While many lament the coming of winter and fallow kitchen gardens, I look forward to my favorite Chinese vegetables that are at their peak in cold weather. Pea shoots, winter melon, fresh shitake (winter mushroom), sugar snap peas, lotus roots, and the special kind of Chinese broccoli with white flowers. From the Winter Solstice to Chinese New Year, this prized variety of gai lan is available and at its best. The white-flowering type, bok fa gai lan, has more intense flavor and is more tender with less fibrous strings.
Last week in San Francisco Chinatown the vegetable stalls that had any were selling it for 99¢ to $1.39 per pound versus 69¢ for the yellow-flowering type. With so much rain this season, this years crop is of particularly high quality. Choose the bunches with stems that are about the diameter of medium-size asparagus bigger than that and theyre too tough, while thinner ones will be stringy. The flowers buds on the best quality stems will be small and not have opened yet. They will appear to be green. If you pinch them, youll see the white interior of the flower.
Be sure to ask for it at Chinese restaurants or buy some to cook at home before its gone for the year. My favorite way is the simplest - poached, drained well, and then drizzled with oyster sauce.