Kohlrabi: That weird bulb-thing

“What is that?” asked a lady at the CSA last week, holding a purple bulb.  I replied, “Kohlrabi.” “This weird bulb-thing?  That’s a kohlrabi?  What do I do with it?”

I told her that a friend of mine, who grew up in Germany, passed along that her family would grow lots of them in their garden and they ate them raw, peeled and sliced with a little salt, almost every night in the summer.

But as I was driving home, I realized that we use kohlrabi in lots of ways, from lacto-fermented to Indian food (gaanth gobhi).  It tastes sweet, but a little broccoli/cabbage-like.  The consistency is crisp and is reminiscent of broccoli stems.  Sometimes we just slice them and eat them with dip or a little salt, or add them to cold salads.  But kohlrabi is extremely versatile.  It is also a crop that comes in twice in NJ, because it is a cooler weather crop.  My CSA distributes them in the spring and then again in the fall, so I have spring/summer recipes and uses and fall/winter recipes and uses.

This time of year, we tend to the raw and lacto-fermented recipes — things that don’t heat up the kitchen!  But in the fall and winter, we roast it in chunks, cube it and add it to curries, or even cut it like french fries and pop it in the deep fryer.

Here is a super easy lacto-fermentation recipe for kohlrabi:

Garlic Kohlrabi Pickles

  • 1 large kohlrabi, peeled and cut into 1/4″ sticks, a max of 1/4″ shorter than the jar you are using
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, halved
  • 2 T sea salt OR 1 T sea salt + 1 T whey from yogurt making, if you have it
  • 2 C filtered/unchlorinated water
  • horseradish leaf (optional)**
  1. In a scrupulously clean wide-mouth pint jar, mash the horseradish leaf into the bottom of the jar.
  2. Add the kohlrabi sticks and garlic.
  3. Combine the water and salt (and whey if you are using it) to make a brine.  Mix until the salt is completely dissolved.
  4. Add the brine to the jar, being sure to leave some space at the top.
  5. Secure the lid.
  6. Leave the jar on a counter, out of direct sunlight, for 2-3 days.  When you see bubbles, put it in the fridge. One of the bonuses of lacto-fermenting is that you can open the jar and not break a seal or wreck anything.  Open the jar and look at the pickles.  Sniff them.  Taste them.  If you like how they taste, put then in the fridge.  If you want them to be a little more “done,” leave them out for another 12 hours.  These will keep in the fridge for about 6 weeks.  After that, the texture begins to degrade.

**I use horseradish leaf in all of my pickle jars. Bruising the leaf in the bottom of the jar helps release the naturally occurring potassium and magnesium that help the pickles retain their crispness.

A General Word on Lacto-Fermentation

When I teach Lacto-Fermentation classes, one of the things I almost always make is Ginger Carrots. I refer to them as “Fermented Foods for Beginners.” It is a good name for them because carrots generally retain their texture and people are successful with a ferment. While L-F is a very easy food preservation technique, it still takes some time to get the hang of it and there are failures. There is a lot of conflicting information here on the internet, so it is easy to let things sit out for too long, and therefore, turn mushy, which is pretty objectionable.

How Long to Leave Things Out

People are talking about L-F because the people in the medical community are finally seeing that the consumption of probiotic foods and good gut health has a direct impact on overall health. So you took my class, or you read a bunch of blog posts. In one place you read to leave things out for 2 days. Another said leave it out for 7 days. And yet another said that you aren’t doing yourself any good if you do not leave the ferments out at room temperature for 12 weeks. In my 90° F summertime kitchen, that’s a disaster.

Here’s the deal: Lacto-fermentation, just like anything else, has optimal conditions. When I teach my class, I tell people that everything depends upon the condition in your kitchen. The beauty of lacto-fermentation is that you can taste and test your ferments, and leave them to ferment some more if they are not ready. When you like the results, you move them to cold storage (the refrigerator or a wine cooler), with the understanding that the fermentation process is not stopped by the cold, only slowed, and the colder then environment that the ferment is stored the slower the fermentation process goes.

I have tested my ferments for pH levels – I grabbed the litmus strips out of a kid’s chemistry kit that came our way, and tested my kraut. It isn’t very scientific, because I only did tested on two batches and only recorded the temperatures as high’s and low’s, no hourly variations. One had daily temperatures in the 60’s, and overnight lows in the high 40’s. The other had highs in the 50’s and overnight lows in the low 40’s. I was looking for a pH in the low 4’s or high 3’s. As expected, the first batch reached a pH of 4.0 days faster than the second batch that had the cooler temperatures with which to contend. So, for MY KITCHEN, that is not air-conditioned, and is not well insulated, the counter time for fermenting can vary by 4 or 5 days. When I tested these batches again, after being in the refrigerator for 4 weeks, the acidity had increased, lowering the pH to 3.8. Writing this post makes me want to get more litmus strips and test all of my ferments. I love watching those things change color!

If you test your ferments, remove a little liquid from the container – DO NOT DIP THE STRIP IN YOUR FERMENT!

Now you say, “Natalie, you haven’t answered the question.” I know. I can’t really answer the question because I am not fermenting at your house. Open it, sniff it, and taste it.

Back to those Ginger carrots. You can make these with shredded carrots (my preference), as carrot sticks, or as coins. They taste great in any shape. I like the shreds because they are nice to mix in with greens for salad and make a delicious salad dressing (recipe also follows) that tastes kind of like that orange dressing you get at Japanese restaurants.

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Ginger Carrots

2 C shredded carrots (or cut in other shapes)

1 2 inch piece of ginger, finely chopped or grated

1 C of filtered water

1 T sea salt

Combine the salt and water and stir until the salt is dissolved.

