Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pickled Kohlrabi Chinese Style

In my continuing quest for uses for kohlrabi, I tried the recipe for pickled kohlrabi in my Chinese cookbook. It worked.

First, a story. The first time I ever saw an actual living kohlrabi was when I visited the home of some colleagues, one of whom was Chinese. We were all young instructors at a small college in the Midwest, and Gene liked to cook. We were fortunate because he and his wife invited us over for some homemade Chinese food. (This is how I learned to stir-fry.)

They had recently bought their first house, a new house in a subdivision. They had a very small garden in the back. The only thing growing in it was kohlrabi. He didn't prepare it for us but I wondered for many years why, of all the possible vegetables, that was the one they grew. I am now convinced that it was so they could make this pickle.

Actually, it is not quite a pickle but the product of short fermentation, like sauerkraut but for a shorter period. The result is a pleasantly tangy product that is somewhat radish-like and somewhat reminiscent of kimchi. I think that it might be something one would serve alongside many dishes, and like kimchi, it could become a regular part of daily meals.

Kohlrabi Pickles (Pow Tsai: Szechuan)
slightly modified from
"An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking"
by Chang, Chang, Kutscher and Kutscher,
Crown Publishers

For a 1 quart Mason-type canning jar, prepare a solution of 2 cups boiling water and 1 Tablespoon salt (not iodized). Allow to cool.

Peel 3-4 kohlrabi, depending on size (recipe says 1 pound) and cut into slivers.
Cut fresh ginger into slices. Use 4.
Peel 2 cloves garlic, slice.
Place all these vegetables into the jar.
Optional: also 1 "red-hot pepper", seeded and sliced.

Pour cooled salt solution over vegetables. Add one tablespoon wine (I used a dry white wine.) and screw down cap. Place on counter. After three days, refrigerate.

Notes: Carbon dioxide bubbles form by the next morning. It appears to be a classic lactic acid fermentation. Best not to screw down lid too tightly, since some pressure might build up.

I substituted a tablespoon of Sambal Oelek for the hot pepper. A little too hot for my taste. One could use a red dry "Japanese" pepper instead.

Friday, June 12, 2009

First Fruits

We've been eating lettuce for many weeks and finished off the first crop of spinach and arugula some time ago. But for some reason, it feels more real when you start to get the big substantial vegetables. It seems only yesterday that I put the kohlrabi into the ground, and suddenly it is huge. Time to start picking it before it gets too big and fibrous.

Kohlrabi is the version of the cabbage family that produces thickened stems as its major food offering. (The fresh leaves are also edible, like kale or collards.) I love to plant the purple variety Kolibri (Johnny's Select Seeds) because it is fun. It looks like an alien from outer space. It also seems to have a fine quality. In kohlrabi, that means a mild, slightly nutty taste and fibrous material limited to a little near the base.

As I reported before, seeds were started March 20, and the seedlings placed in the cold frame April 12. I was too busy to record the day they were planted into the row but I would guess it was the first week of May. Now suddenly they are huge! It is so satisfying to harvest the fruit of my efforts. Now to find good ways to use it.

Conventional recipes based on Anglo/American tradition are not very inspiring. They begin with cream sauce and end there. Here's what James Beard (American Cookery) had to say about it: "This is rather a bastard me it is a mystery why people really care for it...Mrs. Rorer felt that kohlrabi was more nutritious than turnips and that it was pleasant served with Hollandaise sauce." He mentions cream sauce "gauge one per person" and also serving it with melted butter. For an updated version, see this from the New York Times.

The way I have usually begun serving it is peeled, sliced, cooked until tender in minimal water, then with butter, salt and pepper. We consumed three for two people without any effort last night. It is mild but has a pleasant distinct nutty flavor. I expect that I will use it in a gratin before the season is over, probably with onions and some of my frozen roasted red pepper.

But where it really comes into its own is with pickling. I found a recipe that apparently originated with Shepherd's Garden Seeds that worked very well a couple of years ago. It makes a fresh delicious pickle that can be served as a side dish. This year I'm also going to try the Chinese version in which kohlrabi is subjected to a short-term fermentation and seasoned with ginger, garlic, and hot pepper.

Pickled Kohlrabi (Shepherd's, 1994)

Peel and slice 3 kohlrabi, 1/4 inch thick. Peel one carrot and slice into thin sticks. (I think I sliced the kohlrabi into equivalent sticks last time.) Parboil the carrot briefly (should yield to a fork but not be soft). Place raw kohlrabi, carrot, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 bay leaf, and a sprig of fresh dill into a quart canning jar. Heat pickling mixture to boiling and pour over the vegetable mixture in the jar, filling the jar completely. Let cool, then refrigerate for 3-4 days before use. Will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator.

Pickling Mixture
3/4 c white vinegar
1 1/4 c water
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dill seed
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes

Note: the original version of this recipe called for two carrots. I found that this made it into carrot and kohlrabi pickles instead of the other way around, so reduced to one carrot. The carrot itself is very good in this treatment and provides color, but to me the point is the kohlrabi.