Fresh Chinese vegetables -- for a taste of Asia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fresh Chinese vegetables used to be a rarity in American supermarkets. Bean sprouts came in cans and snow peas were only available in frozen food sections.

Times have changed.

Today, most well-stocked markets offer a variety of Asian produce. Full heads of leafy Napa cabbage are flanked by dark green bok choy. There are fresh snow peas, ginger root, water chestnuts and bean sprouts. Finally, mainstream America is being introduced to a diverse selection of fresh Chinese vegetables.

The Chinese classify vegetables into three main categories: root, leafy and fruit. Root vegetables include carrots, taro, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and lotus root. In the leafy category, there are such Chinese cabbages as bok choy, baby hearts of cabbage and Napa and celery cabbage; for fruits, the Chinese eat tomatoes, eggplant, winter melon and cucumbers.

The ancient Chinese were accomplished farmers, raising beans, melons, turnips, gourds, Chinese leeks, cabbage, amaranth, garlic, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. Later, foreign varieties were introduced into the basic Chinese repertory: spinach and celery from Nepal; kohlrabi and peas from Europe. As cultivation improved, so did the availability of fresh produce. As a result, vegetables from very early times assumed a prominent place in the Chinese diet.

Chinese cooks favor such methods as stir-frying, blanching and steaming to preserve the bright colors, fresh flavors and crisp textures. Traditionally, vegetables are not eaten raw for hygienic reasons, but they are frequently served cooked in salads and cold noodle dishes.

Pickled vegetables also enjoy a prominent position in classic Chinese cuisine, as they have for centuries. The ancient Chinese developed sophisticated preserving methods like drying, smoking, pickling, steeping and salting. Pickles are served as a piquant garnish to rice and congee (the quintessential southern Chinese breakfast), or as a pungent seasoning in cooked dishes.

When purchasing Chinese vegetables, selection is critical.

Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of "The Chinese Banquet Cookbook" (Crown Publishers, 1985), has several tips for choosing certain varieties:

* Choose vegetables with bright colors and smooth skin.

* Squeeze fresh water chestnuts to make certain they aren't soft or rotten.

* Select Napa cabbage that has a whiter color with no brown spots or black specks.

Ideally, fresh vegetables should be cooked as soon as possible to preserve their fresh flavor. Some vegetables, like broccoli and asparagus, should be boiled briefly until almost tender, and refreshed in cold water before they can be stir-fried.

When stir-frying any vegetable, you should heat the pan as much as possible before adding any oil. Then heat the oil until smoking and saute the vegetable quickly over high heat.

Spicy bean sprouts

Makes 6 servings

SAUCE:

1/4 cup chicken broth or water

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice wine or sake

2 teaspoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon cornstarch

SEASONINGS AND VEGETABLES:

2 tablespoons corn oil

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 1/2 tablespoons minced ginger root, peeled

1 teaspoon hot chili paste

2 cups fine julienne-cut leeks

6 cups bean sprouts, rinsed and drained

To prepare sauce, combine broth, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, vinegar, sesame oil and cornstarch in bowl and mix well. Set aside.

To prepare seasonings and vegetables, heat wok or well-seasoned skillet. Add corn oil and heat until very hot. Add garlic, ginger root and chili paste and stir-fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add leeks and cook over high heat, tossing lightly about 1 minute. Add bean sprouts and cook about 30 seconds. Add sauce mixture and cook, stirring constantly to prevent lumps, until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to serving platter and serve hot or at room temperature.

Garlic broccoli

Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 pounds Chinese or American broccoli

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 1/2 tablespoons corn oil

3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper or dried chili flakes

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Using sharp knife, peel away tough outer skin of broccoli stems and cut away stem ends. Cut off florets. Cut stems on diagonal into 1 1/2 -inch sections. Separate larger florets so that they are all about same size as stem pieces. Set aside.

Combine sesame oil and corn oil in heavy saucepan. Heat until very hot but not smoking. Add red pepper. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand 10 minutes. Add garlic, soy sauce, sugar and lemon juice and stir to dissolve sugar.

Heat large pan of water until boiling. Add broccoli and return to boil. Cook about 3 minutes, or just until broccoli is tender-crisp. Immediately drain in colander and refresh under cold running water. Drain thoroughly and transfer to bowl. Add dressing and toss to coat. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Hot and sour bok choy

Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 pounds bok choy or Napa cabbage, outer leaves removed

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon corn oil

3/4 teaspoon crushed red peppers or dried chili flakes

2 tablespoons minced ginger root

2 tablespoons rice wine or sake

2 tablespoons water

Separate leaves of bok choy and trim stems and leafy tips. Rinse thoroughly and drain. Slice each stalk on diagonal into 2-inch lengths. Cut leaves into 1 1/2 -inch pieces. Keep stem and leafy sections separate and set aside.

Combine soy sauce, salt, sugar, vinegar and cornstarch in small bowl and mix well.

Heat wok or skillet. Add corn oil and heat until very hot. Add crushed red peppers and ginger root and stir-fry over high heat about 15 seconds. Add stem sections of cabbage and rice wine and stir-fry about 30 seconds. Add water. Cover and cook about 1 minute, or until cabbage is crisp and tender. Add leafy sections and stir-fry about 45 seconds.

Add soy sauce mixture and cook, stirring continuously to prevent lumps, until thickened, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to serving platter and serve hot, at room temperature or cold.

Stir-fried rainbow vegetables in garlic sauce

Makes 6 servings

VEGETABLES:

3 medium sweet yellow or red peppers, rinsed, cored and seeded

1/2 pound fresh snow peas

1 cup very thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms

1 cup 1-inch sections green onions

SEASONINGS:

1 tablespoon minced ginger root

1 tablespoon minced garlic

SAUCE:

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 1/2 tablespoons corn oil

1 1/2 tablespoons rice wine or sake

To prepare vegetables, cut peppers lengthwise into matchstick-size shreds. Rinse snow peas. Snap ends off and remove veiny strings. Combine mushrooms and onions. Set aside.

To prepare seasonings, mix together ginger root and garlic in small bowl.

To prepare sauce, mix together soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil in separate bowl.

When ready to cook, heat wok or heavy skillet and add corn oil. Heat until very hot. Add seasonings and stir-fry about 10 seconds until fragrant. Add peppers and snow peas and toss lightly over high heat, stirring constantly. Add rice wine and continue cooking about 1 minute. Add mushrooms and green onions and continue cooking another 30 seconds. Add soy sauce mixture and toss lightly over high heat 10 seconds longer to coat vegetables thoroughly. Transfer to serving platter.

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