Spring is here, I see color wherever I look, especially at the Farmers Market – not the color coordinated palettes of winter – the lush jewel toned browns, greens, and golds, but the clashing vibrant fireworks of blues, reds, pinks, and greens – mostly greens that harold in the new season. One of my favorite ways to discover new veggies is to sample the goodies at those markets or from my CSA box.
One sight guaranteed to bring out the creative side in me, is a luscious, delicate mound of greens that I have not yet tried at home. Specifically the Asian varieties that were nowhere to be found in the farmers markets of Minnesota when I was growing up. Bringing home a bag filled with these greens and discovering their unique qualities has proved to be the basis for many a wonderful meal.
A few of the greens I’ve discovered this way include:
Bok Choy is an Asian vegetable familiar to most Americans and Europeans, having been introduced in Europe back in the 1800s and gradually spread to Europe. I cooked with back in college in a small Iowa university town and loved the flavors and textures it imparted. Common in many dishes, it is popular in Filipino cooking where it is added to pancit ( a noodle dish) and in the beloved Korean kimchi. It is frequently steamed and topped with oyster sauce, stir-fried, or added to soups. Chop sum (next veggie) is a close relative.
Choy sum resembles Chinese cabbage with white stems and broad green leaves that have the texture of chard. This fellow makes his appearance in stir fries, soups, and salads. The stems can be used as well, just sliced into bit size pieces cooked until wilted but still crunchy. Some simple ways to prepare this vegetable is to blanch it and top it with a mixture of soy sauce and sesame oil. A quick stir fry with garlic, Thai peppers, a dash of fish sauce and soy sauce, or even a dollop of oyster sauce. It also goes by the name Chinese flowering cabbage and is commonly sold with trimmed leaves and stalks rather than the entire plant.
Chrysanthemum (tong ho in Chinese, and tan o in Vietnamese ) is slightly bitter tasting, with a scent that hints of fresh pine. It has dark green serrated leaves that are very decorative. The leaves
come in two sizes: broad and small (as you might guess, these are more tender and fragrant). Other alias this veggie goes by includes shungiku, garland chrysanthemum, tangho, moya, kikuna and chop suey greens. Note this chrysanthemum are bits of the edible part of garland chrysanthemum, and not the ornamental variety found at your florist. They are great added to soups and brothy dishes that show off the lovely designs. They are a delicious addition to a salad, and frequently used in hot pots and stews but add them at the end as the heat causes them to turn to mush.
Kai-lan is a leaf vegetable that if you enjoy Chinese food (especially Cantonese), you’ve surely encountered. It also answers to Gai Lan, Chinese broccoli, and Chinese kale. It is from the broccoli and kale family and tastes much like the version of broccoli that most Americans are familiar with, but with a touch more bitterness. It does not have the florets of the American variety but does have some small yellow flowers, and when eating kai-lan the stems and leaves are consumed. Kai-lan is commonly stir fried with ginger and garlic or steamed and topped with oyster sauce.
Mizuna is a personal favorite with beautiful, featury dark green leaves that remind me of a cross between oak leaves in shape but with the sharp corners of dandelion leaves. If you’ve ever eaten a mesclun salad chances are you’ve had some and didn’t know it. This Asian beauty hails from Japan and hints at pepper and mustard flavors. If you like arugula you’ll like mizuna. I love the added texture, and especially taste that it gives to a salad. The smaller leaves are better for this purpose while the bigger ones go well in stir-fries and stews. Because of the spicy taste of its leaves, mizuna holds its own against other stronger flavors, so a favorite way to fix it for me is in a salad with a mustard and wine vinaigrette topped with a tangy goat cheese to accompany a steak or grilled portabella mushrooms. Some other names that mizuna answers to: Xiu Cai, Kyona, Japanese Mustard, Potherb Mustard, Japanese Greens, California Peppergrass, and Spider Mustard.
Mizuna Stir Fry with Bamboo Shoots and Mushrooms
2 c mizuna, rinsed and diced into 2″ pieces
1 c bamboo shoots, rinsed and sliced
1 c fresh mushrooms (shiitake, crimini), rinsed and sliced
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp corn starch
6 drops sesame oil
1 T wine
8 T vegetable oil
Add the vegetable oil to the wok, and place turn to medium heat and individually drop the bamboo shoot slices and do not allow the oil to get too cold but the addition of too many bamboo slices at one time The pieces of bamboo shoots are ready to be removed when they change color. Remove from the oil and set aside. Turn the wok to high. Add in the Mizuna and stir fry when the oil gets hot. Add ban in the bamboo shoot pieces, along with the cooking wine, salt, sugar, and mushrooms when the Mizuna smell is fried out (half a minute or so).
Spray some water with a spoon along the side of the wok (¼ cup); lower the heat when what’s in the wok begins to boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Thicken the juices with the starch (make a paste of starch and water using a ration of 3:1 water: starch). Add in the sesame oil and stir them fully together before dishing out.
Tatsoi is another green gifted to us from Japan that is a relative of bok choy. To give you a sense of taste, also included in the brassica family are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, and kale. Tatsoi has individual leaves that look like spoons or big green lollipops, and tastes a bit like cabbage with a tinge of mustard flavors. This green can be used in a salad combined with other greens, sauteed with garlic, and a few dashes of Asian sauces, or as a side with grilled fish. This green has a short shelf life, so you need to have a recipe in mind using it, rather than keeping it on hand until inspiration strikes.
Hanoi Noodle Soup with Baby Tatsoi, and Bok Choy
adapted from recipe from Bon Appetite
8 c stock – vegetable or chicken
2 T coarsely chopped fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, peeled
½ c fresh cilantro leaves
½ c fresh mint leaves
2 whole chicken breasts, bone in (Note: tofu can be easily substituted or supplemented for chicken)
1 pound bok choy, chopped
1⁄4 pound bahn pho (Vietnamese rice noodles), 1⁄2″-wide
3 tbsp. finely chopped scallions
4 oz. baby tatsoi
Hot sauce, preferably Tuong Ot Toi (Vietnamese hot sauce)
In a medium stockpot, simmer stock over medium heat. Add ginger, garlic, 1⁄4 cup each of the cilantro and mint leaves, chicken. Simmer about 25-30 minutes until chicken, if using is cooked. Remove chicken and allow to cool. Tear each breast into bite size pieces (or equal portions based on the number of servings), discard bones. Strain broth and return to pot over low heat. Add bok choy and tofu (if using add at this point) and simmer 5–10 minutes.
Soak noodles in hot water until softened, 5–10 minutes. Cook noodles in boiling water until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain and rinse well with cold water. Divide the noodles equally among the serving bowls, add chicken/tofu, scallions, remaining herbs. Pour the hot broth and bok choy over the top. Serve with the hot sauce.