In Chinese, "bok" means white and "choy" means vegetable. So both the pale, leafy greens we call Napa cabbage, and bundles of white, spoon-shaped stems with dark green leaves may correctly be called bok choy.
In Chinese, “bok” means white and “choy” means vegetable. So both the pale, leafy greens we call Napa cabbage, and bundles of white, spoon-shaped stems with dark green leaves may correctly be called bok choy; all fall under the broad name Brassica rapa. Leafier greens constitute the Pekinensis group, and stemmed varieties belong to the Chinensis group. If you’re shopping at the farmers market and it’s not perfectly clear, relax. Simply make your selection based on what you want to cook, then point and nod.
For years, I have cooked with a particular type of baby bok choy best known as “Shanghai” or “green-stemmed.” Unlike other varieties, this plant does not have a pronounced white stem, nor does it have the spinach-colored leaves of some other varieties. What it does have is a decidedly appealing shape.
This form of baby bok choy could in fact readily qualify as the world’s cutest vegetable. But like so many cute things — big-eyed waifs painted on velvet and coffee mugs printed with pithy remarks — it is somewhat insipid. Like the stems and leaves of other members of its clan, the bulbous, pale-jade-colored stalks have not developed either the distinctive crunch or the mustard aroma that lend more mature vegetables their character.
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Because I cook mostly Western-style dishes, from French, Italian or New American traditions, I take advantage of the vegetable’s mild nature by pairing it with full-flavored roasts and grilled meats. I like to think the watery stems and leaves provide relief for the palate. My habit has been to split each Lilliputian head in half lengthwise, rinse it free of any grit trapped between the leaves, then plunge it into a pot of rapidly boiling salted water to which I have added a dollop of butter. The salt lends the vegetable a little flavor, and when it’s lifted through the butter, it gains a satiny finish.
Some years ago, when I served baby bok choy prepared this way as a garnish for a roast duckling with cherry sauce, my friend, Sri Owen, let me know that the vegetable could have used some more attention. Owen is the author of “The Classic Asian Cookbook,” along with several other internationally known titles. She hails from Indonesia and raised her family in London, where for many years she was part of a cabal of food writers that included the late Alan Davidson, who edited “The Oxford Companion to Food.”
“Perhaps,” she suggested, “you could finish it with a little green curry paste.” I thought her suggestion was interesting, but baffling. How would the green curry paste pair with the duck sauce? Would it work with red wine? I took her suggestion under advisement, you might say, and tucked it away in a mental file to be dealt with later. Years went by, and every time I cooked baby bok choy, I wondered if it might taste better with a little green curry paste, but I didn’t actually try it.
Once, a full decade after I served Owen that bland buttered bok choy, I took a hands-on cooking class with her and we made green curry paste together. “I suppose this would taste good with baby bok choy,” I said.
“You remembered!” she said, and we laughed.
This spring, when I came into an unexpected stash of baby bok choy from my home-delivery grocery service, it dawned on me that now might be the time to heed Sri Owen’s advice. So I whipped up a simple, fresh-tasting green curry paste and tried it out. It was a revelation.
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Baby Bok Choy with Green Curry Paste
By any name, baby bok choy is a good-looking vegetable that plays well with the bright flavors of a fresh, Southeast Asian-style curry. Look for jade-green bundles of stems and leaves no more than 6 inches tall. Several varieties of baby bok choy as well as other green vegetables may be prepared in the same way. Extra curry can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to 3 months. Cookbook author Sri Owen recommends freezing it in ice cube trays so that a block is ready to season vegetables at a moment’s notice.
For the green curry paste
4 inches from the base of one stalk of lemon grass
1 or 2 fresh kaffir lime leaves, snipped into fine julienne
Zest from 1 medium lime, if lime leaves are not available
½ cup boiling water
1 large green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1 medium-sized green chili pepper, quartered and seeded
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into thin coins
2 cloves fresh garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, lightly packed
For the bok choy
4 to 6 baby bok choy, split in half lengthwise and rinsed
½ cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1. To prepare the green curry paste: Cover the sliced lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf with the boiling water, and allow the aromatics to soak for 30 minutes, or until the water is cooled to room temperature. Transfer the mixture to a blender and purée on high speed. With the motor running, add the bell pepper and chili chunks, the shallots, ginger, garlic and cilantro, scraping down the insides of the blender container as needed to create a smooth paste.
2. To prepare the baby bok choy, cook the split and rinsed heads, cut side down in a shallow skillet with the water and salt until they are just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain the cooking liquid from the pan, holding the vegetables in place with the back of a spatula. It’s OK to allow a little of the water to remain in the pan.
3. Add 4 tablespoons of the curry paste, or as much as you like, and toss the vegetables to coat, allowing the paste to settle into the grooves between the stalks.
Greg Atkinson, 2008