Universal Chinese Greens
Part 2 – Braising
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Welcome to part two in the three-part installment on “Universal” methods for cooking Chinese greens. If you missed part one and you’re wondering what this is all about, click here to read more. The cooking method we’re looking at today may not be quite as exciting or dynamic as stir-frying, but it has one big advantage over its more famous cousin: it’s basically fool-proof. If you can mix liquids, and you can set a timer, then you can braise your veggies.
Unlike stir-frying, which requires a fair bit of care and preparation, braising requires only that you prepare a good braising liquid and that you know how long to cook your vegetables for. These two factors are pretty straightforward, but we’ll run them down in some detail just to be sure.
Your braising liquid is going to be the primary source of flavour in your dish, but it should still allow the sweetness and natural flavour of the vegetables to shine through. Oddly enough, one of the most common mistakes is to make the braising liquid too flavourful. Chinese sauces and flavouring ingredients often pack a serious punch, and using too much of any one ingredient can leave a meal overwhelmingly salty, and render the vegetable effectively invisible. The biggest factor to consider is soy sauce. Even though most of us are quite familiar with it, we forget just how powerful the raw taste of soy sauce is. The braising liquid for this basic recipe is very dark, and it certainly looks like it has a lot of soy sauce in it, but the reality is that relatively small amount of dark soy sauce (which is used in this and many other braising recipes) is extremely strong in colour. Ultimately, your braising liquid should be mostly water or stock. If you do use stock, try to use something low in salt, as the soy sauce contributes a lot. Sugar is another common addition, as it mellows the soy sauce and brings out the flavour of the vegetables. If spices are added, be sure to add them with care; some Chinese spices (especially cassia and star anise) can contribute a lot of flavour very quickly. If you’re not cautious, you can easily overdo it.
While you want to make sure your braising liquid is well-balanced, you’ll need to take the vegetable into account too. Some vegetables release a lot of water while braising, which will water down the braising liquid and mellow the flavours. Others don’t reduce down quite as much, leaving the liquid more concentrated. As a general rule, thick-stemmed greens, bok choy, and Chinese cabbage won’t release a lot of water, while very leafy greens like spinach and amaranth will release more. If you’re concerned about the greens giving up too much liquid, you can wilt them in a pan first or even blanch them (though if you do, you’ll want to drain them well before transferring to the braising liquid).
Cooking time is a fairly simple consideration. Thick stemmed vegetables like gai lan will take the longest to cook (though the leaves may cook too quickly – consider adding them separately). Medium-stemmed vegetables like choy sum and bok choy will take a moderate amount of time to cook. Very leafy vegetables like spinach or amaranth will cook extremely quickly. In this particular recipe, I used tatsoi (rosette bok choy), which is similar to bok choy, though a little leafier. After the initial one minute of cooking, it cooked for an additional 3-4 minutes.
One of the best things about this kind of braising is that it doesn’t require any special tools. You can do it in a wok, but any pot or deep pan will work perfectly. If you’re not in the mood to take a shot at stir-frying, or you’ve had trouble getting a hot enough wok or pan, braising is a great way to get authentic Chinese flavours without much difficulty. You don’t get the wok hei flavour, and the end result is certainly more sauce-oriented, but both methods work beautifully with the same kinds of greens. Because braising is a lower heat method, I will say that it’s better suited to tender veggies. Root vegetables and thick stems generally work better in stir-fried dishes, as they retain their texture better.
Braising has always been my go-to for a quick, low-maintenance Chinese green, but part three in this series looks at a more spectacular and impressive (but no less delicious) method. This final technique for cooking greens (well, final for me – there are others of course) is a bit time sensitive method, but it’s always worthwhile. Click here to learn all about it.
This particular recipe doesn’t need a lot of explanation, but make sure that you consider the cooking time and texture of the vegetable carefully if you decide to modify it.
As mentioned above, the soy sauce is not meant to drown the dish, but to accent the existing flavours. Too much soy sauce or other salt is a very common mistake. If you’re in the mood to experiment a little bit, there are some options that you can play with. You’ll notice that many of these are similar to the tricks and tips from stir-frying in part one; there’s a lot of overlap in the flavouring methods being used here.
– Alcohol – I left it out of this particular recipe because I wanted to pare things down to the very basics, but a little bit of Chinese wine (Shaoxing or a simple rice wine) can add punch and mellow out the soy sauce a little and give a nice flavourful kick to the braising liquid. Try a teaspoon added to the soy and sugar.
