Eating seasonally at Rainbow Chinese

Greens were haunting me, taunting me, stalking me, seducing me last week.  After a weekend of five different kinds of greens from the farmers market prepared in various dishes, I walked in to the latest Minnesota Food Bloggers event and was greeted with yet more greens.

Was the plant world trying to send me a message?

As luck would have it, the theme of this event at Rainbow Chinese Restaurant in south Minneapolis was cooking seasonally using farmers market produce.

Rainbow Chinese restaurateur Tammy Wong is truly remarkable; not only has she successfully operated her restaurant for over 20 years while being a working mom, she is active in her neighborhood, a vocal supporter of the Minneapolis Farmers Market and is focused on using local, seasonal ingredients for her Asian menu items.  What better place to test my new greens knowledge?

At the event, I surveyed the buffet table, where a wide array of peak season vegetables was transformed into an abundant feast. The assortment included:

Chicken egg rolls served with a variety of lettuces and herbs, including spearmint, peppermint, basil, shiso leaf, fish mint and Vietnamese coriander

Asparagus fried rice with anchovy paste

Fried soft tofu coated with cornstarch and sprinkled with five-spice salt, on a bed of blanched baby Asian greens, including mustard greens, choy sum and Shanghai baby bok choy

Cold sesame noodles with fresh pea shoots [Note that Tammy has a recipe for stir-fried pea shoots, along with many other seasonal recipes on her restaurant's website.]


Szechuan wontons (pork and shrimp dumplings) in black bean sauce with spring onions [I will be dreaming of these wontons.]


Coconut-tapioca pudding with a rhubarb compote

It was green, green everywhere; the dominant food color during the spring and early summer months.

Tammy and her kitchen staff really outdid themselves with this display of seasonal bounty.

Prior to this event, I had no idea that Rainbow Chinese had a banquet room.  The gathering took place in a space upstairs which had polished hardwood floors, attractive Asian artwork, a comfortable lounging area with sofas and abundant natural light. 

A beautiful spread complemented by beautiful surroundings – it was a lovely evening all-around.  Thanks again to Rainbow Chinese for providing such warm hospitality and demonstrating how to make seasonal ingredients shine.

IN SEASON: Asian Greens

Confession:  Asian greens tend to intimidate me.  For years, I walked by them at the farmers market because I couldn’t identify what they were, I didn’t know what they would taste like, or how to cook them.  With so many different varieties of Asian greens, so many unfamiliar names,  and so many variations in appearance, it can feel a bit overwhelming.
I had little experience cooking these vegetables until I started my CSA share with Harmony Valley Farm (HVF), who grows several different varieties of Asian vegetables.  Every week during the spring it seemed that HVF was throwing us another Asian green curveball to try to figure out.  
Our family no longer participates in a CSA; we choose instead to shop at area farmers markets for our produce.  There are lots of Asian growers at the farmers markets in the Twin Cities, primarily Hmong.  Though they are always friendly, sometimes there is a language barrier and it can be difficult to communicate with the vendors or ask questions.  This complicates things further.  
So I felt lucky last weekend when I came upon Kao Yang’s table at the Minneapolis Farmers Market and spoke with his son, Shur Yang, who was able to enlighten me on some of the Asian greens.  
(I just found out this morning that Shur will be a guest on the Minneapolis Farmers Market’s Fresh & Local radio show on AM950 tomorrow morning, Saturday, at 8:00 am.  Local foods website Simple Good & Tasty also wrote a profile about Shur Yang.)
The information that Shur gave me, along with bits and pieces of knowledge that I’ve accumulated over the last couple of years has allowed me to assemble some pieces of the puzzle that is Asian greens.  
What follows is a review of the various Asian vegetables that I’ve tried out over the past couple of years so I can give you some visual clues to work with next time you are wondering about these unfamiliar veggies at the local farmers market.  
Right now, the three main Asian greens I’ve found at our local market are (1) Chinese mustard greens, aka Gai Choy; (2) Chinese flowering cabbage, aka Choy Sum; and (3) Chinese white cabbage, aka Bok Choy.  
***

Chinese Mustard Greens  - aka Gai Choy, Gai Choi (Brassica juncea)

Shur told me that there are over 50 varieties of Chinese mustard greens alone, with appearances and flavors that vary widely. The variety pictured below from the Minneapolis Lyndale market is called Bau Sin.

