In Season: Best Asian vegetables to buy in winter

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Among the members of the cabbage family is a group known collectively as Asian or Chinese vegetables. They are never sweeter, more tender and more packed with nutrients than right now, because they love cool-to-cold weather. Frost turns their starch to sugar.

They are about as useful as vegetables can be. You can pop them into stews and soups — think Vietnamese pho — stir-fry them, ferment them as the Koreans do to make kim chi, raise them as a side dish, add tender young raw leaves to salads, even use them as wrapping to protect delicate foods like fish.

Dozens of varieties of Asian vegetables are available in the United States, and hundreds more are found around the world. Botanists have all sorts of trouble trying to classify them, but the “Oxford Companion to Food” has the right idea when it says “Forget the names and shop by picking up or pointing.”

A choice Asian vegetable is tat-soi, whose little leaves and stalks resemble the wide, flat-bottomed porcelain spoons served with Chinese soup.

Right now the shelves at Oliver’s, Whole Foods and other markets are stocked with mei qing choy, sometimes called baby bok choy. It forms vase-shaped plants with a superior flavor and tenderness.

Full-size bok choy comes in two types: fat cylinders of fine, light green and white heads called napa cabbage, and the more elongated cylinders called the michihli type. Most napa cabbage is found as barrel-shaped cylinders whose leaves curl in at the top, making the heads very tight. Napa cabbage makes an extra fine coleslaw, and the sliced hearts exalt any fresh salad.

Michihli-type Chinese cabbage is usually 16 to 18 inches tall and has a mild flavor, so it will take on the characteristics of other foods it’s cooked with. Long cooking allows michihli to absorb pot liquors and thicken soups and stews.

Chinese kale, also called Chinese broccoli, gai lan and many other names, can be recognized by its sturdy stems and sprays of flower buds. Look for tender young shoots. These will be no more than a half-inch in diameter, almost all of the flowers will still be in bud and the stems and leaves will look and smell fresh and crisp, not fall limply. Stalks, leaves and flower buds are steamed and stir-fried, or the flower buds can be dipped in batter and fried as tempura. If you’re going to use Chinese kale in dishes like stir-fry or sukiyaki, it may be a good idea to blanch it first in boiling, salted water to soften and partially cook it, then add it to the wok.

Look for a cross between Chinese kale and broccoli called “Asparation.” It has loose, flowering stalks and was developed by Sakata Seeds near Gilroy. Besides being sweet and delicious, its dark green leaves are more nutritious than either Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale.

Mustard greens are also known as gai choi. The leaves vary in color from green to purple to red and in pungency from mild to hot. Young leaves are often found in mixtures of spring salad greens and mesclun mixes. When mature, the long leaf stems are chopped for stir-fries and the leaves torn up for use as a potherb.


Halibut turns unappetizingly dry and chewy if cooked too hard and fast. Easy does it with this delicate flatfish.

Halibut Wrapped in Napa Cabbage Leaves

Makes 3 servings

3 6-to-8-ounce chunks of fresh halibut filet

1 head napa cabbage

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon prepared Chinese hot mustard

— Juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

½ cup chicken stock

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cut the halibut into pieces about 3 inches wide.

Get water boiling in a large skillet and select six of the largest and best, unbroken leaves from the cabbage, removing them at the base where they attach to the core. Braise two leaves at a time in the boiling water for about six minutes, until the wide, white, central ribs of the leaves bend easily. Take them out of the water and place spread out flat on paper toweling. Set them aside and repeat until all six leaves are braised and cooled.

Put a skillet of water on the stove and start it boiling.

Make a thin paste with the mustards, lemon juice and fresh ginger. Lay one cabbage leaf on your work board, take a piece of halibut in one hand and with the other hand, smear its surface with a teaspoon of the paste, then place the smeared side down on the leaf.

Smear the top of the fish with a little bit more mustard paste. Lay a second leaf on top in the opposite direction from the top leaf and tuck the ends of the bottom leaf under the ends of the top leaf. Repeat until all three pieces are finished, then lay them side by side in a lightly oiled baking dish, handling them gently.

Place the skillet of boiling water on the bottom rack, and the baking dish with the halibut on the top rack of the oven. Bake for exactly 30 minutes, opening the door at 25 minutes to pour a half cup of chicken or fish stock into the baking dish (although the halibut and cabbage leaves will have probably given up some of their juice to the pan) just to keep things moist. Serve immediately.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at

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