– Spice – white pepper and Sichuan pepper are classic additions to any number of Chinese dishes. I particularly like the numbing, lemony-pine taste that Sichuan peppercorns contribute to a dish. Five-spice powder is another excellent ingredient, but use it judiciously, as a little goes a very long way. This recipe uses star anise, but only two small blades from an entire star anise pod. More than that and you’re likely to have a hard timing noticing anything but the anise flavour.
– Soy alternatives – there are several soy-based sauces that pack a lot of flavour, including oyster sauce and hoisin sauce. Both are excellent, but be especially careful with hoisin sauce as too much of it can make a dish overly sweet. Consider replacing a portion of the soy sauce, rather than all of it. Oyster sauce in particular is a very popular sauce for braising methods.
– Ginger – I left ginger out of this particular basic recipe, but 1 inch (2.5 cm) piece, thinly sliced and added to the braising liquid, will add a wonderful flavour that works nicely with both the soy and the garlic.
– Other vegetables -you don’t have to limit yourself to green veggies here, but choose other ingredients carefully. Many root vegetables won’t cook particularly evenly without becoming mushy, while peppers and sprouts can become a little insipid in the the watery braising liquid. Celery works fairly well, and makes an inexpensive, easy variation.
As for the green vegetable itself, I used tatsoi (rosette bok choy) for this particular version. It tastes a lot like bok choy, though it may have a slightly more noticeable mustard flavour, but it’s a great, relatively neutral ingredient. What makes it distinct from bok choy is the shape of the heads and the length of the stems. The individual stalks, which have thin and tender stems, grow together to form a large bunch. You could easily use any number of Chinese greens including bok choy, choy sum, pea tips, and more, though I will say that I think the best results come from relatively leafy greens. Make sure you’re comfortable with what makes the various vegetables different, as it may affect your cooking times or ingredients a little bit. If you’re unsure, check out the Diversivore Ingredient Pages.
Make sure that you use a large enough pot to hold all of the greens before they’ve wilted down. They will reduce in size substantially, but you want to make sure you can trap them all under a lid to begin with.
Dark soy sauce is different from regular (light) soy sauce, and it’s worth searching out for dishes like this, as the deep black-brown colour goes a long way. Interestingly though, it doesn’t impact the taste much more or less than light soy sauce, so if you haven’t got any of the dark variety, you can still make do. I’ve indicated that this is can be a gluten-free dish, though this will depend on your soy sauce. If in doubt, use tamari in place of the dark soy sauce, as it will definitely be gluten- and wheat-free.
Note that adding corn starch to the end product is optional, but I like how it helps the sauce cling to the green stems.
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Braising is a great way to capture the essential flavours typical of good Chinese vegetables (especially leafy greens) without the hassle of stir-frying. This basic recipe features tatsoi (or bok choy) and a classic, easy braising liquid.
- 450 g tatsoi or spinach, or another Chinese leafy green
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 3/4 cup water see note
- 1-2 blades star anise see note
- 1 tbsp peanut oil or other neutral oil
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tsp corn starch
Wash and the greens and set them aside. If you're using tatsoi, bok choy, or choy sum, you can leave the stems whole or cut them into more manageable bites. If you're using a larger/tougher green like gai lan, slice the stems into relatively thin pieces to ensure that they cook evenly. If you're using a very leafy green like spinach or amaranth, leave it whole.
Combine the soy sauce, sugar, water and star anise (if using) and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large pot (large enough to hold all of the uncooked greens) over medium high heat. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the sauce from step 2 and bring to a boil.
Once the braising liquid is boiling, add the greens to the pot, cover, and cook for 1 minute over medium-high heat. Remove the lid and stir the wilted greens into the braise. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 4-5 minutes. If you're using a thick-stemmed green like gai lan, you may need to extend the cooking time. For a very soft leafy green like spinach, reduce the cooking time to 2-3 minutes.
Uncover and remove from heat. Combine the corn starch with just enough water to make a thick mixture, then pour into the braising liquid and stir. Let stand for 2-3 minutes to let the sauce set a bit, then serve the greens with some of the braising liquid.
If you use a particularly watery vegetable like spinach, you may wish to reduce the amount of water you start with to 2/3 cup, or even 1/2 cup for a more potent flavour.
"Blades" of star anise references individual segments from one single star anise pod. An entire pod will contribute a lot of anise flavour, so simple break off one or two of the little segments that make up the entire pod and use these.