Over on the Bay Area board, we've been having some lively threads about a delicious green vegetable that I experienced for the first time at a Cantonese restaurant in Pleasant Hill in the East Bay. It's a lettuce-like plant, native to Taiwan, which was originally used to feed the geese before people discovered how tasty it could be when stir-fried. And tasty it is. The only green vegetable I enjoy more is pea shoots (aka pea vines aka pea sprouts), which are better than any green vegetable has a right to be. But the A vegetable is nearly as good. You have long leaves, with a savory and very slightly bitter green leaf surrounding a delicate thin central leaf stem. Raw, it's like a mild lettuce. Stir-fried with some garlic, it takes on much more character.
No one has come up with any more of an English name than "The A vegetable." It's also known as "A choy" and, at one store around here, "Taiwan Lettuce." It's in season now, conveniently coming into season around the time that the good pea shoots are on the way out.
I've done Chinese cooking for a while now, so when a friend offered to bring me a load of it, straight from Chinatown, I jumped at the chance. I stir-fried about 8 batches, varying the conditions, and am ready to report what I found.
- A choy is very sensitive. Overcook it, and it turns slimy and unpalatable, like overcooked spinach, with those wonderful leaf stems turning limp and soggy instead of delicately crunchy. You can see it reducing drastically in volume, and turning a darker green, as you cook it, and the time it stops reducing, is the time to get it out of the pan in a hurry.
- A choy requires vigorous stir-fry technique. When you start out, you have a lot of vegetable in the pan, and it's necessary to move it around a lot, so it all gets exposed to the hot oil evenly, so it all gets done about the same time.
- A choy has a great affinity for garlic. The batches I made without garlic are much less interesting than the batches with. A friend tried using ginger, and reports that the ginger overwhelms the delicate flavor of the A choy.
- It matters when you add the salt. Add it too early, and the leaves give up too much moisture and become thinner, less juicy, more lettuce-like, and less fun to chew. It's a subtle point, but to me it is a meaningful one.
As with broccoli, the stems cook more slowly than the leaves. I addressed this by slicing the stems into strips, and adding them to the pan first. The stems soak up oil, which leaves a tradeoff between adding extra oil and making the dish oily, versus having no oil in the pan to cook the garlic. I addressed this in two ways: (1) I used an amount of oil, 2 tablespoons, that left me with just a little bit not absorbed, and (2) I sliced the garlic thin, rather than chopping it. This worked very well. Chop garlic too fine, and it will burn or become too sharp in oil that is hot enough to deal with a vegetable that is throwing off a lot of water. Chop it more coarsely, and you have a choice between burned outsides, and raw-garlic-tasting insides. Slicing thin, as touted in the "Goodfellas" movie, really works to get around all of these problems and give a mild, tasty result that is not critically dependent on oil volume or temperature.
You will probably be using a wok, which is a good choice. It was a good choice for me, too, until I moved into an apartment with a wimpy gas stove. What I do now is use a non-stick evasee, a sort of large, deep fry pan with a rounded bottom edge. It presents more surface area down where the heat is, and therefore makes the most of my limited BTUs. The other thing I do is heat the pan for minutes on end until very hot (see recipe), to gather up stored heat as a way of compensating for the relative tepidness of the flame.
Some will be horrified by the inclusion of MSG in the following recipe, optional or not. I rarely use MSG in my cooking (I'm still on a small container of Accent that I bought about 15 years ago), but every now and then, it seems like the right thing to do. In this case, I made batches with, and batches without, and darned if the batches with a touch of MSG weren't tastier, fuller in the mouth, and irresistible enough that I couldn't stop eating them. Make your own choice, of course. I suspect that even top restaurants often slip it in there. I've read that some restaurants that claim not to use MSG, in fact use "chicken essence" or some other hydrolysed protein product that is in fact mostly MSG.
In any case, here's the final result of my experiment, a recipe that I won't claim to be optimal, but which, for my taste, does justice to this tasty green vegetable. Thoughts and suggestions welcomed.
Stir-fried A Choy
10 oz A choy
2 cloves garlic
1/4 t salt (I use Diamond Kosher)
1/8 t MSG (optional)
2 T peanut oil
Wash and drain the A choy. Trim off the very end of the stems, and cut them off, just above the point where they branch into many leaves (this is about 1/2" -1" above the base, depending on the size of the bunch). Slice each stem lengthwise, into square-cross-section strips about the width of the business end of a Chinese chopstick. Keep the stems separate. Slice the rest of the A choy crosswise into 2" pieces. Slice the garlic very thin.
Heat a pan over high heat until very hot. I use an infrared thermometer to measure surface temperature, and it reads about 375-400 degrees when the pan is ready. Add the oil, swirl it to heat, and throw in the stems. Stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the garlic slices. Stir-fry until soft and fragrant but not at all browned, then throw in the leaves. Stir-fry very thoroughly and continuously, exposing all of the A choy to the hot oil as evenly as you can. When you see the first signs of it darkening, sprinkle in the salt and (optional) MSG. Continue to stir-fry until the vegetable is all darkened in color and has stopped noticeably reducing in volume, then get it out of the pan, quickly.