Set the Table with Asian Greens
Written onMarch 01 , 2008
With names such as shungiku, komatsuna and takana, Asian greens may seem somewhat intimidating to even an experienced home chef. In recent years, Americans have become familiar with unusual greens such as bok choy and mizuna, but if you’re the adventurous type, a vast array of even more interesting Asian greens awaits. And while these varieties are not available at the corner store, local farmers who grow them can provide the freshest quality, and may also supply helpful tips for using them.
Several Asian greens have a mild bitter flavor, perhaps owing to the fact that many are members of the Brassica family, which includes vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens and turnips. Americans have developed a strong taste for salty and sweet flavors, but they have not embraced bitter flavors, which are more often found in other cultures’ cuisines. However, bitter compounds cause the liver to release bile, which helps with digestion. This is why, for example, Europeans consume herbal aperitifs and tonics made from bitter herbs. Greens with bitter properties can serve the same purpose. So in addition to being full of vitamins and minerals, Asian greens aid in digestion while adding a complex and rich flavor to any dish they are added to.
Linda and Takeshi Akaogi grow an extensive variety of Asian greens on their farm in Putney. At least a dozen varieties are sold to markets such as the Brattleboro Food Co-op and the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market. Asian greens also make up a significant portion of their own farm’s CSA share. Linda says they are introducing these greens to their customers because, for the most part, Americans do not eat enough greens. To help change this, half of the Akaogis’ weekly share consists of a diverse assortment of fresh greens.
Since all greens begin to lose vitality soon after harvest, Linda stresses that the fresher the green, the better, since freshness provides the greatest benefits. And she says that any of the Asian greens can be used raw or cooked. In the U.S., many of these greens are harvested as baby leaves for salad mixes, but in countries such as Japan they are usually cooked and supplement every meal. Linda says her favorite method of preparation is blanching, but although it is a simple process, it must be done correctly to preserve the plant’s nutrients and freshness (see sidebar). The blanched greens can then be frozen, used in stir-fries, or served with dressing. Linda says the varieties of dressings are endless, but a traditional Japanese dressing includes soy sauce, miso, vinegar, mustard, wasabi, ginger, and sugar.
Here are a few unusual Asian greens for those who want to move beyond the basics:
Tatsoi is a compact plant that is related to the well-known bok choy, however, it grows lower to the ground with almost a flattened rosette form. As a member of the cabbage family, its mild flavor hints at its origins, and it is sometimes referred to as spinach mustard. Its dark green leaves are a sign of the plant’s vitamin-rich properties.
Komatsuna is another relative of the cabbage, with tender leaves that have a flavor and texture somewhere between spinach and bok choy. It has tall, thick stems, which are both juicy and crunchy when used raw. In can be used in place of celery when serving raw vegetables with any type of dip or spread.
Takana is also known as giant red mustard. There are several varieties of mustard greens and all have leaves that are very spicy. While these greens are often harvested in the baby stage for salad mix, the full size leaves offer a more intense experience. Linda says if you continue to chew the leaf for a couple of minutes, the flavor is reminiscent of wasabi and offers the same nasal-clearing properties.
Shungiku is probably one of the prettiest greens, and you may find that it looks familiar. Shungiku is also known as ‘edible chrysanthemum,’ and is related to the ubiquitous potted plants that grace porches in the autumn months. However, before you go snipping shoots off your ornamentals, keep in mind that shungiku is a vegetative plant that does not produce the familiar showy flowers, so the leaves of this plant are less bitter than its ornamental cousin. Although native to the Mediterranean, shungiku is widely used throughout Asia. Its leaves have an unusual flavor and can be lightly cooked for a warm dish or used in salads.
If you are interested in growing your own greens, many seed companies are now offering an extensive selection of Asian green seeds. Most varieties can be seeded in the garden in early spring. As with crops such as lettuce and kale, Asian greens thrive under cool weather conditions, so the seeds can be planted again in late summer for a fall harvest. They can be more challenging to grow in mid-summer, when the plants try to ‘bolt,’ sending up their flower stalks for reproduction. If the plant is allowed to do this it will develop a very strong bitter flavor and will not be edible.
If you spot Asian greens at your local market this summer, don’t be intimidated. Instead grab a bunch or two and surprise your friends and family with a new dish. And whether you buy them locally or grow your own, Asian greens will surely spice up your summer.
Illustration by Meg Lucas
Linda Akaogi’s Tips for Blanching Greens
Following the instructions below will retain your greens’ nutrients and freshness. There are certain key points to keep in mind:
- Rapidly boiling water is necessary
- The water must return to boil quickly after adding vegetables
- Very, very cold water is needed to cool down the blanched greens
- Work quickly to remove greens from the water
- Use freshly harvested greens and rinse several times to remove dirt
- Use the whole plant; do not cut off its base. The red base of spinach has iron—that is why I do not remove it when I harvest. Trim off the roots and the end if you need to remove any dirt
Bring the water to a boil. The amount of water to use is tricky. The basic rule is to use enough water to circulate through the individual leaves of the plant, but make sure there’s not so much water that it won’t return to a boil within a minute or less after adding the vegetables. If you use a small amount of water, then add small amounts of vegetables at a time. They will cook quickly and cool down quickly. I frequently make the mistake of trying to do too much at one time. It just makes for an overcooked, slimy mess.
Most cookbooks call for salt. As I understand it, salt is often used to retain the color of the vegetables. Sometime I add it and sometimes I don’t. I don’t feel good just throwing the salt down the drain and I don’t notice the difference in flavor. If you follow the instructions, I think it doesn’t much matter. If you choose to add salt, then reduce the salt later when you dress or flavor it.
When the water boils, add the vegetables. Immediately stir the greens gently with chopsticks or a wooden spoon to separate the individual leaves and help the hot water penetrate all the surfaces. The water should return to a boil almost immediately. Keep pushing the vegetables around so they don’t clump up. When the vegetables turn a dark green color, they are done. More delicate or quick-cooking vegetables, such as spinach or shungiku, take less than a minute. Cooking time is entirely up to you. If you like the greens crunchy, almost like a salad, then 30 seconds should be fine. If you have older, stringy vegetables, or you like them well-cooked, then they could take as much as five minutes.
Quick cooling is very, very important. If you use warm water or you leave the greens in the water for a time, you can just feel all the nutrients oozing out into the water. Cold water will immediately stop the cooking process and seal the pores. The result is wonderful flavor and a nice green color. So put the greens into very cold or ice water. I do several changes of water to ensure a cold enough temperature. Work quickly. When the greens are finally cold, quickly gather all the roots together while they’re still in the water (it’s easier that way), squeeze gently, and put the greens in a colander to drain. They can then be used as desired.