Bok Choy: The choys is yours

story and photos by Grace DickinsonThough slowly gaining a name for itself, bok choy is far from common here in the states. Travel to China however, where the ingredient has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, and you will find that bok choy is a staple.

This month’s featured gardener Beth Bowman grew up in the Philippines, where the vegetable has been popular since the Spanish conquest of the Asian islands in the 1500s, when many Chinese immigrated to the Philippines and brought their beloved bok choy with them. In 1974, Bowman moved to the U.S., but it wasn’t until the past 10 years or so that she could easily find bok choy in seed catalogs.

Used in everything from salads to stir-fry, the leafy green has crisp stalks similar to celery, and a mild, but slightly bitey flavor. Bok choy — also called pak choi — is a member of the cabbage family and is often referred to as “white cabbage.” While markets in Asia can feature up to 20 different kinds, you’ll primarily find two types here in the U.S. Regular bok choy has sturdy leaves and bright white stalks. Shanghai bok choy, or baby bok choy, has delicate leaves that lend themselves well to being used raw. Either variety will work for the following recipe (p. 21), a brightly flavored kimchi featuring bok choy bulbs.

Nutrition 101

Bok choy is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and has 15 percent of the recommended daily allowance of calcium per serving. One cup has a mere 10 to 20 calories.

What to look for

As you would with romaine lettuce, look for heads with crisp, bright green leaves and firm white stalks free of any brown spots. If planning to use raw, opt for smaller-leaved heads.

For the Gardener

Beth Bowman finds bok choy to be one of the easiest crops to grow. “It’s fast growing and isn’t very picky in terms of fertilizer or soil type,” explains the Northeast Philadelphia gardener, who grows the crop every spring at Benjamin Rush Community Garden. “Even in poor soil it can grow, and within a few weeks, you can typically harvest.” The quick turnaround is what gets Bowman most excited. “When you’re able to start growing in the spring, you want something you can harvest quickly. You don’t want to wait three months down the line.”

Seeds should go into the ground in April, and within 50 to 60 days will be ready to harvest. However, the leaves can be picked even before fully grown, and used raw in dishes like salads. When planting, Bowman prefers to mix bok choy seeds with different types of lettuce. “The seeds are round and very, very small, like sesame seeds,” Bowman says. “They’re easier to handle when you mix them with other types of seeds.” Given the seeds’ size, bok choy will generally need to be sowed in excess, and then thinned once the leaves start popping up. This is when Bowman harvests for salads, thinning as she goes along, and leaving the rooted bok choy to mature into full bulbs. Later-season bok choy is great for stir-fry, she says.

From the Farm

“In our neighborhood, the slightly more adventurous people are generally the bok choy buyers,” says Andrew Olson, founder of Southwest Philadelphia’s Farm 51. May through October, Olson sells the farm’s produce at his weekly farmstand. He says the challenge in growing the crop is the heat, especially in the city. “If you get a few sustained days of hot weather, it will bolt and there goes your bok choy crop … If you’re plagued with a stretch of 80 or 90 degree days in May, you’ll need to pick it.” In its prime, bok choy maintains a compact shape. However, when about to bolt, its center will elongate and a flower sprouts. “If you get it when it just starts to bolt, it’s not the end of the world,” Olson says. “But as the flower starts to grow, the bok choy gets more bitter.”

Another key to a successful crop is steady watering. “Ideally, [bok choy] gets an inch or an inch-and-a-half of rain or water a week. So if you’re not getting that naturally, you’ll want to make sure they get supplemental irrigation.” Pests like cabbage loopers can also be a problem. Olson suggests using a row cover — fabric that covers the entire row to form a physical barrier against the bugs — or a spray with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring bacterium commonly used in organic farming. Olson uses Bt at Farm 51, but says both methods work equally well. “If you’re going with the row cover, just make sure to use a more open mesh rather than a real fine mesh, because that can create a warmer environment later in the season and that won’t be good.”

