in a small bowl to form an emulsified vinaigrette.

Drizzle the vinaigrette over the vegetables and toss to combine. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

VARIATIONS: Mix kohlrabi slaw with soba noodles, blanched snow peas and broccoli florets.

Serve in a lettuce leaf with shredded cooked chicken or beef.

Make a quesadilla with pepper jack cheese, kohlrabi slaw and corn tortillas.

Per serving (based on 6): 50 calories, 2 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 50 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  June 7, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork  
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I make an Asian inspired kohlrabi slaw similar to the one above but also add black sesame seeds - the appearance of the dish is very striking, and delicious! Kohlrabi and carrots also make a nice pickle. Kossak kohlrabi is a European processing variety which grows to the size of your head without being woody inside. Stores well in the fall and winter also.

Posted by: elainesinniger | June 7, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

My German grannie used to prepare kohlrabi as follows:

Pare the roots and cut them into half-inch dice (or quarter-inch halfmoon slices).

Cook them in boiling salted water until just tender. Drain them, and reserve some of the cooking water.

Make a light roux with some butter and flour, frying some minced onion or shallot in it. Whisk in enough of the reserved cooking water to make a thin white sauce.

Season with salt and pepper, and dump the cooked kohlrabi back into the sauce to heat.

This will hold for quite a while at serving temperature.

Posted by: heinpe | June 8, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

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