You can call it pak, you can call it bok, you can call it bak and you can call it paak, but whatever you call it, call some for dinner, because bok choy (or paak choi, bak choi or any combination of the above) is a delicious addition to your meal.
You may have passed it in the exotic veggie section on your way to good old American food and, like the lady behind me in the checkout line, wondered just exactly what you'd do with it. Maybe you even grew some this year and are now pondering your harvest.
Fall and winter are the best times to enjoy Bok choy. It is a member of the cabbage family and can be used like cabbage but is much more versatile than its hotheaded cousin. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet with a just gentle hint of cabbage, and the stalks are juicy and tender enough to eat raw. Use the outer stalks and reward yourself with the heart and its tiny leaves--delicious eaten just as it is or lightly steamed to bring out more flavor.
Bok Choy, sometimes called Chinese white cabbage, has been grown in China since the fifth century A.D. and in Europe since the 1700s. It's become popular here over the past several years (that's why it's cropped up in your grocery store) and is available at some farmer's markets and most Asian Markets. Seeds are available anywhere you normally would buy them.
When shopping, look for firm stalks with non-wilted or yellowed leaves. Bok Choy grows more like celery than head cabbage and has creamy white stalks topped by dark green leaves. Depending on the variety offered the stalks may be long and topped by short fat leaves, the leaves may be broader and cap short stalks, or you may see something in between. You can also find baby Bok Choy, the tender, succulent, immature version of the larger one, which is delicious steamed or sautéed whole and served with chicken and pork.
This is a leafy green vegetable, which means it's great for dieters and anyone wanting a nutrition boost: at only 30 calories a cup it's also a good source of vitamins C and A as well as calcium.
It's versatile, too. In fact, if you think about it, with bok choy, you're getting two for the price of one--the juicy mild-flavored stalks and the more cabbagey leaves. It's terrific in stir fries, of course, but it's great sautéed and enjoyed as a side vegetable, too. Chop the leaves and stems into soups (near the end of cooking) or toss them into a salad. I like to munch on the stalks as a low-cal, delicious snack.
Bok choy is easy to prepare, too: just wash and chop it. Preparation will be even easier if you pull the stalks from the base like celery and then trim an inch or two from the root end. Since the leaves cook faster than the stalks, slice them away from the stalk and then chop leaf and stalk separately from each other as in this tangy stir fry.
Bok Choy Stir Fry
8 cups cleaned bok choy (leaves and stalks separated)
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 garlic clove, sliced thinly
1/4 inch slice of fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Chop the leaves and stalks into one-inch pieces, keeping them separate.
Heat a wok or large skillet to medium high and add the oil. Let it heat, then add the garlic and ginger, cooking them until the garlic starts to soften, then remove the garlic from the oil.
Cook the stems in the oil, stirring often, for four minutes--they will have softened a little. Next, add the vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and the chopped leaves and cook for two minutes more, stirring and tossing often. Serve them as an accompaniment to pork or chicken or heaped atop rice.
For a terrific light soup, simmer two cups of leafy ribbons in six cups of chicken or beef stock for five minutes. For added flavor, shave a quarter-sized piece of fresh ginger and a garlic clove into the stock and simmer for five minutes before adding the bok choy leaf. To cut the ribbons, just stack the leaves, roll them up and slice them about 1/4 to 1/2" thick.
For a recipe with more Western flair, try Bok Choy Au Gratin. Braise stalks and leaves in chicken stock, then pour off the stock and use it to make a cheese sauce with a sharp cheese like Gruyere. Pour the sauce over the cabbage and bake for 15 minutes. This dish is a natural accompaniment to ham or pork chops or simply savored alone.
The next time you're walking by those strange vegetables, stop. Reach out and put some choy in your cart. After all, it's the simple choys that really make life worthwhile--that help bring choy to the world. Choy to you and me. Choy to the fishes in the deep blue--
--Oh, well, you get the idea. Bok to reality.