Monday, January 09, 2006

Gai lan three ways

My dislike of broccoli was crystallized in one of my earliest memories, a memory that has turned into a favorite story to tell and retell. I was in nursery school and it was lunchtime. The teacher went around to serve us our meals. When she got to me, she asked me if I wanted "a big tree or a little tree," while offering a selection of broccoli. I replied that I preferred not to have any trees at all. Unfortunately, this was not an acceptable answer. I remember that I was sent to sit in the corner for the rest of the afternoon because of my insubordination, but to be honest, that memory may refer to a punishment for a different transgression that just got matched up with the broccoli showdown. The brain can be funny that way.

In any case, I hate broccoli and have for a very long time. Both the taste and the consistency turn me off. I was a picky eater in childhood, and broccoli was only one on a long list of disliked food items. Mushrooms. Lima beans. Peas. Collard greens. Okra. I have come to reevaluate mushrooms in adulthood, but I think part of that is becoming familiar with different types of mushrooms such as shiitakes, porcinis and tree ears. Broccoli remains on the no-go list, however, along with lima beans. This summer, I had peas fresh off the vine from my garden and realized that they really were so much better than other peas, like every gardener says. Collard greens and okra are yet to be officially reevaluated, but that day will probably come soon.

Chinese cooking boasts an assortment of cabbages and bitter mustard greens. One of these is variously called Chinese broccoli, Chinese kale, gai lan or kai lan. Perfect Tommy loves the stuff, singing its praises when it's served in a simple stir-fry. After hearing him rhapsodize, I grudgingly agreed that I would try gai lan at least once. After all, it wasn't exactly the same as regular broccoli. Maybe there would be some subtle difference in its taste that would make it acceptable to this broccoli-hater.

I recently got a new cookbook called Shiok! by Terry Tan and Christopher Tan. Shiok! is a big colorful paperback dedicated to Singaporean cooking; it contains a panoply of recipes showing the cross-cultural fusion cooking that is the culinary heritage of Singapore. When I came across a recipe called "Stir-fried Beef with Kai Lan," I knew what I had to do. I bought a bunch of gai lan from the Asian supermarket, thawed some stir-fry sirloin and prepared to do battle.

The first way was to follow the cookbook. Mix the beef with two teaspoons each of cornstarch and light Chinese soy sauce, and one and a half tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine. This is a marinade, but there are no cookbook notes on letting the beef sit in the solution, so do what you will; I mixed it up and threw the beef into the skillet. Fry some garlic and ginger in oil, then add the beef and stir-fry for a minute. Add the gai lan and stir-fry for two more minutes. Then add one and a half tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine, two tablespoons of oyster sauce, one tablespoon of sesame oil, a teaspoon of black pepper and four tablespoons of water. Stir-fry until the sauce thickens, then serve.

It was pretty good, but the gai lan was bitter. In cooking terms, it behaved much like spinach because the expanse of leaves quickly cooked down to a fraction of the volume it had started with. The next evening I served the leftover gai lan and remaining sauce (the beef was taken care of pretty quickly) with jasmine rice. Good, again, but the gai lan was still bitter. So I finally tackled the leftover gai lan and rice with the Thai fried rice recipe from Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (another new cookbook treat). Yes, the gai lan was bitter, again.

While driving up to The Lurker's for a weekend birding trip (more on that later), I told Perfect Tommy about my gai lan experience. He mentioned parboiling the gai lan to remove the bitterness. I guess I'll have to try that next time.

One's friends can lead one so astray. A food my parents never could have gotten me to eat in childhood becomes worthy of the benefit of the doubt because a friend (long after childhood) recommends it. I don't know if that's scary or fitting.


Crazy Gaijin said...

Hey there - I have tagged you for the "5 cooking challenges for 2006" meme. Check out my blog for details....

Cooking in Japan

Winslow said...


Thanks! This will require a little thought, but I'm sure I can come up with five.