Chinese cabbage a treat, not a chore

June 05, 1994|By William Rice | William Rice,Chicago Tribune

Its admirable nutritional content aside (lots of vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber), the green cabbage remains much unloved, a nerd among vegetables. Cabbage can be wonderful, but this possibility is emphatically rejected by those who have come to dislike the unpleasant odor of boiled-to-death cabbage or the extremes of its texture -- coarse, when tough outer leaves are chopped up for a slaw, or watery and slimy, when left too long on a steam table.

So instead of trying to change your minds, I'll try to change your focus: On your next shopping trip, consider a Chinese cabbage. (In some ways this is less taxing to do in an American supermarket than in an Oriental food shop. Why? Because you won't be faced by too many choices or be confused by the plethora of their Chinese names.)

The Chinese family of mild greens is divided into two groups, depending on whether it's the leaves or the flowering shoots that are eaten. Chinese broccoli, for instance, is in the flowering-shoots category. The best-known in the leafy group are the "headed" (as opposed to "loose-headed") cabbage and bok choy, which is also known as pak choy. ("Cabbage" is bok choy in Cantonese and bai cai in Mandarin.)

The headed cabbage -- such as the barrel-shaped Shandong bai cai we call "napa" or the cylindrical Tianjin bai cai we call "Chinese cabbage" -- is the best substitute for green cabbage. ++ Bok choy is considered here as well because it is so delicious.

Try these cabbages in the following preparations or consult Chinese or California cookbooks.

Smoked shrimp and napa cabbage salad

Makes 6 main course or 12 appetizer servings

1 1/2 -pound head napa cabbage, core removed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 large cucumber (12 ounces), peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut crosswise into thin slices

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut lengthwise into very thin strips

8 green onions, the white and about half of the green portion, sliced thin on a bias

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1 to 2 teaspoons hot-pepper sauce, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

L 4 ounces sugar snap peas or snow peas, cut in half crosswise

4 ounces fresh bean sprouts

8 ounces smoked shrimp, scallops or mussels

In a large bowl, combine cabbage, cucumber, bell pepper and half the sliced green onions.

In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, hot-pepper sauce, five-spice powder, ginger and soy sauce. Whisk until thoroughly blended.

Ten to 15 minutes before serving, spoon mayonnaise dressing over cabbage mixture and toss. Spoon onto plates, spreading mixture to cover each plate.

Just before serving, heat a wok or large saute pan over high heat. Add the oil, the remaining green onions and garlic and toss until onion wilts. Add the sugar snaps and bean sprouts and stir-fry for 45 seconds. Add the smoked shrimp and toss, only to warm, an additional 30 seconds.

Spoon stir-fried shrimp and vegetables over cabbage and serve at once.

Stuffed Chinese cabbage leaves

Makes 4 servings

8 large Chinese cabbage leaves

1 small onion, chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium-size red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

1 handful stoned black olives

1/2 cup cooked rice

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Plunge the cabbage leaves into boiling salted water and blanch for 1 minute. Remove, drain and pat dry.

To make the stuffing, toss the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon oil in a wok or frying pan over medium heat. Add the chopped pepper, olives, cooked rice, ginger, salt and pepper. Stir well until warmed through.

Lay out leaves. Divide the stuffing among the leaves, leaving the edges clear. Turn in the sides of each leaf, roll like a cigar and tie with fine twine.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a saucepan or wok that will hold the leaves in a single layer. Gently turn the stuffed leaves, one at a time, in the oil, then lay them all in the pan. Add water to come halfway up the leaves, the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Bring liquid to a boil, cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Carefully remove the stuffed leaves from the pan to plates or a platter. Cut and remove the twine before serving with pork chops or roast pork.

E9 (Adapted from "Oriental Vegetables," by Joy Larkcorn)

Bok choy and potato soup

Makes 4 servings

1 potato (about 10 ounces)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/3 chopped green onion

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon dried Thai seasoning

1 head bok choy (about 12 ounces), cut crosswise into 3-inch lengths

1 tablespoon Thai minced turnip

14 ounces canned chicken broth or stock

2 pieces (3 inches each) lemon grass (optional)

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

garlic chili-pepper sauce (optional condiment)

Wash and scrub potato. Cut in half and boil in lightly salted water until soft. Reserve 10 ounces cooking water; peel and dice potato. Reserve. (This step may be done ahead.)

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