Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why I Like Kohlrabi

By Nicole Sugerman

The kohlrabi is one of the strangest vegetables we grow, and one of the less well-known. Resembling a cross between a turnip and a flying saucer, I fell in love with kohlrabi the first time I saw it growing, during the first season I worked on a farm. The vegetable was bred from a wild cabbage plant, like broccoli, cauliflower, cultivated cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and many other similar vegetables, which are all in the “brassica” family. However, unlike all of these other vegetables, the kohlrabi vegetable that we eat is actually the swollen stem of the plant, not a root crop, a leaf crop, or a fruit crop. This is the first reason I like kohlrabi, just because I think that this is neat. Kohlrabi is only one of two vegetables we grow where the ‘good eating’ part is actually the plant’s stem (the second is fennel- the bulb of this plant is actually the petiole of the fennel leaf).

I also like kohlrabi because it matures early. One of the major challenges in planning a CSA farm is making sure we have many different vegetables ready for shareholders each week. We cannot just plant everything all at once and wait; this would lead to a glut of vegetables at certain times, and very few vegetables at other times. Instead, Nina and I back-calculate to see when we should plant each of the vegetables in order to have them ready at many different times, so that every week is a unique, interesting, and bountiful assortment. The trickiest time to have a large assortment of vegetables ready is the beginning of the season, because we cannot start planting until the danger of frost is past, and many vegetables take a long time to ripen. Kohlrabi grows relatively quickly compared to many other plants, meaning we can depend on it during the crucial beginning of the CSA season.

I am additionally fond of growing kohlrabi because it grows reliably and requires little maintenance. Because the part we eat is a swollen stem, the kohlrabi is neither susceptible to the root maggots that burrow through our turnips nor to the cabbage moth caterpillars that often prey on our cabbages. Spring is a very busy time, with our team racing to prepare our beds and get all of our crops in the ground, so kohlrabi is a relieving vegetable to have in the mix. We do not have to pay much attention to it, but it is reliably there for us, looking great and tasting delicious, when we need it.

A slightly less pragmatic, but arguably more important, reason that I like kohlrabi is specifically because it is a little bit ‘weird’. As a small farmer, I consider my efforts toward increasing plant diversity as one of my more important roles in the farming system (I plan to write a whole article on vegetable diversity in the future). Because kohlrabi is uncommon, I am more interested in growing it. I think that the more different vegetables people eat, the more complete nutrition we are likely to get. Also, the more kinds of different and varied vegetables farmers grow, the more stable our agriculture is—if we grow only a few vegetable varieties, we run the risk of falling prey to some disease or pest that could wipe out a very substantial portion of our food supply (think the Irish potato famine). So, by growing kohlrabi, and other such vegetables that are not as popular and therefore are not often grown on large farms, I like to think that I am sowing the seeds of food security and general health.

As we begin our CSA, Nina and I have been the recipients of much advice. I have been surprised by how much of this advice contains a variation on the theme of, “CSAs grow so much kohlrabi! Why?! No one really likes kohlrabi!” I suppose this article is partly a preemptive defense of our decision in the hopes that our feedback box will not be filled with similar sentiments. I also have included two delicious kohlrabi recipes, because I honestly think that once people know how to prepare this delicate, tender, broccoli-esque vegetable, everyone will be a convert to its charms. But I also just couldn’t contain my appreciation for this underrated delight of a vegetable, which is enjoyed in Europe and Asia as well as North America. I hope you enjoy your kohlrabi this week!

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