Small, Good Things: Greens, Of — and Out of — This World

By Joe Dizney

Five years ago the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a list of 41 “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” based on the density in each of nutrients associated with cardiovascular and neurological health.

Surprisingly, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and the nefarious kale do not appear until the middle of the list, behind maligned leafy greens such as chard, collard, turnip, mustard and beet greens — giving credence to Michael Pollan’s rule for eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Topping the list is watercress (with 100 percent nutrient density — although it’s usually dismissed as a garnish), followed at No. 2 by Chinese cabbage, which refers to a large group of related but distinct leafy vegetables such as napa cabbage and bok choy, which is itself a family of at least three greens — bok choy, baby bok choy and Shanghai bok choy.

With bok choy the confusion is pretty much ensured by other less common English designations such as Chinese chard, Chinese mustard, celery mustard and spoon cabbage.

Chinese cabbage is a cold, hardy plant, which makes it valuable as a year-round source of nutrition. (Anecdotally, bok choy also has the distinction of being outer-space hardy, being one of a handful of botanical experiments on board the International Space Station that also was eaten by the crew in shades of Matt Damon in The Martian).

Watercress

Powerhouse 10

01. Watercress
02. Chinese cabbage
03. Chard
04. Beet green
05. Spinach
06. Chicory
07. Leaf lettuce
08. Parsley
09. Romaine lettuce
10. Collard green

Source: CDC

But science is one thing and eating is another, and until our collective consciousness, palate and cultures have evolved to accommodate a truly global outlook, it’s relatively easy to meet bok choy on its home ground in this recipe that stresses (and perhaps stretches) Asian influences.

Bok choy is cooked in a homey setting of garlic, ginger and sesame oil. The more substantial white stems or stalks are roughly chopped and braised stovetop along with white button mushrooms. In an additional preliminary step, the mushrooms are dry-roasted to concentrate their flavor before sautéing and braising. The more delicate bok choy greens are barely wilted at the last minute.

Served atop a nest of buckwheat soba, this could be an undeniably healthy and nearly traditional Chinese-inflected meal — if it weren’t for the luxe, cross-cultural addition of umami-rich miso-butter sauce brightened with a splash of rice wine vinegar. That and the additional and optional (and once again nutritionally questionable) soft-cooked egg.

Bok Choy with Mushrooms, Soba and Miso Butter (Photo by J. Dizney)

Bok Choy with Mushrooms, Soba and Miso Butter
Serves 4

6 to 8 small heads baby bok choy (aka Shanghai bok choy)
10 to 12 medium-large white button mushrooms
7 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons white miso paste
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 small shallot, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced or grated
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ cup broth (chicken or vegetable)
Splash light soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
8 to 9 ounces buckwheat soba (2 to 3 small dried bundles)
¼ cup sliced scallion greens for garnish
Poached or soft-cooked egg (optional)

  1. Roast mushrooms at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool, quarter and reserve. While mushrooms roast, roughly chop the light stalks of the bok choy and julienne the greens; reserving each separately. In a small saucepan, warm 5 tablespoons of butter and the miso paste. Heat and salt a large pot of water to boil the noodles.
  2. Heat the sesame oil and 2 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add shallots and cook, stirring until translucent (about 3 minutes). Add garlic, ginger and red pepper flakes; cook until just fragrant. Add the mushrooms and cook about 2 minutes. Add chopped bok choy stalks and cook, stirring for a couple of minutes. Add ¼ cup broth and a splash of soy sauce, lower heat and cover skillet while you cook the noodles.
  3. Boil noodles for 3 minutes. While noodles cook, whisk rice vinegar into miso butter and keep warm. When noodles are done, drain and rinse with cool water. Reserve.
  4. Add bok choy greens to the skillet and keep covered until just wilted. Add miso butter and stir to incorporate. (Add remaining stock if mixture seems too thick.) When fully warmed, serve over cooked soba. Garnish with chopped scallions (and soft-cooked egg if desired).
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