These greens reminded me of red komatsuna, a variety of Japanese mustard greens that I had received in one of my CSA boxes.  Japanese and Chinese mustard greens are similar.

Mustard greens are from the brassica family and are distantly related to cabbage, kale, broccoli and brussels sprouts.  Like the other greens I profiled on Monday, these greens are very nutritious, providing vitamins K, A, C, folic acid and antioxidants.

In general, mustard greens taste spicy and peppery, similar to arugula or broccoli rabe/rapini.  The baby mustard greens at the market right now are tender and mild. As the weather gets warmer and the plants grow bigger, the flavor gets sharper and more spicy.   When you cook mustard greens, they mellow a bit and taste somewhat like spinach.  
Mustard greens are best sauteed, boiled, steamed and used in stir frys or soups.  Some people like to pickle the more mature mustard plants.
To prepare these greens, you can either trim the roots or end off the greens and cook all of it – leaves plus stems, or you can cut the stems off and cook just the leaves.

***

Chinese Flowering Cabbage – aka Choy Sum, Yu Choy, Chinese Spinach, Oilseed Rape (Brassica rapa)

This is an edible variety of the same plant from which canola oil and rapeseed oil are derived; it’s also from the brassica family.

The vendor said that typically this wouldn’t have quite so many flowers, but the hot weather that we’d experienced earlier in the week had caused the plant to bolt and send up flowers.  

This looked pretty similar to the greens I picked up once at a local Asian supermarket, which were labelled “yu choy”.

And, also, the hon tsai tai that I received in one of my Harmony Valley Farm CSA boxes.  

Typically, you cook and eat the entire plant, including leaves and stems.  Shur said that opinions differ about eating the flowers:  the Laos, Thai and Hmong prefer to eat the flowers, while Chinese and Vietnamese preparations often leave them out.  To prep the greens, just snap off the woody part at the base of the stalk (similar to asparagus), then you’re ready to cook.

When I made the choy sum, I did this and left the rest of the stalk whole.  In the end, these pieces were too big; next time, I’ll cut the stalks into pieces so they are easier to eat.

***
Chinese white cabbage – aka Bok Choy, baby bok choy, white cabbage, pak choy, pak choi (Brassica rapa)

The variety pictured below is Shanghai baby bok choy, which I purchased at Minneapolis Farmers Market.
Baby bok choy may also look like this – a variety I’ve purchased in the past from the Loon Organics stand at Mill City Farmers Market. 
This is regular full-sized bok choy.

The flavor of bok choy is slightly bitter. This vegetable is a natural for stir fries, braises or soups, with its crunchy stalks and tender greens.   Baby bok choy is slightly sweeter and more tender than regular bok choy.

There are many ways you can stir fry bok choy but the recipe I keep going back to is one from Deborah Madison for tofu with bok choy.  It’s extremely simple and quick to make, perfect comfort food for a busy weeknight.

***
Finally, still a mystery to me:

Are these Chinese mustard greens? Or napa cabbage?

I purchased both of these bunches at the Minneapolis market from separate stands on the same day.   The vendor who sold me the one on the left said it was Chinese mustard greens, and the vendor who sold me the one on the right said that it was Napa cabbage.

Are these the same category of vegetable?  I have no idea.  

Come to think of it, this looked similar to a green I received in a Harmony Valley Farm CSA box that was also identified as “napa cabbage”, though it looked to me more like romaine lettuce.   The giveaway that it is not romaine lettuce is the distinctive white rib running through each leaf’s center – this marks it as from the choy family of vegetables.

Still, this doesn’t look like the napa cabbage which I’ve been familiar with buying in the store. [Sigh.] I’m still learning.

Here’s a good photo illustration of other Asian greens that I came across recently; you may find it helpful too.

***

Okay, the million dollar question – what to do with Asian greens?  The short answer is to stir fry them, braise them or add them to soups.  The good news is that many of these greens are interchangeable and simple preparations with garlic, soy sauce, ginger, oyster sauce, etc. seem to work well.

Here are some recipe ideas for Asian mustard greens, choy sum and bok choy, gleaned from the Internet and assembled into a master list from my previous IN SEASON posts about bok choy, red komatsuna and hon tsai tai.


