An Ode to (Baby Bok) Choy in the Springtime

{The following is a guest contribution to our VIC blog from board member JS in her continuing “musings from the farmers market” series. She recommend you listen to this song as you read, to set the mood}

The final bunch of baby bok choy at Deep Roots Farm via PSU a few weeks ago

The final bunch of baby bok choy at Deep Roots Farm via PSU a few weeks ago

As much as my eyes went wide at a growing selection of kale, and dear, dear raabs and rapinis, I found myself lamenting – borderline lusting – for petite bunches of green garlic within minutes of leaving the farmers market not just one, but two weekends in a row. My own garden was awash in a current of rainbow chard and bitter greens, yet, I stand by my commitment to the season of baby bok choy.

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I’ve officially shelved my wintertime devotion to all things cabbage for these tender, perfect bunches of crisp and leafy greens.

Like many others, my first experiences with baby bok choy are stir-fries, and that’s largely what I still stick to. I break out my wok or sauté pan, or even the always-convenient cast iron, and have my side, or star, in less than ten minutes flat.

I’ve long been captivated by the realm of flavors and ingredients in South & East Asian cuisines, and baby bok choy has been a constant in bowls of curry, ramen, pho chay, hot pots, braised dishes and endless stir-fries, whether home or out & about.  Just last night, I stir-fried a just-flowering bunch with garlic, ginger and a spoonful of Thai yellowbean sauce for a quick dinner over jasmine rice. I easily swap the rice for stir-fried, drained ramen noodles on other days I don’t have much time on my hands for cooking (or I’m simply craving noodlz).

hmmmm

hmmmm

Indeed, this ode goes beyond *just* baby bok choy. Give me Shanghai choy, pak choy, tat soi, yu choy, gai choy, choy sum….the list goes on. Plus, the internet hive mind just clarified the whole choy vs. choi thing for me, too: choi is apparently the British English spelling.

Sure, you can find a ton of these greens year-round, imported (and often rather limp, wrapped in plastic) at Fubonn, Uwaijimiya and HMart, which is cool, but when they’re at the farmers market, it’s really show time.  

As Spring settles in, there’s been a realm of flowering varieties at the past few downtown farmers markets here in Portland; hence why I’ve easily made my way through 5 bunches in 3 weeks!

For the love of choy, I’ve been a recent convert to pairing sautéed bunches over toasted garlic mashed potatoes. Add a side of savoury protein –  think roasted chickpeas or smokey baked tofu – a la my recent real life dinner tables – and we’re talking an excellent dinner.

Did someone say “fusion”?

Did someone say “fusion”?

ON COOKING

Like oh, so, many greens, some bunches of choy (and friends) are flowering, some are a touch bitter, and some have thicker green stalks that are more reminiscent of broccolini vs. the whiter bulbs of the more common varieties. They’re all delightful in my book.

These days, I lean towards starting my stir-fries with a bit of coconut oil, and throw in at least one clove of minced garlic, maybe a bit of grated or sliced ginger, a dried chili or two if I want to immerse it in heat,  and then throw in the greens. Add a splash or water or rice vinegar or white wine, maybe a pinch of sugar, definitely a sprinkle of salt, and some white or black pepper. Stir, stir, stir. Heck, make that freshly ground Sichuan peppercorn if I’ve been flipping through a Chinese cookbook and/or craving. We’re talking two or three minutes of active cooking here.

The “hardest part”, so to speak, is having the reserve to wait until my rice or noodles, soup or mash, are ready before I begin the super fast stir-fry action. Mise en place, and all that jazz.

Cooking baby bok choy is similar to most quick cooking green: kale, chard, spinach & mizuna, for example. It can be ready fast. Now, baby bok choy is still tasty when well-cooked or braised, or even roasted, but I know I’m not the only one who wants to keep some crunch.

