By Barbara Kobsar and Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Illustrations by Zina Deretsky
When the popular summer crops, such as corn, beans, and tomatoes are nowhere in sight, our East Bay farmers’ markets are overflowing with leafy greens. Hand-drawn signs that say bok choy, choy sum, gai lan, gai choy, mizuna, or tatsoi indicate Asian members of the mustard family, which are in season now and for much of the year. They all make wonderful additions to any Asian-style stir-fry dish, and more tender varieties can add a peppery flavor to your salads.
These items are likely to be grown by Hmong, Lao, or Mien farmers, many of whom arrived in California as political refugees between 1978 and 1998, escaping the destruction wrought on Southeast Asia by the Vietnam War. Especially capable farmers, they have brought up productivity in an era when small family farms had been in perilous decline across our nation. One of the Laotian farmers we have gotten to know at the Walnut Creek market is Mee Vang, who settled in Fresno in 1994 to farm with her husband Zang and their two sons. Selling directly to their customers at farmers’ markets has been the best way to keep their farm profitable.
On a visit to the Newark Farmers’ Market, we were pleased to find fresh ginger root (Zingiber officinale). The sweet and hot flavor of fresh ginger is much prized in Asian cooking, where it’s usually grated for use in stir-fries. Ginger can be grown in the East Bay, and it makes a nice ornamental planting, exuding an alluring scent when it flowers in August.
Don’t miss the fragrant, citrusy stalks of lemongrass (Cymbopogon). This tall perennial grass is native to Southeast Asia, and grows in clumps reaching up to six feet in height, but usually shows up at the market as two-foot-long stalks with small bulbous bases. Lemongrass imparts a lemon-like taste and aroma that partners well with seafood. Prepare it by peeling off the outer layers of the fresh stalks and trimming any roots. The lower four to six inches of the stalks are the least fibrous and mildest tasting. Mince the inner portion to add to sauces or use in combination with ginger, garlic, and green onion. Finely minced lemongrass is like lemon zest, only better (to some palates, at least). Tougher upper portions of the grass may be chopped and added to marinades, bundled and added to stews and stocks, or infused it in hot water to make a tea that some say relieves stomachache. Sometimes referred to as “fever grass.” Lemongrass is fairly easy to grow. Look for a stalk that shows some sign of roots and stand it in water. After the roots develop, the stalk is ready for a large pot full of sandy soil in an outdoor spot that captures the sun.
You may notice large, thick stalks of another grass for sale at Mee Vang’s and other stands. It’s sugar cane (Saccharum), a perennial grass from Southeast Asia that grows in Southern California as well. You would be hard pressed to turn it into sugar at home, since the milling and refining process is fairly complex, but don’t hesitate to buy a piece and chew on it for a sweet treat!
Several farmers at our markets sell taro root (Colocasia esculenta) at this time of year, and it’s something nice to try when potatoes seem a little ho-hum. This tuber is the main component of the Hawaiians’ famous poi, and has been a dietary staple food in Oceania for centuries. The root turns somewhat nutty-tasting after cooking—and it does need to be cooked, as some varieties are toxic when raw. It can be boiled, fried, baked, and simmered in soups and stews. Our vegetarian friends tell us that cooked taro root is a delicious addition to salads and a key ingredient in taro burgers. It contains lots of protein, calcium, and phosphorus, and is easy to digest. Taro root can grow to a foot long or more, but the roots brought to market are generally only three to six inches long. The root has a hairy outer coating, somewhat like the shell of a coconut. This must be peeled away, and since the root secretes juices that can be irritating, you might want to put on protective gloves, at which point you may begin muttering, “potatoes would have been easier.”
At the farmers’ markets this season, you’re likely to find various curcubita, since they stay fresh for long periods in storage. Look for the large, waxy-skinned winter melon. You might recall seeing it carved with beautiful designs and used as a tureen to hold a traditional Chinese soup. For an easy winter melon soup, simmer peeled, diced chunks of melon in homemade chicken stock along with chopped fresh shitake mushrooms. Add some crabmeat and chopped cilantro, and flavor with a little rice vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Sautéed chunks of this bland melon are also nice for adding a crisp texture to stir-fries.
Other melons and gourds you may find include chi qua, an immature winter melon with irritating hairs that give it the name “hairy melon”; sin qua, a ridged gourd sometimes called angled luffa, silk gourd, or Chinese okra; and opo, which is long with smooth skin. All are rather bland, but as we learned from Ying Lee Vang, a Laotian farmer from Fresno who sells at the Newark and Berkeley farmers’ markets, they are good at absorbing the strong flavors of Asian cooking such as garlic, ginger, and lime juice. Another of these gourds, the bitter melon, which looks like a wrinkled and warty cucumber, is not an entry-level food item for most Westerners, due to its astringent taste. Dark green bitter melons tend to be less bitter, but blanching or salting the flesh helps to bring down the bite. Slice the melon lengthwise, then remove the seeds and surrounding white substance before stuffing with pork or seafood. A traditional Asian preparation combines steamed bitter melon with pork, onions, ginger, and black bean sauce.
You can find many enticing recipes using Asian vegetables in Recipes from our Asian Grandmothers. Click here to read our review with two recipes you can try now.
Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who has authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. When not roaming the farmers market produce aisles, she is behind her stand selling Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies, which she makes from produce from the farmers markets. Contact her at cotkitchen(at)aol.com.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay and can be reached at editor(at)edibleeastbay.com