Wok up some greens
By Amy Scattergood
Los Angeles Times
By Amy Scattergood
In the pristine kitchen above Beacon restaurant in Culver City, Calif., amid the bustle of lunch preparations, chef Vicki Fan is surrounded by vegetables.
They cover her cutting board like a deconstructed garden: short mountains of ying choy, the Cantonese name for amaranth; long leaves of gai choy, the distinctive Chinese mustard greens; a bouquet of nira, or garlic chives; piles of wood ear mushrooms and snow peas, and baby bok choy.
Fan, co-chef-owner and general manager of Beacon with her husband, Kazuto Matsusaka, has assembled the vegetables to show how easy it is to cook Chinese leafy greens.
"I think people are scared of fresh vegetables," says Fan, whose parents came to the U.S. from Shanghai. Easy to find in Asian grocery stores, in Chinatown, and in farmers' markets, the greens are fun to cook, delicious to eat and an integral part of Chinese cooking.
Fan moves briskly around the kitchen, grabbing a wok, heating a pot of water, bringing small pans of garlic, ginger, salt and pepper to the stove.
"Chinese cooking is very simple," she says."It's about the ingredients and their freshness — flavor first, aesthetics second."
A quick stir-fry followed by steaming in the same pan is all it takes to bring out the best in Chinese greens, Fan says.
You can give less-fragile vegetables a quick blanch first, or steam them a little longer. But keeping it simple and fast ensures that the vegetables don't overcook and lose freshness, beauty or nutrients.
Fan swirls a little oil around the hot wok. Equal parts minced ginger and garlic go in next.
"You stir-fry with garlic and ginger: It counters the hot aspect of the vegetable."
Fan isn't talking about temperature but balance, the centuries-old Confucian notion of the yin and yang of cooking, in which certain ingredients' "cool" qualities balance others' "hot" qualities.
Fan stirs the mixture with chopsticks as it sizzles briefly. She tosses in the whole baby bok choy. These are especially small ones, about 3 inches long, which are just as flavorful as larger bok choy but more tender.
"The Cantonese like to serve vegetables whole, especially at New Year's," Fan says. "It's symbolic of unity."
GUESTS GET BEST PART
When Fan was growing up, her mother peeled away the outer layers of large bok choy to get to the heart, which she served to her guests.
"It's traditional to serve guests the most precious part of the meal," Fan says. "We'd get the leaves."
Fan ladles a little water into the wok, then covers it with a lid so that the vegetables steam. You can use stock instead of water for a heartier note, or blanch the vegetables first instead of steaming them.
Fan stirs the bok choy, adding a pinch of salt and black pepper and checking to make sure the bok choy isn't browning.
"According to my mother, you can tell the freshness of the vegetable by how much water comes out," Fan says. The less water, the fresher the vegetable.
After a few minutes, the bok choy is done. Fan wipes out the wok and begins the same procedure with Chinese mustard greens. The method is the same, only Fan cooks the greens a little longer and adds a pinch of sugar to balance the bitterness of mustard greens.
Fan moves on to a small mountain of amaranth, or red spinach. To the hot garlic and ginger she adds a few cups of amaranth stems.
After the amaranth stems steam, Fan adds the leaves, stirring them as they wilt, then makes a well in the center and adds a pungent spoonful of spicy fermented tofu. The tofu smells like aged cheese but mellows as it cooks, binding the greens together and adding a heady note to the stir-fried amaranth.
Fermented tofu, a traditional ingredient in many Chinese dishes, is potent stuff — a little goes a long way — and Fan says that the best way to judge its quality is to look for whole cubes that haven't disintegrated in the bottle. It shouldn't have additives, just salt.
The amaranth finished, Fan chops the nira, or long garlic chives. Used as a vegetable rather than an herb or garnish in Chinese cooking, the chives look like spinach linguini and have a mild garlic flavor.
"This is for when you're running low on what to make for dinner," Fan says as she soft-scrambles eggs in the wok, adding chives and a little salt and pepper.
SYMBOLISM IN FOOD
Ru yi cai, or "as you wish vegetables," is a traditional dish her mother made every New Year's. The 10 ingredients, which can vary, represent wealth or abundance for the Year of the Pig: wood ear and shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, carrots, snow peas, baked tofu, lily flowers, sweet and sour pickled vegetables and bean sprouts.
To save time, Fan stir-fries some ingredients in pairs. First, she separately cooks the snow peas and carrots, spreading them on a cookie sheet to cool so that they don't lose their brilliant colors. She cooks the bamboo shoots and bean sprouts together, then both kinds of mushrooms and the lily flowers. Each time she adds a new ingredient, she sprinkles a pinch of salt, a smaller one of pepper.
"You have to be careful not to over-salt," Fan cautions, but a little seasoning brings out the essence of the vegetable.
After the ingredients have been quickly stir-fried, Fan combines everything but the snow peas, mixing them gently with a little sesame oil and spreading the mixture up the sides of the bowl to cool. After a few minutes, she adds the snow peas, then piles some high on a plate.