Stir-fried lettuce may not seem like much, but the Cantonese term for lettuce, "sang choi," sounds like the Chinese words for "growing fortune." Expect to see this humble dish on many tables in the Year of the Dragon, which started last week.
You can feel lucky year-round with greens cooked the Chinese way: fast, simply, deliciously. And don't forget the nutrients. Greens are good-for-you foods, especially when quick cooking locks in vitamins and nutrients.
Stir-frying is the technique that gives any greens, Eastern or Western, that sought-after Asian seared taste and aroma, says Grace Young, author of "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge" and other cookbooks.
"The magic is in the use of high heat, little oil and a few minutes cooking," she says.
>Simple Lettuce Stir-fry
This recipe is so easy Grace Young dictated it over the telephone from New York City. She prefers romaine lettuce for this dish, believing it has more flavor, is more nutritious and has an innate sweetness. Many cooks use bite-sized pieces of iceberg lettuce for the crunch. Young's recipe is a template for cooking all sorts of Chinese greens; adjust cooking times to reach proper doneness. Accent with dried shrimp, chilies, oyster sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce or grated ginger or bell peppers. Makes 4 servings.
Prep: Cut 1 medium head romaine lettuce into 1-inch wide bands to make about 10 cups, or tear into bite-sized pieces; wash, drain thoroughly. Heat wok over high heat.
Stir-fry: Swirl in 2 tablespoons oil. Stir-fry 3 smashed cloves garlic until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add romaine all at once. Sprinkle in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black or white pepper. Stir-fry until the leaves just begin to wilt, about 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon each: chicken broth, soy sauce, dry sherry. Stir-fry until lettuce is just wilted, 1 minute. Drizzle with 1 or 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil.
>Stir-fried Napa Cabbage
This recipe from Kenneth Lo's "The Top One Hundred Chinese Dishes" calls for dried shrimp, which add a pungently distinctive taste and texture; purchase at Asian groceries. You may substitute 3 or 4 small fresh shrimp (for color) and 1 tablespoon fish sauce (for salty pungency). Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Prep: Cut a 1-pound napa cabbage into 2-inch slices. Soak 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons dried shrimp in hot water, 10 minutes; drain. (Skip step if using fresh shrimp.)
Stir-fry: Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a wok or large saucepan on medium heat. When hot, add a 1/2 -inch piece ginger, shredded, shrimp (either dried or fresh) and the fish sauce, if using. Stir over medium heat, 1 1/2 minutes. Add cabbage; sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and stir-fry, 1 1/2 minutes. Add 4 teaspoons soy sauce; stir-fry, 1 1/2 minutes.
>Know your greens
*Bok choy: Mild, white-stalked vegetable. Use in salads, stir-fries, braises, soups. There are dozens of bok choy varieties, including baby bok choy (smaller, more delicate) and Shanghai bok choy (spoonlike pale-green stalks).
*Chinese broccoli: Similar in appearance to broccoli rabe; has firm, asparaguslike stems prized for their crunchy texture, dark-green leaves and tight white flower buds. Sometimes blanched before being stir-fried; often paired with oyster sauce. Aka: Chinese kale, gai lan.
*Chinese mustard cabbage: Long, broad leaves atop ribbed stalks are strongly flavored, bitter. Used fresh but usually seen salted and preserved. Used in soups, braises, stir-fries. Aka: gai choy or mustard greens.
*Napa cabbage: Crinkly leaves, delicate taste. Very versatile: Use for dumplings, soups, stir-fries, braises; raw in salads, pickled as relishes. Aka: Chinese cabbage, Peking cabbage.
*Water spinach: Hollow stems almost a foot long are a hallmark of this vegetable. Triangular green leaves. Use in stir-fries and soups.
*Yu choi: Long stems, dark-green leaves, yellow flowers, tangy mustardlike flavor. Serve steamed, stir-fried or in soups. Aka: choi sum, choy sum, yow choy, yau choi, oil vegetable, Chinese flowering cabbage.
*Sources: Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, "The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion"; Grace Young, "Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge"; Ken Hom, "Complete Chinese Cookbook"; Bruce Cost, "Asian Ingredients"; Deh-Ta Hsiung, "The Chinese Kitchen."
>Steps to tasty greens
The ideal would be having Young herself guide you through a leafy stir-fry from grocery shopping to cleaning up the wok. Here, instead, we offer the New York City-based cookbook author's step-by-step tips for what to do.
Choose flowering greens with tight buds. Open flowers equals aging produce.
Avoid greens with yellow leaves or blemishes.
Check the stems and avoid any with holes. The smaller stem the better for Chinese broccoli.
Wrap greens in paper towels and refrigerate in plastic bags up to three or four days. Water spinach and snow pea shoots deteriorate quickly; use that day, if possible.
Get rid of all grit and sand. Cut the bottom 1/4 to 1/2 inch off the base, separate stalks and plunge into several changes of cold water.
Dry washed greens thoroughly, using a salad spinner or kitchen towel. Wet greens will lower the wok temperature, turning stir-frying into stewing. Greens should feel almost dry to the touch before using.
Heat a wok (a 14-inch, flat-bottomed, carbon-steel wok is ideal for home ranges) until it is hot enough to vaporize a bead of water within 1 or 2 seconds.
High cooking heat demands a cooking oil that can withstand high temperatures. Use an oil like peanut or canola. Do not use olive oil; it smokes at too low a temperature for proper stir-frying. Toasted sesame oil isn't for high heat cooking but is a flavor accent.
After cooking, soak the wok in hot water for at least 5 minutes. Wash with a sponge; avoid soap to preserve the wok's patina. Dry on the stove over low heat 1 to 2 minutes.