Mustard greens with garlic, onions and sesame oil (Simply Recipes)
Sauteed komatsuna with basil (Chubby Bunny Recipes)
Tahini-soy sauce greens (Worden Farm)
Komatsuna greens in ginger almond miso sauce (Cupcake Punk)
Hon tsai tai with soy sauce and oyster sauce (Tucson CSA)
Asian greens with garlic sauce (A Mighty Appetite)
Soy glazed baby bok choy (A Veggie Venture)
Tofu with bok choy (Green Your Plate)
Sweet and spicy stir fry (A Good Appetite)
Simple almost spring vegetable stir fry (Beth Dooley for Star Tribune)
Spicy stir fry chicken and greens with peanuts (Harmony Valley Farm)
Skirt steak and bok choy stir fry (Martha Stewart)

***

One last thing – I’m giving a Market Talk about greens at the Minneapolis Farmers Market tomorrow morning, Saturday June 18th, at 10:30 am.  I’ll be demonstrating some of the recipes mentioned during my posts this week.  If you’re at the market, please stop by and say hello!

Have you cooked with any of these types of Asian greens yourself?  What’s your favorite way to prepare them?

Braised greens tacos

Want more of a main dish involving greens?  Try these braised greens tacos with caramelized onions and queso fresco, with meat…

or without.

This was a recipe that I found in Rick Bayless’ cookbook, Mexican Everyday.  What I like about the recipe is that you can use a variety of greens – spinach, amaranth, lambs quarters, Swiss chard, collards – and you just adjust the cooking time depending on which green you use. 
While these tacos are good on their own as a vegetarian dinner, it’s a rather light meal.   You can make the meal more filling by adding leftover grilled / roasted meats or chicken, or serving refried or other cooked beans on the side.
The best part is that these braised greens tacos are very quick to pull together on a weeknight; all you need are the right ingredients on hand. 
The tacos pictured at the top of this post were made with mature spinach from the farmers market.  The second set of tacos were made with Swiss chard from the co-op, as local Swiss chard is not available yet.  
Queso fresco is a type of fresh Mexican cheese with a crumbly, moist texture and a mild tanginess.  If you can’t find it in stores, Rick suggests feta or goat cheese as good substitutes.  

You can use any salsa you’d like on this – either homemade or store-bought.  For the spinach tacos and collard tacos, I used the local brand Salsa Lisa refrigerated hot salsa, which offered bright color and flavor.  Rick has a line of Frontera Kitchen salsas and marinades that are available at some local supermarkets and co-ops, and I chose to use his Chipotle Salsa, a much darker, smokier salsa, for the Swiss chard tacos. 

I also tried making these tacos using collard greens.  Rick recommends a braising time of 7-8 minutes, but I still found the greens to be pretty firm and fibrous after cooking for this amount of time.  If I try making these tacos with collards again, I’ll increase the cooking time.  
Finally, if you wish to incorporate meat or poultry, you can either grill chicken or beef in advance (perhaps during the weekend), or grill the meat simultaneously while you’re braising the greens.

***

My work schedule has changed for the summer so once again I work until 5 pm and drive during rush hour. By the time I pick up my son from daycare and return home, I’m completely famished and impatient to eat.

As a test to see if this recipe was doable on a weeknight, I made the spinach tacos for dinner last night, and the entire meal took less than a half hour to prepare.

Greens?  It’s what’s for dinner.

***
Braised Greens Tacos with Caramelized Onions and Queso Fresco
(Adapted from Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless, published by W.W. Norton & Co, 2005.  Serves 2-4.)


