Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Produce Aisle, Part I

I was a bok choy virgin until my 30s.

I can practically hear what you're thinking: "What, in
this day and age? With frank, illustrated educational materials widely available, and all the teevee cooking shows with the sizzles and the knife sounds lovingly miked, and ethnic markets where you can purchase all manner of exotic produce without eliciting a second glance from the gum-snapping cashier?"

But, yes, it's true. I was never sure what the heck to do with bok choy. It was lovely-looking, with creamy white stems and full, deep-green leaves, so I'd caress a bunch now and then at the Asian supermarket in my old neighborhood. But, as with so many of the unlabeled items in its produce department, I was afraid of it. Even the adorable little baby bok choys (boks choy?) nestled six to a plastic bag stymied me. Crazy, right? It's just a vegetable, and a cheap one at that. I wasn't much of a kitchen experimenter at the time, though, so I always set the bok choy back down and headed for my familiar old garlic, ginger and basil.

As with so many things, it took a new love interest to make me brave. I was pitching woo at Melvin and wanted to impress him with my devil-may-care fancy cooking skills, so I decided an experiment was in order. I found a recipe (now lost to the mists of time and my disorganized storage system) for fish and halved baby bok choy that were glazed and cooked together in a bamboo steamer. The fish turned to rubber, but the bok choy saved the day. We devoured the whole batch. They were cooked but still crunchy, with a sheen of sesame oil and (I think) a bit of honey. My fear was banished, Melvin liked me even though our entrée was inedible, and bok choy entered my kitchen repertoire.

Baby bok choy would work for this Mollie Katzen recipe, which has been a tonic in our household during many a gloomy cold snap. You can use the grownup kind, too—just separate the ribs and wash everything well, because bok choy can be sandy. For easy handling, cut the green leaves off the white stems and chop them separately; the stems handle like celery, the leaves, like chard.

This is a virtuous soup (for extra virtuousness, I use whole-wheat noodles) that's exceedingly tasty with the addition of condiments like sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, cilantro and soy sauce. Mollie says they are optional, but I disagree.

Big, Bold Noodle Soup
from Vegetable Heaven, Mollie Katzen

6 or 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 1/2 cups boiling water
8 cups strong vegetable bouillon
6 star anise
4 or 5 large slices ginger
4 cups (packed) stemmed, chopped mustard greens (about half a large bunch)
4 cups chopped bok choy, stems included (2–3 small heads)
10 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 pound fresh egg noodles, or 1/2 pound dried (about 3–4 cups cooked)

Soy sauce
Chile garlic paste, chile oil or red pepper flakes
Chinese sesame oil
Torn cilantro leaves

Rinse the mushrooms and place them in a small bowl. Pour in 1 1/2 cups boiling water and cover with a plate. Let stand at least 30 minutes. (This can be done several days ahead, and the mushrooms can just stay in the water until use.)

Combine the bouillon, star anise and ginger in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, cover and simmer for about 20–30 minutes. At this point, the broth can sit for up to several hours–or even overnight–before you proceed.

Remove the ginger and star anise with a slotted spoon. Strain the mushrooms over the soup, squeezing them firmly, so all of their soaking liquid goes in. Then slice the mushrooms thinly and add them to the soup as well.

Heat the soup to the boiling point, and add the mustard greens, bok choy, and scallions. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles in boiling water till just tender. Drain them in a colander, rinse, and drain again, so they won't clump. Divide the cooked noodles among the largest soup bowls you can find, and ladle the soup on top. Pass around the optional toppings on a small tray, so each person can customize his or her portion.

Yield: 6 to 8 soul-soothing servings

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