QUICK STIR-FRIED BABY BOK CHOY IN COCONUT OIL

I love the way garlic toasts up so perfectly in coconut oil, but do keep an eye on it to avoid burning.

serves 3-4 as a side, or 2 as a main

ingredients:

  • 1 bunch of baby bok choy, or similar greens, washed and trimmed

  • 1 tablespoon of coconut oil – I like organic refined

  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, minced

  • 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar

  • pinch of sea salt

  • pinch of freshly ground white or black peppercorn

what to do:

  1. first off, verify you have washed your greens well – as bugs and dirt can get stuck in the bulbs, trust me

  2. next, roughly chop or leave the choy whole, it’s your call – my brother would recommend you thinly slice it all, but I opt for a big, rough chop or leaving ‘em whole

  3. bring the coconut oil to a medium heat in a wok or saucepan. add in the minced garlic, stirring frequently for 1-2 minutes, until golden but not burn !

  4. carefully throw in your chopped or whole baby bok choy, and stir. It’s totally OK if it’s still freshly washed. That’ll help.

  5. add in the rice vinegar, sea salt, pepper and a splash of water (about a tablespoon to start with).

  6. stir another 1-3 minutes until softened just a bit, adding another splash or two of water as needed. you want to make sure most of the water is absorbed into the vegetable.

  7. serve over rice or noodles or starch-of-choice or just sit down & enjoy!

note: I occasionally cut back on the initial coconut oil and add a drizzle of toasted sesame oil as I’m dishing it out, especially if I’m serving this with rice. Swoon.

want to add in noodles?

Now, I won’t take you as far as Pad Mama, which is a mildly curried recipe story for another day, or click of your own elsewhere.

But, if you want to throw in a quick pack of instant ramen noodles or a bit or soba or udon, (although, I tend to opt for the first of the three for super-duper ease) just put some water on to boil before you start the choy, drain your instantly & briefly cooked noodles, toss them into the choy-full pan with a splash of water, a good splash of thin soy sauce, and maybe even some vegetarian mushroom sauce and hot sauce, if ya dig. Mix it all up, add another tiny splash of water to avoid sticking, stir another 10-20ish seconds, and get thy dinner into bowl(s). Fast!

Did I almost forget lunch again?! Here’s a quick lunch of nong shim “mild”, greens & fried tofu + hot sauce and obligate seltzer can

Did I almost forget lunch again?! Here’s a quick lunch of nong shim “mild”, greens & fried tofu + hot sauce and obligate seltzer can

For the record, I break out the travel/lunch-emergency instant ramen for this, such as Thai or Vietnamese multi-packs, or even Top Ramen, but NOT my precious NONGSHIM “mild”, which I keep for ravenous & little effort lunch soups and road trips.

In my humble opinion, the NONGSHIM are too good to toss those flavor packets, so if you want “better” ramen than the instant, grab some local stuff, which would be Umi Organic here in the Portland area. Bonus points for keeping Bui’s fried and fresh tofu on hand for matters like these.

Regardless, cooking ramen + choy this way takes me back to a quiet Southeast Asian island my wife and I spent a week at, years ago, while backpacking, if I may reminisce….

It was off season, and we stayed at one of maybe three remote bamboo bungalow getaways on this tiny, jungle-packed island of swimming, diving and monkeys. The food was imported by boat every few days into the open kitchen space. We talked our way into skipping the fish sauce on a dish of baby bok choy and instant ramen noodles (the seasoning packet wasn’t even a question) nearly every single day. With ice cold beers, an insanely captivating view, monkeys howling, jungle kittens playing, casual snorkeling, and some used paperbacks…it was perfect.

(Fast forward a decade, I learnt that uh,Survivor since filmed on the other side of the island, and I sigh thinking about the state it’s now in, for better and worse).

The moral of all of these stories is that I’m clearly hooked on baby bok choy (again & again), and appreciate how each irresistible bunch steers me towards garlic and stir-fries of a non-Italian variety, which is where more bitter greens tend to sway me.

That, and I try to keep a good deal of my travel experiences fairly private, give or take a few.

Go get your choy on.