Growing Chinese Vegetables in Cool Weather
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 21, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond promptly to new questions or comments.)
Many of these vegetables are not all that unusual to find in large urban supermarkets but sometimes it is hard to find them fresh and crisp, and often they are not found in rural groceries. Growing them in my garden has given me the opportunity to have access to garden fresh, organic stir-fry ingredients all year around. During the winter I rely on leafy Chinese greens to provide quick meals for my family on busy nights. I keep a pot of brown rice cooked in the fridge to heat up as needed, so all I have to do is run out to the garden, pick a few handfuls of greens and make an easy sauce – dinner is on the table in 15 minutes!
I like to mix flavors and textures of greens, and pick them while they are young and tender. One of my favorites is any kind of mustard. This year I’m growing Da Ping Pu heading mustard from Baker Creek seeds. Because I like to use the leaves while young, they usually don’t get the chance to head up for me. I’ll pick them as a cut and come again green all winter – however, I could grow this green in the spring too, and let it head up because it is really interesting in the garden. The leaves of Da Ping Pu are succulent and not very spicy until mature and headed. They are slightly thick and provide a good texture to a stir-fry.
Pak and Bok chois are a great choice for cool weather growing as white cabbage moths love to make swiss cheese out of their leaves, as they tend to do with most brassicas. In cooler weather, the cabbage moths are gone, and my vegetables are pristine without any extra care! Even though Kuang Futsoi (also from Baker Creek) is listed as being heat and humidity loving, I decided to try it this winter. So far our weather has been very warm, and it has been a great choice this year. The leaves are mild and as with most chois, sweet when sauteed. Their crunchy mature stems at excellent texture when added late in the cooking process.
Canton Bok Choi is a short, “baby” type of Bok choi. Because of it’s size, it matures early and can be picked as a whole little head. It’s beautiful in the garden and holds well there during cooler temperatures.
My favorite Asian vegetable is Tatsoi. I love the flat headed pattern of it’s black green leaves against pale green to white stems. Lately I have seen some landscaping companies utilizing Tatsoi as a winter landscape plant in Atlanta. It’s a great choice because it holds its shape all winter, and becomes sweeter with each frost. Size doesn’t matter to Tatsoi’s edibility. I use the small leaves as great texture to a winter salad, and then pick the whole heads and add to stir-fry.
White pak choi is the most commonly found Asian vegetable in supermarkets. It holds quite well after picking, and keeps well in the garden. I prefer to grow the white stemmed varieties in the winter, and save green stem varieties for spring and summer growing. The thick, sweet leaves are sort of like a very mild Swiss Chard, and the stems are crunch and sweet. The pale white stem is beautiful against the darker green leaves in a cooked dish. Pak Choi lends itself to many variations, not just to Chinese or Asian cooking. It’s nice just sauteed with a bit of garlic as a side dish with any meal, as you might serve spinach.
Here's my basic weekday quick stir-fry meal. This is not a chinese meal, it's my own hybrid of thai and chinese. It feeds two - you can easily double the recipe to feed a family of four.
Cooked brown rice - as much as you need. I prefer short grain brown rice for the pearly texture.
1 head of tatsoi (medium size)
2 small heads of white stem pac choi
2 handfulls of any baby green leaves from any chinese vegetable including mustards OR one good size head of chinese mustard.
Cut the bottom root end of any full-size vegetable to seperate each stem. Wash everything very well. Do not cut any of the stems off, these are prized!
Heat peanut or canola (any oil with very little flavor) in a saute pan (I don't have a wok). Throw in all stem vegetables and cook for 3 minutes. You can add some garlic in with it once the greens hit the pan (saves the garlic from burning). If you have green onions in the spring, you can add them and start cooking the white parts now. Cook on medium heat.
While the veggies cook, I mix up sauce in a heat proof measuring cup. 1/4 cup water, 1/8th cup tamari sauce, a dribble of sesame oil, 1/4 spoon of Thai roasted red chili paste, a 1/2 teaspoon of something sweet but light in flavor(sugar, honey, agave syrup), a teaspoon of cider vinegar. 2 tablespoons of all natural, crunchy non-hydrogenated peanut butter (cashew is really nice too). I heat this for about 30 seconds in the microwave so that it stirs easily. Then I add 1/2 teaspoon of corn or kudzu starch for thickening. You can dribble a few drops of fresh grated ginger juice into this, or put a sprinkle of ginger powder.
Throw your mustard and greens leaves into the saute pan, and douse it all with your peanut sauce. Stir until thickened. Heat up your rice...and dinner is served!
University of Florida Extension Service explanation of the difference between pak choi and bok choi
Places I choose to buy Asian vegetable seeds:
Pine Tree Garden Seeds
Johnny's Selected Seeds
Agrohaitai Oriental Vegetable Seeds
Evergreen Oriental Vegetable Seeds
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds