Asian greens demystified
While I'm proud of my Asian heritage, I admit that I have very little knowledge when it comes to some of the ingredients involved. How can this be? My Chinese parents were always cooking so I should be familiar with the produce and preparation. This familiarity that, despite having a fondness for, never quite interested me enough to research it further (you don't quite appreciate something that you grow up eating everyday). But this apathy ends now! This will be the first in a series of reports dedicated specifically to the Asian greens that we'll come across at the Alhambra farmer's market. So with a humble curiosity (and armed this handy guide from Saveur magazine), let's get familiar with some of these greens.
The majority of the greens I come across fall in the turnip greens category, which are under the umbrella of Brassica rapa. The "Brassicas" are famous for giving us the oilseeds that produce rapeseed/canola oils. (Because of the original taboo name, canola is the market friendly name given to rapeseeds). While turnip greens (along with mustard and collard greens) are tradtional fare in southeastern US cooking, those varieties are the leaves of true turnips, radishes and rutabagas. The Brassica rapa variety is grown strictly for their leaves and greens.
Japanese broccoli reminded me of Nanohana, aka Yu Choy (I wasn't quite sure what variety of vegetable this was, but it felt similar enough). These greens have a thicker stem that are tender with a succulent vegetal sweetness. The yellow flowers are completely edible, and have a very pleasant floral sweetness.
Baby bok choy are greens can either be the young, immature varieties of bok choy, or a tiny variety cultivated to maintain their miniature bodies. The white stems remain super tender, but the mild mustard flavor is still all there. The benefit of the miniature bodies means the whole vegetable is edible and tender, and they make for faster preparation and cooking times. Recognized as the "cabbage" of southern China (in Northern China it's Napa), these turnip greens are probably the common Asian vegetable you'll find in most supermarkets. These are greens I grew up with, having them pretty much every dinner with a steamy bowl of rice.
Ta Gu Choy, (aka Broad-beak Mustard, Spoon Leaf Mustard, Tatsoi, Taasai) is also in the Brassica rapa mustard family. The texture is more like the baby bok choy but with a longer stem. The greens grow in an unusual pattern, appearing much more asymmetrical than bok choy. The stems are still very tender, so they still cook quickly.
When picking tender greens like bok choy or ta gu choy, look over the leaves to make sure they're a vibrant green and are free of brown/damaged spots (you're going to find leaves that have been munched on critters, hard to avoid but not a deal breaker). The stems should be firm and tightly packed. For vegetables like the Japanese broccoli, check to see that the stems are still firm and tender. The flowers are good indicators of freshness, they should still be an impressive yellow with a subtle flowery vegetable scent (weird, but oddly appealing). Only wash the greens when you are ready to cook them, otherwise store them in the coldest part of your fridge in a plastic bag for up to three days.
How to eat all these leafy greens? You can eat them raw, highlighting their mild mustard flavor. But if you do decide to cook them, do it hot and fast with a bit of salt and lots of garlic. You can add oyster sauce/sesame oil if you feel like it, but I prefer the taste of the vegetables as they are. Steamy Kitchen has a beautiful illustrated guide to a simple bok choy stir fry. The baby bok choy especially deserve a chance to let their succulent subtle bitterness shine. The thicker stems on the Japanese broccoli require a longer braise, so be sure to cook them first and add the leaves later on. Traditionally you can first blanch the greens, then finely chop them in boiled dumplings/wontons (for you vegetarians, here's a vegan recipe using shitake mushrooms & bok choy). The Japanese broccoli can be used in hearty fried noodle dishes, like Pad See Ew.
For something slightly unorthodox but still just as tasty is an Asian summer salad with tomatoes and a spring onion/ginger dressing, or mustard vinagerette based bok choy cole slaw. Even crazier is a bok choy pesto, used as a topping for pork burgers! The greens can be torn and added to soups and broths, or even a quick deep fry tempura style. And if you end up having a lot of greens leftover, you can pickle them, making a satisfying condiment to hearty stews and meat dishes.
What are your favorite Asian vegetables, and how do you like them prepared? Let us hear about it in the comments or send them our way at firstname.lastname@example.org!