Things I Love: Chinese Greens

February 28, 2014

Real pea leaves
Had dinner with my cousin last night, and when he saw "sauteed pea greens" on the menu he asked if I knew what they were.  

It stopped me cold.  I've been eating dou miao  in Chinese restaurants for years – they're one of my favorite greens – but I hadn't paid attention to their slow creep out of Chinatown onto American menus. Suddenly I'm seeing them everywhere.

"They're so sweet!" my cousin said when I gave him a taste.  "Do you know where I could buy some?"

"Any Chinatown," I told him.  And then – because I couldn't help myself – I suggested that while he was there he might want to stock up on other interesting vegetables as well.  In the best stores mountains of choys fold into long beans and winter melons. There might be four kinds of chives, and yam, pepper and scarlet-freckled amaranth greens share a cooler with purple perilla. 

Here are a few favorites.

Chinese Celery

Chinese celery

Identifiable by its thin stalks and flat, bushy leaves, Chinese celery is a punchier, sweeter cousin to the more widely available western variety. It tends to be a little less fibrous. It’s an ideal stir fry companion, especially when paired with a contrasting texture like smoked, pressed or dried tofu, bean sprouts, or barely cooked sliced chili.  I like it cut into 2-3 inch pieces, quickly blanched and then stir fried in peanut oil with smoked bean curd, thinly sliced chili, and a splash of light soy sauce. It can be served hot or cold.

And don't discard the leaves, which taste like celery. They make a great substitute for parsley.

Tatsoi/Spoon Cabbage

 

Tatsoi

Takecai in Chinese. Tatsoi is easily distinguished by its almost cartoonish curved leaf edges and its shiny dark green color. Like other mustards, it’s got a nice zip when eaten raw. Cooked, its stems are milder; they taste like bok choy—mushroomy, a little funky. Tatsoi has a reputation for being easy to grow, which explains why it has overrun NY's farmers markets.

Not complaining. 

How to buy and cook pea leaves.

These sweet little leaves are suddenly everywhere, although the hydroponically grown variety in some supermarkets can be bland and disappointing.  The ones in Asian markets are more robust, but avoid those with even the slightest yellowing in the leaves. Don't buy the bunches overrun with curlycue tendrils either: they will be bitter.

Pea leaves are perfect cooked like spinach: quickly (to preserve their sweetness), in a relatively hot pan in neutral oil, with a little garlic. And if you throw some leaves into a spicy soup at the very last minute, their cooling quality contributes a nice balance.  

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