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GREEN SCENE TURN OVER A NEW LEAF WITH BOK CHOY.

Byline: David Schwartz Staff Writer

Tucked in between the freshly built houses, within a pitchfork's throw of the clogged freeways of Southern California, an unlikely cash crop grows. From the eastern edge of San Bernardino to the Chino Valley, bok choy has become the most valuable vegetable in the county.

Unlikely as it may seem, county farmers produced 16,000 tons of bok choy last year. Among all cash crops, it's ranked fifth, behind oranges.

Bok choy together with other Asian vegetables are now worth more than the exalted navel orange.

``Bok choy's on the rise,'' said Ed Pearson, an Ontario-based local area inspector, San Bernardino County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. ``Bok choy is where it's at.''

Milk production, a $377 million-a-year business, makes up 58.5 percent of the agricultural worth of the county. (Bok choy is a $6 million-a-year crop.) Yet dairies are moving to central California or out of state, anywhere the land is cheaper.

``As a few of the dairies move out, we've seen more nursery and vegetable growers renting the soil before it's actually developed out,'' Pearson said.

The ones left will be those who have figured out a niche market, who are growing something not too many other people are.

Bok choy - aka bok choi, pak choi, Chinese mustard and Chinese cabbage - is a relative of common cabbage and mustard greens. Cultivation is believed to have started around the fifth century B.C. in China. Its European history began in the 1700s.

About a decade ago, when there were only one or two acres of bok choy being grown in the west end of San Bernardino County, Pearson remembers heading out to 20 bare acres in Ontario, where an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam was tilling the land with a hand-operated Rototiller more fit for a backyard garden patch than a business. Today his son, Kin Liu, 32, manager of Skyland Farms, is working 90 acres with a few tractors.

To some degree, the vegetable's popularity is a reflection of demographics. A larger Asian population in the Los Angeles area has created a demand for this Chinese staple.

``Bok choy is not just consumed or bought by Asians,'' said Robert Schueller, spokesman for Melissa's Produce, a Los Angeles specialty foods distribution company. He points to the growth and popularity of Asian restaurants, which use bok choy, and how it has spread to cooking shows on the Food Network and culinary magazines. The vegetable can now be found in most supermarkets along with baby bok choy, a miniaturized, different strain.

Although bok choy, the workhorse in regions of China, is often enjoyed straight, even raw, many cooks prefer it dressed up and cooked due to its various degrees of bitterness and strong peppery flavors. This versatile vegetable works well in soups, salads, stir-fries and more and carries flavors that range from spicy to sweet to sour.

But there's the double-edged sword of popularity.

Bok choy and the growth of what are called ``Oriental vegetables'' - which include daikon radishes and napa cabbage - ``represents the growth of the specialty market,'' said Jose Aguiar, vegetable crops/small farms adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Riverside County. ``Bok choy is not a common vegetable. Once it gets popular, it means everyone's growing it.''

The cultivation of bok choy is labor intensive. It must be harvested by hand. It can tolerate most soils and a minimum amount of water. Too much heat, though, and the crop is ruined. Otherwise, there can be four or five crops a year out of a piece of land.

Baby bok choy, which is smaller and more tender than the big romaine lettuce-sized variety, is more popular.

ASIAN BOK CHOY SALAD

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 lemon, juiced

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1/3 cup olive oil

2 medium heads bok choy (OR 4 heads baby bok choy), chopped

4 green onions, chopped

1 cup pine nuts

1 (5-ounce) can OR bag chow mein noodles

Mix water and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until a light syrup has formed. Remove from heat. Mix in lemon juice, soy sauce and olive oil. Refrigerate until serving.

In a medium bowl, toss together bok choy and green onions. Top with pine nuts and 1/2 of chow mein noodles. Sprinkle with dressing to taste and toss to mix. Top with remaining noodles. Makes 8 servings.

From Allrecipes.com.

STIR-FRIED BOK CHOY

1 pound bok choy (use bok choy that is no more than 8 inches in length; larger bunches tend to be tough and old. Select bok choy that has unblemished leaves and closed buds. Yellow flowers indicate bok choy is past its prime)

1/4 cup chicken broth

1 tablespoon rice wine OR dry sherry

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 slices ginger

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Separate bok choy into stalks. Trim 1/4-inch from bottom of each stalk. Cut stalks and leaves into 2-inch-long pieces. In a small bowl, combine broth, rice wine, salt and sugar.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in vegetable oil, add ginger and stir-fry about 10 seconds. Add bok choy and stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until leaves are just limp and bok choy is bright green. Stir broth mixture and swirl into wok. Stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until bok choy is just cooked. Drizzle with sesame oil. Makes 4 servings as a side dish.

From ``The Breath of a Wok,'' by Grace Young and Alan Richardson.

