Bok choy to the world!

December 18, 2013

Bok choy, pac choi — I don’t care how you spell it, but it’s the star crop in my home greenhouse right now, ready for picking. While we deck the halls with holiday boughs we’ll have fresh greens for our stir-fries and salads.

Asian crops can be confusing, their names dependent on different readings of Chinese characters, or versions of the same plant from different countries and regions. (Assigning them proper botanical names is harder still.) But it pays to get to know how different varieties taste and how they grow. Bok choy (to follow this newspaper’s style) is a great place to start.

Nothing about bok choy will offend you. Some might call it a form of non-heading Chinese cabbage, and like most Asian vegetables, it’s part of the brassica, or cabbage/mustard tribe. But it has no cabbagey pungency or mustardy bite. With its fountain-like shape, it is graceful plant to look at as well.

A typical bok choy has stems that are bright white, enlarged at the bottom and cupping the base of the plant. One is told, in fact, that its name means “white vegetable” in its native land. Those stems, though not as firm as celery’s or Swiss chard’s, generally need to be cooked.

But there’s another form whose slender, pale green stems are tender enough to eat raw. Of these, the variety I like best is the hybrid Mei Qing Choi. A so-called baby bok choy, it will grow to moderate size but is best eaten young. Sow it directly, then thin the plants to six to eight inches apart, tossing the exquisitely tender discards into salads as you go. The dressing doesn’t need to be Asian-style, but a dash of toasted sesame oil and some grated fresh ginger never hurts.


Mei Qing Choi is a hybrid baby bok choy whose young leaves are great in salads. The mature heads are good for cooking.. (Barbara Damrosch )

When the heads are more mature, you can braise, saute or stir-fry them, starting with the cut-up stems, then adding the chopped leaves for the last minute of cooking. I combine them with the fresh-dug carrots and small, white hakurei turnips that come from the greenhouse, too.

You don’t need a greenhouse for this crop: A sowing in late summer will provide a supply until the first hard freezes cause it to degrade (Asian greens will take light frosts). My use of the greenhouse, though, means I’ll be picking it well into spring. It will eventually bolt to seed, but I’ve found that the upper leaves and stalk are quite edible even after the plants go vertical.

Right now they’re under a layer of spun-bonded polyester row cover for extra cold protection, because the greenhouse is unheated. Come spring, outdoor plantings could be sown again, but the trick with those is to keep them free of flea beetles, a tiny pest that stipples the leaves with holes. Covering them right after sowing, with the same row cover I’m using now, will keep the flea beetles from moving in.

Recently I heard of a new type of knitted netting, designed for warm-weather planting, that lets in more light, weighs less and keeps heat from building up beneath it. (Like many Asian vegetables, bok choy is somewhat heat-tolerant, but rapid summer bolting can occur.) This product, called ProtekNet, is sold by many companies, but you have to buy a huge roll of it, for several hundred dollars. The only source of small pieces I’ve found so far is William Dam in Ontario, and the store doesn’t ship to the United States.

So I’m still looking. Apparently, ProtekNet’s finest grade of netting keeps out not only flea beetles but other tiny creatures such as thrips and Swede midge. Never heard of Swede midge? I hadn’t, either, but it first appeared in North America in 2000. When it heads this way, I’ll be ready.

Tip of the week

Poinsettias hate cold blasts of winter air and will be damaged if left out in the cold or in a parked car. Bring a plant home directly and make sure it is wrapped in transit. Poinsettias do best in bright, cool rooms in containers that can drain: Decorative foil should be removed for drainage. Allow soil surface to dry a little between waterings. — Adrian Higgins

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”
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