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Everywhere, there are signs of spring. The birds seem noisier, awakening me just before my alarm clock, cherry blossoms line the prettiest streets in my neighborhood, and perennials are poking through dried leaves in front of my house. Throughout home and garden are signs we’re entering the most exciting but busiest season of the year – gardening season. Lists are long but like every gardener I know, I’m not complaining. On my piano are grow lights where seedlings will be babied until the soil warms. Among the heirloom tomatoes are little pepper plants including the mild shishito peppers that are so delicious roasted, and the spicy hot Thai bird’s eye peppers that are as good thrown in a stir fry as they are dehydrated, crushed, and sprinkled on a plate of pasta and tomato sauce.
Outdoors, I’m seeding rows of the sweet and versatile sugar snaps and snow peas, and I never forget to sow a small patch of snow peas seeds specifically for harvesting as leafy shoots – a favorite delicate Asian spring green that is so good quickly sautéed with a little garlic.
Throughout the summer, I look for any open spaces in the garden where I might be able to squeeze edamame plants in. These are a healthy family favorite, steamed for a few minutes and piled high in a bowl for snacking. I love shooting the tender soybeans straight into my mouth. The pods can go into the compost.
But Asian vegetables are not just tasty. They are often more nuanced versions of their Western counterparts in other ways too. The Chinese cucumber is mild, sweet and crisp, and are actually often the long slim cucumbers sold as “burpless” because they’re more digestible as well. The Chinese long bean is a beautiful green or purple bean that is literally four times the bean sold in the supermarket (in length, for sure!). Japanese eggplants are slender and beautiful, and don’t have the bitterness that globe eggplants sometimes do.
For gardeners who want to look beyond their trusty favorites every year, adding some new tastes might be just the thing to create some excitement in the garden. The truly bitter tasting bitter melon would be the best choice for the most adventurous gardening cooks. The bumpy fruits look super exotic and the taste is unlike anything else. The numerous health benefits also make the fruit worth trying.
If that’s a bit too wild, luffa gourds are an easy way to venture into the world of Asian vegetables. You can use them just like summer squash. Harvest early for best taste, but if you miss some of these fast-growing gourds, leave them on the vine till frost and you’ll find they’ve magically transformed into the same scrubby bath sponges you buy at the store! My family prefers the long skinny “angled” type for eating, but if you’d like to grow for eating and sponges, look for luffa gourds of the “dishcloth”, “sponge” or “smooth” type. These are shorter but wider and have the classic luffa sponge shape.
Ready to give it a go? Find seeds for these and most of the other vegetables listed in my book The Chinese Kitchen Garden at online suppliers such as Renee’s Garden Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, or Kitazawa Seed Company. Or ask your local seed supplier if they can order what you need. When you’re ready to harvest, consult The Chinese Kitchen Garden for tips on how to cook these nutritious and delicious vegetables in my family’s favorite recipes, or to get tips on how to use them in your own!
Tom Yum Kung
As a gardener in a colder zone, I grow the fragrant and versatile lemongrass as an annual. One of my favorite ideas is to use the tall sturdy grass as my “thriller” in my decorative thriller, filler, spiller combination in the large container on my front porch. This decorative and edible combo allows me to put together one of my Thai soups, tom yum kung. Tom yum soup is a perfect blend of the most common Thai herbs and vegetables. Don’t have it all in your garden? Most of these ingredients can be found in Asian supermarkets. Not only is this soup delicious, it may have health benefits. Many of the ingredients such as shallots, chili peppers, lemongrass and galangal are touted as having immune-boosting properties. Try it tonight or the next time you’re fighting a cold. Serves 4.
6 cups chicken stock
2 stalks lemongrass, cut into 5 inch sections, and bruised with a mallet
1 inch piece of galangal or ginger root, sliced
3 shallots, cut in half and crushed with the back of a knife
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 8-ounce can of straw mushrooms, rinsed
2 chili peppers, chopped
1 tablespoon chili paste
12 Large shrimp, peeled tail-on and deveined
1 lime, juiced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
Handful of cilantro, coarsely chopped
Bring chicken stock to a boil over medium high heat. Add lemongrass sections, galangal and shallots. Tear the kaffir lime leaves halfway and add to pot. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add straw mushrooms, chopped chili peppers, chili paste, shrimp. Add lime juice, sugar, fish sauce. Simmer for a few minutes more until shrimp is cooked. Remove from heat. Garnish with cilantro.