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Taking a Bite out of a Ground Apple

Driving out to St. Mary’s of Dazey for the fall supper, I kept thinking about a great old friend from north Barnes County: George Amann, a lifelong farmer and devout Catholic with a strong sense of his place on earth and under heaven. George told me stories about the Corpus Christi procession at St. Mary’s and about life on Bald Hill Creek.

One of the things that got me thinking beforehand about old George was kohlrabis. I’m using the last of mine from the frig this week. George loved kohlrabis, which he called ground apples.

Kohlrabi is a European vegetable not widely grown across the United States but relatively popular on the northern plains, especially among descendants of German immigrants. It’s of the brassica family; kohlrabi means cabbage turnip in German. The vegetable is quite popular, too, in South Africa.

Here on the prairies you plant seedlings in spring and harvest mature kohlrabi bulbs—they grow above but on the ground—in mid-summer. George would pull one, peel it with his pocketknife, and bite into it like an apple.

You need to lift a kohlrabi while it is still tender, a little larger than a baseball. The past few years, however, an oversize hybrid variety called Kossak has appeared, which I presume from the name has Russian ancestry. It can grow big as a volleyball, but I pick mine when a little bigger than a softball so as to be tender.

I developed a hack for compact planting of kohlrabis in a limited space—alternate a standard variety with Kossak in the row. Then pull the smaller bulbs for earlier use and let the Kossak grow to fill the space.

The easiest way to enjoy a kohlrabi is to do what George did—eat it raw. The flavor is mild, the texture crisp. Peel and slice it and enjoy it with your favorite dip.

The other way to have raw kohlrabi is to shred it into a slaw. People like to make an Asian slaw of it, but I think that is more a sign of current foodie tastes than a best use of the product. With just a bit of sweetness, kohlrabi is best in a creamy slaw, maybe with a little poppyseed for texture.

As for cooking kohlrabi, people roast or sauté it, but frankly, that results in a pretty bland dish. Better to chop it into a stir-fry when you need a brassica to add to the mix.

The highest and best use of cooked kohlrabi — confirmed in the Prairie Kitchen on Willow Creek — is a creamy soup. This begins with chopped kohlrabi in a soup pot along with just enough water to cover. Boil this tender. You can cook it in chicken broth if you have it; otherwise just add some chicken base.

While the kohlrabi boils, you do a sauté in a frying pan: butter, chopped onion, and shredded carrot. You need carrot for sweetness and onion for, well, onion. I use two standard kohlrabi to one carrot and half a yellow onion.

Seasoning, too, is important at the sauté stage. It’s a matter of taste, but I like dried marjoram, dried parsley, and black pepper. Then scrape the sauté into the soup pot.

Add enough cheese for flavor, but don’t make this into a cheese soup. Swiss is good, Gouda adds interest. Buzz it all in a blender, put it back in the soup pot, and then stir in half-in-half (or I use Carnation). Sprinkle a little paprika just for looks when you serve it. Slice some good bread. I wish George were coming over to eat this, may he rest in peace.

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