Food adventure day: Chinese broccoli
January 14th, 2013
02:00 PM ET
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Nearly two weeks into the year, most people's shiny, new resolutions have lost their luster. It's easy to slide back into comfortable old habits, routines and ruts, but we're here to combat that with a little personal challenge.

In my list of food resolutions for 2013, I suggested a monthly "Food Adventure Day," experimenting with an in-season ingredient you've never used before. They won't all be winners, but chances are that you'll end the year with at least a few new fruits or vegetables in the rotation.

As I wandered through Fei Long market in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, last week, stocking up on my usual baby bok choy, lotus root and taro, it occurred to me that while I've eaten countless bowls of take-out Chinese broccoli, I'd never actually cooked it at home. Into the basket it went.

flowering broccoli

This leafy brassica goes by a bounty of names around the globe: kai lan, gai lan, pak kana, Chinese broccoli, Chinese kale, mustard orchid and white flowering broccoli. By any of these, it's nutrient-dense, delicious, and incredibly easy to cook.

Chinese broccoli is high in calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, and it's packed with flavonoids, which have beneficial anti-inflammatory properties. That would be reason enough to gobble it down by the bushel, but legendary cookbook writer Nigel Slater upped the ante by dubbing it "possibly the most delicious of all the cabbage family" in his vegetable manifesto, "Tender". He blanches the leaves in boiling water, then dresses them in a slick of oyster sauce, ginger and garlic to be served over fluffy, white rice kissed with coriander.

The method I settled on after reading a few dozen articles and recipes is even more stripped down and highlights the earthy, nutty, slightly bitter flavor of the greens. Many people simply steam the leaves whole and incorporate them into stir-fries. I pre-heated the oven to 350°F, then rinsed a large bunch of leaves in a colander to remove any grit and patted them dry.

broccoli stems

Next, I used my fingers to strip the tender greens and flower buds from the sturdier stalks, then chopped the latter into short segments. I distributed those in an even layer on a baking tray, tossed them in a very light coat of sesame oil and kosher salt and put them in the hot oven. While they roasted, I repeated the same oil and salt treatment with the leaves, and after five minutes slid them in the oven alongside the stems. When the leaves and buds began to brown around the edges, I pulled out both trays, stirred the contents together in a bowl and served it alongside fried duck tongues and a wild duck I'd acquired on the same shopping trip. The combination was quacking fantastic.

The beauty of this method is that the separation allows the stems to soften, but maintain a bit of bite, while the tender leaves and buds crisp up without burning. It's also a wonderful canvas for spice, sauce and condiment experiments. Splash on some soy, black vinegar or ponzu, or sprinkle five spice, cumin or flakes and rounds of your favorite chile while it's cooking. Try it sauteed over simple pasta, treating it like you would broccolini (which is a hybrid of Chinese broccoli and the broccoli so many of us grew up hiding in our napkins) or broccoli rabe.

If you're a fan of raw kale and can handle the bitter bite, chop it into small pieces, stems and all, and add it to your favorite mix of winter salad greens. The only limit is your ability to find it at local market. Pan-Asian groceries are your best bet, and make sure to have a chat with vendors if you're lucky enough to have a farmers market that stays open at this time of year.

Look for fresh, full leaves, stalks that don't have a hard, white center, and buds with a bare minimum of flowering. And hey - if it's not to your liking, February brings fresh fennel and a billion ways to enjoy bok choy, March rings in especially excellent endive, and before you know it, it's lychee and jackfruit season. The world is your oyster plant. Open wide.

Got questions or excellent advice on enjoying Chinese broccoli? Both are quite welcome in the comments below.

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Blair

    frozen duck tongues are sold at our neighborhood asian market. check the one near you.....

    January 22, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  2. Paul

    January 18, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  3. Jez

    Most people don't realize that the vitamins in vegetables are killed in cooking. You only get the vitamins if the vegetable is raw. Think about it – that is why all vitamin pills say "store in a cool place". The minerals will stay in tact with cooking, but kiss the vitamins good-bye when you get the vegetable over 120 degrees, Fahrenheit.

    Kind of pathetic that a food contributor to CNN doesn't know this. Seriously, how DO these people get their jobs??

    January 17, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Kenny

      That's why I lightly 'blanched' them for only 30 sec. and drink the remaining broth as soup.

