Unusual Vegetables

I have written a fair amount about fresh produce in prior Cooking Tips. Now, I would like to talk to you about what some people might call “Unusual” vegetables. They are only unusual in that many people either do not know what they are or have never tasted them before. In this Cooking Tip, I hope to encourage you to seek them out and give them a try.

Fennel

This is a crunchy veggie with a refreshing and complex flavor. Because it is often mislabeled “sweet anise”, many people shy away expecting it to taste like licorice. However, the flavor is sweeter and more delicate than anise and when cooked, becomes even lighter. Fennel is not anise. They are unrelated plants. One large difference is that the entire fennel plant is edible but only the seeds of the anise plant are edible.

There are two types of fennel. The one I am discussing is called “Florence Fennel” or “Finocchio”. It is cultivated in the Mediterranean, and has a broad, bulbous base with wispy fronds. (Fennel pollen is the golden powder taken from blooming fennel flowers.)

The other kind of fennel is common fennel. This is where we get fennel seeds. The plant does not have a bulb. Rather, the stems and greenery are used just as with the Florence variety and is considered more of an herb rather than a veggie.

To prepare it, cut off the stalks and trim a thin slice from the base of the bulb. Halve it from top to bottom, through the root end. Cut out and discard the triangular piece of core in each half. Peel off and discard any outer, wilted layers. Now, you may cut each half in half again and then slice crosswise. You may also use a mandoline to get very thin, shaved slices. The fronds may be chopped and sprinkled as a garnish. It may be eaten raw or cooked.

Fennel is freshest from late fall to early spring. Look for firm, tightly packed bulbs with fresh, unwilted fronds. Avoid any with bruises or brown spots. After purchasing, it can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 5 days

Kohlrabi

This is a version of the basic cabbage plant in which the main stem swells to several inches in diameter. It is a member of the turnip family. In fact, the name comes from the German for “cabbage turnip”.

There are two varieties: Green & Purple. The green version has a pale green bulb and green leaves with light green veining whereas the purple has a purple root, stems and purple veining on green leaves. Both varieties have a creamy white flesh. One source says its flavor is reminiscent of a “sassy-sweet blend of mild broccoli and celery root”.

Both the bulb-like stem and the greens are edible. Young kohlrabi are tender enough to eat raw or cooked briefly. The leaves or stems are also edible and can be used in sautés and stir-fries. The leaves are said to have a flavor similar to collard greens. Kohlrabi is most often sold without leaves. If the leaves are still attached, separate the bulb from the leaves. The bulb should be peeled and sliced prior to being consumed. The smaller bulbs won’t need to be peeled, while the larger bulbs tend to have less flavor, with a thicker, chewy peel.

It can be sliced or shredded and tossed in your salad in its raw form, where it will add a fresh, crisp texture with a sweet yet mild peppery bite similar to a radish. It can also be roasted, stir fried or added to a soup or stew. The greens may be cooked just as you would kale, turnip, or beet greens with just a quick sauté.

To prepare it, cut off the stems and any leaves. Cut it in half down through its center and slice into quarters. Use the tip of your knife to cut at an angle through the core and discard it. Using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel off any tough skin. At this point, slice off the top and then slice the quarters into your desired size. For thinner slices, a mandoline may be used.

Choose a kohlrabi that is heavy for its size but no wider than 3 inches. The green leaves should be firm and deeply colored. Avoid soft spots with yellowing leaves. When stored properly in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, kohlrabi can last for weeks. The leaves can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

Rutabaga

Rutabagas are also known as Swedes and they are a root vegetable that’s related to both the cabbage and the turnip. Some people confuse rutabagas with turnips. They are related, but rutabagas are generally larger, have a more yellowish flesh and are more mild tasting. They are also denser than turnips and will require a longer cooking time.

Due to being related to both turnips and cabbage, they share flavor characteristics. They can have the peppery, bitter bite of turnips but can also be creamy and sweet if roasted.

Cooking them is easy. They can be cooked until tender and then added to mashed potatoes. They may also be roasted or pureed into a soup.

It is recommended to choose smaller roots (under 5 inches in diameter) to ensure they’re tender. Avoid cracks, bruises, soft spots, or wrinkles. Rutabagas are freshest in the late fall and winter. They may be white or yellow.

As many rutabagas are sold waxed, be sure to scrub the outside before peeling it. Then, just cut into your desired shape.

Pick out rutabagas that are firm, smooth and heavy for their size. They can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.

Parsnip

Although parsnips look like carrots and are related to them, they are a different root vegetable. They can be eaten raw although they are usually cooked.

Some chefs recommend only giving them a thorough scrubbing rather than peeling as they say most of the flavor is right below the skin. The larger ones have a woody core. I like to cut this out although Cooks Illustrated finds this to be unnecessary if you are going to puree them rather than another application such as roasting. Popular ways of using parsnips include mashing, baking, broiling or pureeing them into a soup.

They are at their peak from fall through early spring. They accumulate more starch than carrots but then they convert it to sugar when exposed to cold temps. This results in the winter roots being sweeter than autumn roots.

Look for ones that are small to medium in size with an ivory color and a firm texture. Avoid any that are soft, shriveled or blemished.

Experts say you can store them in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks although I find they don’t last quite that long.

Celery root

Also known as celeriac, this is another root vegetable that has a crisp & firm texture. Its roots project from a knobby surface that requires deep peeling.

It tastes somewhat like celery because it has similar aromatic compounds as celery but the flavor sweetens with cooking. It can be grated or cut into fine matchsticks and added to a salad but it really shines when made into a mash (either on its own or in combination with other veggies), baked or roasted.

Choose small, firm ones with a minimum of knobs. They are not the easiest to peel and you may find that a knife works better than a veggie peeler.

It can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for 7-10 days

There are other even more unusual vegetables. These, though, are ones that you can probably find in your grocery store. If you haven’t tried them, I encourage you to do so. You may just find a new favorite veggie!