Visit one of the area's late winter farmers markets - technically, early spring - and you're sure to encounter baby bok choy. You'll also find it right now in the produce section of the grocery store and, if you're lucky, it'll be from a farm not too far away.
This cute little vegetable is part white, crispy stalk and part leafy green. No more than 5 or 6 inches long and a couple of inches wide, its flavor is sweet and mild. Baby bok choy is a little gem of a vegetable and is always a treat at the spring dinner table.
Sometimes called Chinese cabbage or pak choy, it's a member of the cabbage family, or "brassicas." It has been a Chinese staple since before the fifth century. It's easy and quick to grow - at this time of year, in unheated greenhouses - and offers a sweeter, milder taste than many other brassicas. Choose baby bok choy that's crispy and fresh with a tight bottom and unblemished stems and leaves. You'll be using every bit of it.
Like all the brassicas, baby bok choy is a nutrition powerhouse. It's high in vitamin C, potassium, iron and the phytonutrient beta-carotene. Phytonutrients help our bodies fight all kinds of disease and are heart-healthy, interfering with the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol on our arteries. They ward off cancer by stopping carcinogens before they do damage to our cells. At just 20 calories per cup, baby bok choy is a healthy and delicious vegetable to get to know.
When you get it home from the store, wash it well in cold water, but leave it whole. Store it in an airtight container or plastic bag and cut off just a sliver of the bottom when you're ready to use it.
Try it on the grill, brushed with a little olive oil infused with chopped garlic. Grill it whole, for a couple of minutes on each side, season with salt and pepper, and serve it drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The stalks, which look something like celery, turn soft and kind of creamy when cooked and are not at all stringy.
Baby bok choy is a natural for stir fries and is a staple in Chinese cooking, along with its more mature and larger version, bok choy. Be ready for a quick meal any time by keeping a little cooked brown rice in the fridge. In five or 10 minutes at the end of a long work day, you can put together a quick stir fry of chopped baby bok choy, garlic and egg or tofu. To make sure the stalks stay juicy, cook it over high heat. As it cooks, season creatively with Chinese five-spice powder, fresh grated ginger, soy sauce - whatever you're inspired to try. But don't overcook it. You'll want every bit of flavor and nutrition this sweet little vegetable has to offer.
For an interesting addition to a plate of dipping vegetables, trim the fresh stalks and serve instead of celery. Chop those green leaves and add to your salad or as a last-minute garnish to a light soup.
Fresh baby bok choy won't be around for long - just a few more weeks. Like so many vegetables, it's best grown locally and eaten in season, so grab it while you can and invent some recipes of your own.
Eleanor Baron lives, gardens, cooks and writes in Concord. She stalks area farmers markets for fresh, in-season vegetables. Visit her blog at nourishingwords.net for more ideas and inspiration on incorporating healthy habits into your life.