      January 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
    • Brian

      @Jez, the notion that cooking destroys vitamins is completely overblown. You may be confusing the fact that proteins (which are not vitamins) may get denatured when heated. (This is what causes an egg to firm up, for example.) But vitamins are NOT proteins, and do not generally undergo changes like this. Proteins denature because of their complex and delicate structure. However, even when a protein is denatured, the amino acids which make it up are fully available. Many reputable sites that deal with nutrition will show the difference in nutritive value between raw and cooked versions of foods, and these clearly show that there is no obliteration of vitamin content due to cooking. It would be really helpful if people would stop passing on food fads (like "raw" eating) as the truth.

      January 17, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
      • Paul

        Thank you, Brian. Just because something sounds kind of logical the first time you hear it on the internet doesn't mean it's the truth.

        January 18, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  4. Barbara

    This stuff is great! I'll agree that it is pretty much like any other green. Cooked mine up with some turmeric and ginger. As for the duck tongues, why not? Beef tongue is very tender and lean. Duck tongue might be something worth trying.

    January 17, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  5. Karen P.

    Flavenids? She obviously knows her foods, but spelling isn't exactly her strong point.

    It's flavonoids. You're welcome.

    January 17, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  6. jj

    The AFLAC duck is in the hospital with a beak injury. Related story?

    January 17, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  7. Steve

    Fried Duck Tongue????

    January 17, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  8. K Stassi


    January 17, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  9. Kenny

    Simplest way to prepare this broccoli is to blanch them in (salted) boiling water for about 30 seconds to maintain bite (double the time if you prefer it to be more softer), fish out or drained, then lightly drizzle sesame oil, salt and pepper on top and serve. As for the remaining broth/water, I like adding sliced carrots in it and boil for 6 minutes and use it as soup. Washes down well after having a good meal. This can be done with just about any kind of Asian greens such as Bok Choy, Yu Choi (very similar to this), etc...

    January 17, 2013 at 4:15 am |
    • Valerie

      That sounds good! ; ))

      January 17, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  10. J. England

    There used to be a restaurant in Covent Garden that had duck feet and fish lips on the menu. We opted for the vegetables.

    January 16, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
  11. Tom

    The best way to cook this is the traditional way, boil for a minute or two, drain, coat with a little oil and oyster sauce then eat.All the other stuff described in the article sounds really crappy.

    January 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  12. Blair

    here's my question – who has that job?? the job of pulling tongues out of a duck's mouth??

    January 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
  13. JT

    When I went to Viet Nam this was pretty much the only vegetable anyone ever seemed to eat (could have been the only thing in season, idk). So needless to say, I learned to like it even though I though it was pretty bitter and reminded me of eating boiled/steamed spinach (something I eat whenever I can, but not because I love the taste). I've never tried it raw or roasted. I still find it pretty amazing how varied the brassica species really are.

    January 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  14. Marion

    I roasted kale leaves with oil coating and kosher salt recommended as a nutritious snack "chip" and it was TERRIBLE. I would however, try the first cooking choice of blanch boiling and throwing on some oyster sauce and ginger and garlic. That sounds yummy.

    January 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
  15. JB

    If fried duck tongues are your norm, how is chinese broccoli an adventure?!!

    January 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • JP

      Exactly my thought....the author had me until that at which point I winced and thought 'I don't think so'.

      January 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  16. lindaluttrell

    Those greens don't look much different from plain ole collard greens!

    January 15, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  17. Kris

    That was my reaction! I love broccoli and cabbage, so I'm reading along "La la la mmm broccoli, ok, do this, do that.... DUCK TONGUES??!?"
    complete derail >.<

    January 15, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • cm

      Yeah, the exact same thing happened to me.

      January 16, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • JP

        How big would a duck tongue be and what texture and taste would it have and who would carry it to sell. Not something I would run out for and probably not in any of my grocery stores!

        January 16, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  18. Linda Blair

    You will learn to speak in tongues.....without the flies and green slime.

    January 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  19. ™©JbJiNg!eŚ®™

    OK, enough about the broccoli, I want to know about fried duck tongues!?? "I pulled out both trays, stirred the contents together in a bowl and served it alongside fried duck tongues"

    Really? I've never heard of this... Was this for real or were you just seeing if anyone read the whole article?? :D

    January 14, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Not kidding at all!

      January 14, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
      • Tanya

        Mmmmm they look delicious! Chinese broccoli is a staple in my house but I've never tried roasting it. Thanks.

        January 16, 2013 at 8:55 am |
      • JP

        Sorry but knowing what that is sitting there – I just threw up in my mouth!

        January 16, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
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