In the Garden:
A bounty of Asian greens delivers a wonderful mix of flavors and textures.
A Great Time for Asian Greens
We expect to see different mesclun or salad mixes at farmers' markets, but one of my favorite local farmers also sells something he calls a braising mix. It varies with the seasons and what's available, but it usually consists of several different kale varieties, broccoli, bok choy, mizuna, mustard greens, chard, pea shoots, and whatever else is available and appropriate, all picked when fairly young, say at 3 to 6 inches, when their flavors haven't yet become too strong. In any form, it is always delicious, with a flavor both earthy and sweet. I buy it by the pound and usually just simply steam and drizzle with sesame oil, lemon juice, and soy sauce, although it lends itself to a bit of garlic and ginger or being included in stir-fries.
All of which is a way of bringing up the subject of Asian greens (although some are also considered "regular garden" staples), which predominate in my friend's mix. Most flourish in the cooler weather of spring, bringing their wealth of flavors and exceptional nutrition to us while the summer crops of beans, corn, cucumbers, and tomatoes are still months away. Even better, these greens give you a second chance in the fall, as they can also be planted again in late summer. With frost protection, they will provide fresh food well into winter.
Some Asian Greens to Consider
First of all, prepare to be overwhelmed. There are dozens of possibilities, with categories and names that can be confusing. Companies that specialize in Asian vegetables offer the largest selection, but many other seed companies single out some of the best. One of the easiest ways to get started is to look for a blend labeled as a braising mix or a stir-fry mix. Following are some of my favorites or ones that I'm eager to try.
Hon Tsai Tai - This Chinese specialty produces long, pencil-thin, red-purple, budded flower stems with a mild mustard taste that can be harvested multiple times. It can be grown in the spring, but yields best with late-summer planting.
Komatsuna - These mild, tender Japanese greens have broad, oval leaves on upright plants. The variety 'Summerfest' has dark green leaves, good heat tolerance, and disease resistance. Red komatsuna has dark maroon leaves with bright green undersides.
Red Russian Kale - Although its name doesn't imply anything Asian, 'Red Russian' kale is great for both salad and braising mixes. The flat, wavy-edged leaves are a deep, gray-blue-green with purple veins and stems. These leaves are much more tender than other kales.
Mustard - When picked at the baby size of 4 to 6 inches, mustard greens have a relatively mild, spicy flavor and are integral to braising mixes. There are a number of varieties, with the red-leaved forms being most popular, including 'Garnet Giant', 'Ruby Streaks', 'Red Giant', and 'Osaka Purple'. Of the green-leaved types, consider 'Tendergreen' or 'Savannah'.
Tatsoi - The unusual flat rosettes of spoon-shaped leaves make tatsoi one of the most beautiful of vegetables. It has a tendency to bolt quickly in the spring, so you might want to reserve this one for late-summer planting. It is exceptionally cold hardy.
Bok Choy - There are any number of common names and spellings, including bok choi and pak choi, but don't let that confusion stop you from trying it this year. Bok choy has become one of my all-time favorite vegetables. The loose, upright heads with dark green leaves and thick, crisp, white or pale green ribs have a tender texture and mild flavor. Comparisons have shown the green-stemmed varieties, such as 'Green Fortune' and 'Choko', are the slowest to bolt.
Mizuna - The deeply serrated leaves of mizuna are a staple in the spicy salad mixtures sold at my local farmers' markets, but it also is a great addition to braising mixes. It is a type of mustard green with a mild flavor. There is also a form with purple-tinged leaves.
Chinese Broccoli - Variously known as gai lan, kai lan, or other names, depending on the country, Chinese broccoli has a stronger flavor than Western broccoli, more peppery and pungent. 'Green Lance' is the most popular variety.
Mibuna - This is an unusual Japanese green that grows to about one foot tall, with long, narrow, rounded dark green leaves. It has a light mustard flavor.
Misome - This is a new type of green that is a product of crossing komatuna with tatsoi. It tends to be more tolerant of warmer temperatures.
Pea Shoots - The flavorful tendrils of snow peas (yes, they taste like peas!) are a delicacy that make a great addition to a braising mix. The readily available variety 'Dwarf Grey Sugar' is quite useful for this, and there are also varieties that are specifically grown for their shoots. But, don't worry, tendrils and young leaves from any peas will do.
Radish Leaf - Yes, all radish leaves are edible, but I much prefer the varieties that are grown for their foliage. These include 'Saisai Purple' and 'Hattorikun'. They are tender and hairless, with a wonderful flavor.
These are just some of the possible Asian greens to try growing this year. They offer a range of flavors, colors, and textures, plus high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, fiber, and calcium and other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. What's not to love?
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