In a bowl, combine the carrots and the ginger and mix thoroughly. Stuff them in a scrupulously clean jar. Cover with the salt water. Be sure the carrots are below the level of the liquid. Secure a lid on the jar. Leave to ferment on a counter, out of direct sunlight. Usually this takes 2-3 days.

 

Ginger Salad Dressing

1 C Ginger Carrots (above)

½ C rice vinegar

½ C salad oil of choice

2 T toasted sesame oil

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth and emulsified. Refrigerate for an hour before using.

First Frost: Pickled Tomatoes

There is always something exciting about the first frost.  While the leaves have been changing for a while, the oranges and reds have come to dominate the tree-lined avenues.  The air turned from the heavy humidity of summer to the dry crisp of autumn seemingly overnight (well, actually it was the other day – started out about 8,000% humidity in the morning and gave way to a dry, cool breeze by the afternoon).  It is, perhaps, my favorite time of year.  There is a sense of relief when the intense heat of summer finally desists.

For me, the first frost signifies the true beginning of autumn.  The summer plants, tomatoes, peppers, and annual herbs, all “bit it” last night, leaves curling and turning dark.  Unpicked fruits soon to pucker, soon to be chicken food.

It is also the harbinger of quieter times ahead – the end of fall sports, and all of the running around inherent in being the parent of two athletes, involved in two different sports, at two different schools.  I know many of you feel my pain!

So out I went this afternoon, to pick all of the green tomatoes. They are some of our favorite pickles. The small cherry or grape tomatoes I leave whole and the larger ones are cut into halves.

 

Lacto-Fermented Pickled Green Tomatoes

Pack jars with green tomatoes, keeping like varieties together. If you have some cherry tomatoes and some larger tomatoes that you are going to cut, put them in separate jars as whole fruits will last longer than cut fruits.

Per jar, add:

¼ t black pepper corns

¼ t dill seed

1 or 2 cloves of garlic

1 dried chili (optional)

Cover the tomatoes with brine in the proportion of

1 T salt

1 C water

Put lids on the jars and leave on the counter until bubbles start to form, usually 2 or 3 days. Once there are bubbles, move them to cold storage. These are NOT shelf stable because they have not been hot processed.

Traditional Soup

The first Nor’easter of the season blew up the coast yesterday, leaving behind about 1 ¼” of rain and a lot of gusty wind. Had it been cold enough, it would have been about a foot of snow that would have come down sideways. As it was, with highs earlier in the week being closer to 80 and 95% humidity, but not raining, the contrast was sharp and bone-chilling. When my husband first moved here from Minnesota, he didn’t quite understand the Mid-Atlantic winter. Now I am not saying that winter in New Jersey is as brutal as winter in Maine, or even Minnesota, but it does have it’s own characteristic not-very-charming quirks, like storms that leave behind 2 inches of rain instead of 20 inches of snow because it was 34ºF, not 30ºF. His observation was this: At least in Minnesota, the snow stays frozen on your frozen coat. Here this just soaks through everything. And how does one get warm again? Hot showers and soup. Homemade traditional soups are easy to make.

Growing up, there were three kinds of soup: condensed in a can, powered in an envelope, or frozen in “containers.” The containers are of particular importance because the soup within came from my grandmother’s kitchen. It was highly prized in the family and highly sought after. We all had our favorites: mine was mushroom-barley. I think there may have been treaties more easily negotiated than the division of soup in my grandmother’s kitchen. But all of it was null and void if someone did not return “the container.” You could stand at the stove, make your move toward the pot, but if you hadn’t returned your container, my grandmother was loath to give you another. What were these prized possessions? These tickets to soup euphoria? Sherbet containers. Yes, you read that right. Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, sherbet came in these plastic containers and my family reused them for adopting leftover soup. Tupperware was too expensive.

As my grandmother got older, I kept trying to get the soup secrets out of her. I tried and tried to replicate her soup and could never quite get it. There was always something missing. When she broke her hip and was in a rehabilitation facility, I called her to say hello and we got started talking about soup. She finally confessed parts of recipes. The underlying problem I would have was that I didn’t have her soup pot. It was this huge enamel pot that had all kinds of cracks and stains. Her recipes went something like this: “You put a soup bone in the bottom and then fill the pot with water up to the black chip that looks like an eye.” Not especially helpful in recipe replication.

Over the years, with much trial and error, I have come up with reasonable versions of my grandmother’s soups. I researched recipes, experimented and ate quite a bit of mediocre soup. In my research, I found that many of the sweet/sour soups quintessential to Eastern Europe called for lemon juice or vinegar to create the sour component. It occurred to me that a peasant in Poland would probably not have lemons, so I let go of any recipe that used lemon juice. One day, as I was pounding down some cabbage for kraut, I had an epiphany: peasants in Eastern Europe did not have lemons. But they more than likely had fermented vegetables like cabbage and beets. The resulting soups were remarkable!

 

Easy Beet Borscht (Sweet and Sour Beet Soup)

1 T fat for sauté

1 medium onion, rough chop

¼ C apple cider

2 lbs. of raw beets, peeled and cubed

1 quart of stock (any type will do)

1 C fermented beets

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Heat the fat in the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and sauté until it is translucent. Add the apple cider and scrape up any brown bits form the bottom of the pot. Add the beets the stock and let this simmer until the beets are cooked (about an hour, depending upon how small your cubes are).

Take the soup off the heat and mash the vegetables, or run an immersion (wand) blender through them. Add the fermented beets. Taste for salt and pepper.

Because the fermented beets are salty, do not add any salt until after you add the beets.