Monday, November 11, 2013

As roses are to Pasadena, bok choy is to Shanghai

Few vegetable dishes are as emblematic of a region, much less a single city, as braised bok choy is in Shanghai. Part of this has to do with the vegetable itself, for bok choy is adored in this part of Jiangsu with an almost religious passion.

Another centers around the use of the character kào , which is rarely found in Chinese dictionaries, as it is local lingo for gently cooking something with a bit of liquid until it just gives up and turns absolutely tender.

And third is this use of soy sauce and sugar and oil in a vegetable side dish, but done in such a way that it is not superfluous, but rather deliberate and oh so delicious.
           
Kaocai is a standby in just about any restaurant that dares to lay claim to a Shanghainese chef in the kitchen. We would often find mustard greens (jiecai) used in Taipei when bok choy was not in season, and its gentle bitterness would be a great foil for the sweet/salty notes in the sauce. Of course, you should adjust the seasoning to fit the vegetable and your own predilections.

This is basically home cooking, so there are no hard and fast rules other than that the veggies should be tender and well-seasoned, served cool or at room temperature, and taste marvelous.

Large, crunchy bok choy
Braised bok choy
Kàocài 
Shanghai
Serves 4 to 6

1 or so pounds bok choy, mustard greens, or other flavorful, slightly bitter vegetable
2 tablespoons Green Onion Mingyou
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ cup unseasoned stock or filtered water

Extra Green Onion Mingyou and Fried Green Onions for garnish

1. Prepare this the day before you wish to serve it. Trim the vegetable into small, bite-sized pieces, and discard any tough stems or cores; if using baby bok choy, you may leave them whole or cut them in half. Clean them well, rinse, and drain.

2. Place the vegetables in a saucepan with the rest of the ingredients. Bring the pan to a boil and then cover tightly and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the vegetables covered for around 5 minutes, then uncover and stir. Cover and cook another 5 to 10 minutes or so until the vegetables are very tender. Taste and adjust seasoning; they should taste slightly over-seasoned since they will be served cold and the sweet and salty flavors will dull by then.

3. Let the vegetables come to room temperature, then place them and the sauce in a covered container and chill overnight.

4. Arrange the vegetables attractively in a serving dish. Drizzle the mingyou over the top and then scatter the fried onions over them. This can be served very cold or at room temperature.

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