In Season: Best Asian vegetables to buy in winter
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.