For the Kitchen

Bok choy kimchi has become a staple for Chef Kevin Sbraga. Currently, he serves a slightly more complex version of this recipe at his modern American restaurant, Sbraga, located on the Avenue of the Arts. Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish typically made from seasoned and fermented vegetables. “There are some ingredients out there that are big and bold in flavor … and then there are other ingredients like bok choy that are more delicate, and they absorb, and they’re receptive to other flavors,” explains Sbraga. “That’s what I like about bok choy, and that’s what I like about it in this particular use of it. You make this awesome kimchi dressing and the bok choy just absorbs all its flavors. It’s pure deliciousness.” At his restaurant, Sbraga serves the kimchi over a miso-marinated bluefish, but a pan-fried fish can easily be substituted to simplify the dish.

Sbraga, 440 S. Broad St. sbraga.com

Bok Choy Kimchi witih Pan-seared Fish and Adzuki Beans

Dressing

  • ¼ cup ginger, zested or minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cayenne
  • 1 Tbsp smoked paprika
  • 2 Tbsp ketchup
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 6 Tbsp Sriracha
  • 3 Tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 cup blended oil (80% canola/20% olive oil)
  • 1 quart white distilled vinegar
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 black peppercorns

Simmer the vinegar, bay leaves and peppercorns until reduced by half. Strain, cool and reserve. In a bowl whisk the vinegar reduction and all the remanding ingredients, except the oils. With an emersion blender or regular blender, slowly add oils and blend to emulsify.

Vegetables

  • 3 cups (approx. 12-15) bok choy bulbs, bottom base trimmed, thinly sliced (leaves can be used for garnish)
  • ½ cup carrot, julienned
  • 1 bunch of scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 Tbsp ginger julienned
  • 2 tsp white or black sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • ½ cup salt

Heavily salt all the cut vegetables (don’t be scared, most of the salt will be discarded) and allow to sit for 20 minutes. Drain all the excess liquid and press through a fine strainer or pasta strainer. Mix the vegetables with the sesame seeds, 2 cups of kimchi dressing and sesame oil. Check seasonings and adjust to taste, if needed.

Fish

  • 4 (6 oz) portions of Blue Fish or Black Cod (Ask your fishmonger to cut out the blood line, if possible, to improve the flavor.)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350° F. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high. Season both sides of fish with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add fish fillets to skillet and cook two minutes per side, flipping with a spatula or tongs. Place fish in oven, uncovered, and cook for four minutes, or until fish is golden brown on outside and fork-tender.

Adzuki Beans

  • 2 cups dried Adzuki beans
  • 1/2 cup onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup green pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced
  • 1/2 jalapeno, minced
  • 1/4 cup cilantro
  • 1/2 cup Bacon, Cherrywood, chopped
  • 1 can beer, your favorite variety
  • 4 cups of stock

For the beans: In a large pot, fry the bacon in its own fat until crispy, and then add the vegetables. Sauté for 2 minutes, and then add beer to deglaze. Add the beans and stock. Cover and cook for approximately 20 minutes over low heat, or until beans are tender.

Serve fish atop adzuki beans, and top with kimchi.

For the Pantry by Marisa McClellan

Bok choy is a member of the Chinese cabbage family and is beloved for its fresh flavor and crunchy texture. It doesn’t can well, but can be used in a number of quick and fermented pickles.

To preserve its crunch, wrap bok choy in perforated plastic bags and store in the coldest part of your fridge.

For a speedy, crisp slaw, trim away the leafy bits and chop the white ends into matchsticks. Dress with toasted sesame oil, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar.

If you like a funky pickle, substitute bok choy for the more traditional Napa cabbage in your favorite kimchi recipe. 

Learn more about food preservation at McClellan’s blog foodinjars.com

Grace Dickinson is a food blogger, photo enthusiast and recipe creator. These passions are brought together on FoodFitnessFreshAir.com, where she chronicles her experiments in the kitchen.