BY BARBARA KOBSAR AND CHERYL ANGELINA KOEHLER
At this time of year, 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. If the hand-drawn signs say bok choy, choy sum, gai lan, gai choy, mizuna, or tatsoi, you’ll be looking at Asian varieties of the Brassicas that were discussed in our last issue of Edible East Bay. They’re still in season now and for much of the year, and they all make wonderful additions to any Asian-style stir-fry dish, while the more tender varieties will add a peppery flavor to your salads. In this issue, we want to take a look at some of the items you may find sitting alongside those Brassicas at the farm stalls manned by Hmong, Lao, or Mien farmers who come up from Fresno with their wares. Most of these farmers arrived in California as political refugees between 1978 and 1998, escaping the destruction wrought on Southeast Asia by the Vietnam War. These groups have been lauded as especially capable farmers here in the U.S., bringing up productivity in an era when small family farms were 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. They have found that selling directly to their customers at farmers markets has been the best way to keep their farm profitable.
Crops like bok choy and lettuce greens are grown yearround at Mee Vang Farm, but in this season, you’ll also find 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, green onion, or green peppers. 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 or bundled and added to stews and stocks. True aficionados of lemongrass infuse it in hot water and drink it like tea. Some say it relieves stomachache. It’s sometimes referred to as “fever grass.”
As the weather warms and we have visions of what we would like to add to the garden, consider lemongrass; it 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 will be selling 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 (or infamous) poi, and has been a dietary staple food in Oceania for centuries. The root turns somewhat nuttytasting 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.”
On a visit to the Newark Farmers Market, we were pleased to find fresh ginger root (Zingiber officinale) being sold by the Hmong farmers from Yee Vue Farm in Fresno. Prior to finding it there, we had mis takenly assumed that most ginger on the market is imported from Asia. The sweet and hot flavor of fresh ginger is much prized in Asian cooking, where it’s usually grated for use in stir-fries. (Western traditions use it more in its dry form as a baking spice.) Ginger can be grown in the East Bay, and it makes a nice ornamental planting, offering up an alluring scent when it flowers in August. You can simply plant a piece of ginger root in your garden and watch it sprout. When the stalks die back in winter, pull up a piece of root for use in the kitchen.
Early spring is not time for harvesting cucurbits (gourds, melons, and cucumbers) in Northern California, but farmers coming up from Fresno are able to grow them for late harvesting, and many of these items stay fresh for long periods in storage. Look for some hearty winter squash, often cut into smaller pieces that you can take home and cook as if they were pumpkin, and also pieces of the large, waxy-skinned winter melon that you might recall seeing carved with beautiful designs and used as a tureen to hold a traditional Chinese winter melon 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. Sauteed chunks of this bland melon are also nice for adding a crisp texture to stir-fries.
You’re also likely to find 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 (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, and 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.
When you’re at the market and see tangled heaps of tender green tendrils, be sure to grab a bundle of them. They are snow pea shoots (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon) and they’re only around for a short time in the spring. You’ll notice their delicate pea flavor when you use them raw in salads, but they can also take some light frying or steaming.
For some great recipes using pea shoots, check out the Spring 2008 issue of Edible East Bay online at edibleeastbay.com, or get a hard copy with your back-issue order (see subscription form on page 7). •
Seven Stars of the spring Season
Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month.
Here are Jessica’s seven best bets for the spring season. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com
Nettles: The spring tonic par excellence! Make into a soup or pesto (puréeing deactivates the sting), or a frittata with feta cheese; or boil in water and drink the liquid as a tea. Look for them from County Line Farm, La Tercera, or Four Sisters Farm at Berkeley Farmers’ Markets, or grow them yourself (Spiral Gardens in South Berkeley has starts) in an easy-to-water, out-of-the-way patch where unsuspecting passersby won’t be stung.
Asparagus: Committed locavores eat asparagus in spring until they are sick of it, then don’t eat it again until it returns the following year.
Pastured eggs: Woe to the egg-lover in late autumn and winter, but now rejoice! The days are getting longer and the hens are laying again . . . Make some hollandaise for those asparagus spears.
Rhubarb: Contrary to popular belief, rhubarb doesn’t need strawberries to taste good. Try making a plain old rhubarb pie. Or better yet, branch out and try a Persian lamb and rhubarb stew!
Garlic Scapes: Not enough farmers are offering these delectable stems of the garlic plant. Go bug your favorite
Then buy them and eat them sautéed with butter, salt, and pepper, or add them to stir-fries or soup, or use your imagination!
Fresh Fava Beans: I know, I know—they’re so much work! But here’s the thing: they’re worth it. Buy at least one bag this spring and instead of meeting a friend for coffee, invite the friend to your house and sit together, shelling and peeling, while you catch up. Then sauté the beans in olive oil, heap them on toast, and enjoy them together.
Kumquats: Eat them whole, skin and all—don’t make a fool of yourself like I did the first time I was offered
Jessica Prentice is the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection and co-founder of Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen in Berkeley threestonehearth.com
recipes from our asian grandmothers
The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook by Patricia Tanumihardja, Sasquatch Books, Seattle 2009 If this gorgeous cookbook fulfills the author’s quest for extended family, we are all the beneficiaries! The warm-hearted profiles of 10 seasoned cooks add a rich personal history to the recipes. Each of the profiles is displayed on a beautiful background motif representative of the country whose cooking tradition is featured. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Laotian, Korean, and Filipino cuisines are covered, as well as the inevitable mingling that happens through family migration around the globe.
Planning on Planting?
Maya Shiroyama, the current owner of Oakland’s nearly century-old Kitazawa Seed Company, suggests that an easy way to introduce unfamiliar Asian vegetables into your meals is to substitute Asian greens in your favorite recipes that use spinach or chard. Now is a good time for gardeners to plant those greens and other cool-season, year-round crops.
Barbara Kobsar is a home economist and 20-year veteran journalist who promotes the enjoyment of in-season produce. She has also authored two cookbooks focusing on traditional home-cooked meals using local produce. She spends part of every week at the East Bay farmers markets scoping out fresh produce. When not roaming the produce aisles she is behind her market stand selling Cottage Kitchen jams and pepper jellies she makes from produce from the farmers markets. Contact her at email@example.com.
Cheryl Angelina Koehler is the editor of Edible East Bay and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org