Ingredients:
1 bunch of spinach, amaranth, lambs quarters, Swiss chard or collard greens
1 1/2 T. vegetable oil, olive oil, pork lard or bacon drippings
1 large onion, sliced about 1/4″ thick
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 cup chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
1/2 tsp. salt
12 corn tortillas
1 cup crumbled queso fresco, feta or goat cheese
Salsa, homemade or store-bought
(OPTIONAL) 1 lb. cooked chicken or beef (shredded); or smoked salmon; or smoked firm tofu 
Instructions:
If you wish to use meat, preheat the grill to medium high and grill chicken or flank steak.  (Alternately, prepare the meat ahead of time, or pick up rotisserie chicken from a store.) 
If using Swiss chard or collard greens, remove center ribs and slice the leaves cross-wise into 1/2 inch slices.  If using mature spinach, remove the stems and coarsely chop the leaves.  If using baby spinach, amaranth greens or lambs quarters, you can use the leaves whole.
Pre-heat the cooking oil in a large skillet or wok over medium high heat.  Add the onion and saute for 4-5 minutes, or until golden brown but still firm. Add the garlic and red pepper and stir for a couple of seconds, then pour in the broth/water, add salt and the greens.  
Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pan; then cook until the greens are almost tender (spinach will take 1-2 minutes, Swiss chard takes 4-6 minutes, and collard greens takes at least 8-10 minutes).  
Uncover the pan, increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is nearly dry. (If you are using meat, add it when you uncover the pan so that the meat can heat up in the final couple minutes of cooking and integrate into the dish.)  Taste and season with additional salt as necessary. 
Serve with warm tortillas, crumbled cheese and salsa.

***

Have you made tacos with greens in the past? Any other embellishments or flavor combinations you’d suggest?  And what’s the best method for heating corn tortillas?  

IN SEASON: Red komatsuna

OK, it turns out that what I thought was Yukina Savoy was actually Red Komatsuna. Oops!

Komatsuna is another cool-season Asian mustard green that’s similar to spinach (see, it’s not so scary….); it was included in the Choy to the World article I talked about in an earlier post.

Komatsuna can eaten raw in salads or stir fried, braised, added to soups, etc.

I remember getting this green in our CSA box last June and liked it a lot. We prepared the Sauteed Komatsuna with Basil recipe last year which was super easy and tasty.

There are not a lot of recipes for komatsuna out there in Internetland. Komatsuna is popular in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, so look to those cuisines for inspiration, or use it as a substitute for spinach in a recipe you like.

Here’s what I did turn up:
Sauteed Komatsuna with Basil
Tahini-Soy Sauce Greens
Sauteed Greens with Shiitake Mushrooms and Garlic

Japanese Spinach with Miso Dressing (but where do you buy cooking sake? what kind?)
Komatsuna Greens in Ginger Almond Miso Sauce
Sweet and Spicy Stir Fry (from the A Good Appetite blog)

And last but not least, for the truly adventurous, there’s:
Komatsuna Smoothie from a blog called Ellen’s Tokyo Kitchen. This recipe is comprised of komatsuna, celery, skim milk, soy milk, yogurt, lemon juice and honey. Hmmm, sounds INTERESTING (as we politely say in Minnesota when something is totally weird).

A tale of two greens

Two greens, similar stir fry preparations but quite different results…

During this week off from my CSA box, I test drove two of the recipes for hon tsai tai and pea vine, using ingredients sourced from Shuang Hur, an Asian supermarket in St. Paul.

Hon tsai tai / Yu choy (Choy sum)
I couldn’t find hon tsai tai at the store, so I bought yu choy, which is somewhat similar, I think???

We made the recipe for Asian Greens with Garlic Sauce, from the Mighty Appetite blog.
We cut off a lot of the stems, and blanched the greens prior to stir frying. The flavoring consisted of garlic, soy sauce, peanut oil and sesame oil.

It turned out yummy, and the recipe was a snap to make. In the comments section for the blog post, one WashPost reader suggested further time savings by blanching the greens in the microwave rather than having to wait for water to boil.

This recipe can be used for any Asian greens, bok choy, etc. I think it’s earned a place in our regular meal rotation.

Pea tips / Pea vine / Pea shoots

Then, we tried preparing the “pea tips” (aka pea vine or pea shoots), using the recipe, Stir-Fried Pea Shoots. Flavoring included sesame oil, ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce and oyster sauce.

Even though the cooked greens looked a little similar, the texture was very different.

I stir fried these greens, with no prior blanching step. The result?
Tough, tough stems, wiry tendrils and an unpleasant mouth feel.

Maybe these greens need to be blanched too, or at least more of the stems cut off. I had assumed since it was labeled “pea tips” that it would be tender at the top of the plant. It could be the stems were tougher because they were from mature plants, who knows.

I’ll have to compare them to the pea vine from Harmony Valley Farm to see if they were the same variety of plant. Maybe pea tips are the evil cousin of pea vine.

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