UNCLE SHERMAN'S HOME-STYLE CHICKEN AND VEGETABLES

12 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/4-inch-thick bite- sized slices

6 slices ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon salt

Cold water

3 teaspoons bean sauce

1 cup small broccoli florets

1 cup small cauliflower florets

4 cups bok choy, cut into 1-inch pieces

10 small button mushrooms, quartered

Cilantro sprigs (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine chicken, 2 slices ginger, 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside. In a small bowl combine remaining 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 teaspoon soy sauce with 1 tablespoon cold water. Set aside.

Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in 1 tablespoon oil. Carefully add chicken, spreading evenly in wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting chicken begin to brown. Add 1 teaspoon bean sauce. Then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until chicken is browned on all sides but not cooked through. Transfer to a plate.

Swirl remaining 1 tablespoon oil into wok. Add remaining 4 slices ginger, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, broccoli and cauliflower and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add remaining 2 teaspoons bean sauce and 1/2 teaspoon salt with 1/4 cup cold water and stir-fry 1 minute. Add bok choy and mushrooms with 2 tablespoons cold water and stir-fry 1 minute. Return chicken to wok. Stir cornstarch mixture, swirl it into wok and bring to a boil, stirring constantly, until sauce has thickened and chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute. Garnish with cilantro if desired. Makes 4 servings as a side dish.

From ``The Breath of a Wok,'' by Grace Young and Alan Richardson.

BOK CHOY CHICKEN SOUP

MARINADE:

2 teaspoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons oyster sauce

1 teaspoon ginger juice (to make, press grated ginger through a garlic press), mixed with 2 teaspoons Chinese white rice wine OR gin

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 1/4 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Pinch freshly ground white pepper

1 tablespoon cornstarch

CHICKEN:

3/4 pound lean skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into 2x1/2-inch slices

5 cups chicken stock

1 (1-inch-thick) slice fresh ginger, lightly smashed

1 pound bok choy, stalks and leaves separated and cut into 1/4-inch slices

1 tablespoon Chinese white rice wine OR gin

2 teaspoons peanut oil

In a large bowl, combine all Marinade ingredients, mixing well. Add chicken and allow to stand at least 15 minutes. Place stock and ginger in a large pot, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Add bok choy stalks, stir and return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook 5 minutes or until stalks become tender. Turn heat back to high, add leaves, stir, return to a boil and cook 2 minutes. Add chicken and marinade and stir well to separate chicken slices. Return to a boil, add wine and stir well. Add oil and stir well. Turn off heat, transfer to a heated tureen, and serve. Makes 6 servings.

From ``The Chinese Kitchen,'' by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo.

BRAISED BOK CHOY WITH PLENTY OF GARLIC

1 large head bok choy (about 2 pounds)

2 tablespoons peanut oil

6 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 cup chicken OR vegetable stock

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Separate leafy green portions of bok choy from white stalks. Discard tough bottom portion from each stalk. Cut stalks crosswise into thin strips. (You should have about 5 cups.) Cut leaves crosswise into thin strips. (You should have about 7 cups.) Set stalks and leaves aside separately.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat until almost smoking. Add bok choy stalks and stir-fry until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and stir-fry until lightly colored, about 2 minutes.

Add bok choy greens, stock and salt and pepper to taste to pan. Stir to combine ingredients. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring once or twice, until bok choy is very tender, about 10 minutes. Remove cover, increase heat and simmer briskly until excess liquid has evaporated, 3 to 4 minutes. (The bok choy should be moist but not soupy.) Adjust seasonings. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings as a side dish.

From ``Vegetables Every Day,'' by Jack Bishop.

BABY BOK CHOY WITH SHRIMP OR SCALLOPS

12 small baby bok choy

1 tablespoon cornstarch

3 tablespoons cold water OR clear broth

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon shredded fresh ginger

1 cup uncooked, shelled, deveined large shrimp OR uncooked scallops

1 tablespoon rice wine

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Dash white pepper

Clean baby bok choy, place in a pot of boiling water and cook until tender, about 2 minutes. Arrange bok choy on plate in a circle, with leaves in center.

Mix together cornstarch and 3 tablespoons cold water or broth. Set aside. Heat oil in a wok until hot. Add ginger. When you smell the fragrance of ginger, add shrimp or scallops. Cook until color changes.

Stir in rice wine and cornstarch mixture, stirring vigorously to keep from clumping, until mixture is clear and thickens, 1 to 2 minutes or longer. Stir in sugar, salt and dash white pepper. Pour over bok choy and serve. Makes 2 to 3 servings.

From Lotus Garden restaurant, San Bernardino.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) ASIAN BOK CHOY SALAD

(2 -- color) BOK CHOY CHICKEN SOUP

Gabriel Acosta/Staff Photographer

(3 -- 5 -- color) no caption (Bok Choy)

Steven Lewis/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Sep 15, 2004
Words:1906
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