This article appears in the August 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
People tend to have one of two reactions at the mention of the word kohlrabi:
• “You mean those Sputnik-
creaturey-looking things in the Asian produce section of the grocery?”
• “Ew — that turnipy stuff my grandma used to mash up?”
In other words, they know what it looks like and one way it can be prepared, but they may not know what they’re missing.
Neither of the above questions is off the mark. Before the advent of farmers’ markets, kohlrabi, when you could find it, lay in aging, unpurchased bunches next to the bok choy and the daikon radishes in the supermarket. The best hope we had of being served kohlrabi in any kind of intriguing way was if slipped into a salad at a Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant, where we were likely to assume it was just part of the radish medley.
In fact, kohlrabi — also known as German turnip — is a cultivar of the cabbage family (“kohl” is cabbage in German), which makes it related to all things that stink up the kitchen when cooked: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens and of course cabbage itself. Hence the unpleasant memories of Grandma’s creamed or mashed turnips. Whatever lingers in the sense memory as evocative of sewage does not make us want to come running toward it with a fork, unless it’s a pitchfork.
But guess what — if you don’t cook kohlrabi, it doesn’t stink. In fact, it’s downright sweet. Kohlrabi grows in various shades of green and purple. Some of the purple shades are so beautiful that it almost breaks your heart to have to peel it, but peel it you must, in order to get to the tender, crunchy sweetness inside. No matter what color the kohlrabi is on the outside, the inside is a whitish-green, reminiscent of the interior of a Granny Smith apple.
Because of its texture, it works well in a chopped salad that might also contain jicama and various kinds of radishes. But my favorite way to serve it up, once it’s peeled, is to use a mandoline to create super-thin medallions and then to layer these with other colorful medallions, such as a mixture of red and gold beet varieties.
All of these root veggies will be at their best when young. Look for the smallest beets you can find. This can be a challenge when all of the chefs around town are also in search of the smallest beets they can find. It doesn’t help matters that restaurant chefs tend to be the first ones at the farmers’ markets, out and about before the average home cook has even poured that first cup of coffee.
The good news is that for most of the summer the regular markets also carry more than the typical variety of beet we all recognize: dark red or purple. You’ll be astonished at the shapes and colors of those grown by local farmers. Again, some are so pretty that it’s almost a shame to cut into them. But they’re even better to eat than to look at, and if you didn’t cut them, they would shrivel to ugly and, of course, be wasted.
Now a word about the mandoline. I am not talking about the sans-e musical instrument, which my computer also thinks I’m talking about. (Every time I type it with the e on the end, Mr. Smartypants Mac autocorrects the spelling. Wrong, Mac! Wrong, again.) I’m talking about the ultra-sharp stainless steel cutting tool that professionals use for wafer-thin slicing. For a long time I believed it was a gimmick for a home chef to have a mandoline. I thought that if I bought one, I’d be succumbing to the mentality of those who used to fall for the K-Tel commercials of the 1960s and ’70s. I imagined it would be the equivalent of getting a “Hooked on Classics” record in the mail, a record I would never play.
Once again, wrong. What persuaded me to buy the utensil was a video in which I watched Mark Bittman slicing up a cucumber into perfect transparent discs. He advised purchasing a rudimentary one whose only feature was its sharpness. No high-tech bells and whistles. Bittman, however, did not slice the tip of his ring finger off the way I did the first time I used mine. What I learned the first time I used my mandoline is that it really, truly is razor-bleeping sharp. This is because it is, simply put, a giant razor blade. The other thing I learned was that it was time to let go of my Germanic tendency to use up every last speck of the vegetable in question. If you attempt to do this with a mandoline, you will soon be visiting, not the local farmers’ market, but the local hand surgeon.
My final word on this is, when you’re not using the mandoline, keep its plastic sheath on it at all times, or someone else in your family will also be visiting the hand surgeon every time the utensil drawer is open. But it’s worth all the precautionary trouble to have this tool. As they used to say in those old TV commercials, it really, really works.
And now for this colorful high-summer salad, with its marvelous variety of tastes and textures.
Photo courtesy of: John Nation