The scene is all too familiar to an Asian-cooking teacher: A shopper is at the market, picks up a mysterious vegetable, looks at it - then puts it back.
Rosa Lo San Ross has come to the rescue of such vegetable-xenophobia. As a kind of culinary tour guide, she is on a mission to educate people about Asian produce: Jicama, Mung bean sprouts, tamarind, horned water chestnuts - to name a few.
Ms. Ross is a New-York-based cooking instructor who often takes her classes through Chinatown. Having grown up in Macao and Hong Kong, she is in a good position to interpret her way through the food markets. In one exercise, Ross instructs her students to "pick out a vegetable you don't know, and we'll learn how to cook it."
Americans' exposure to Asian food has mushroomed in the past 10 to 20 years. But much of the credit goes to restaurants, such as Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Korean; as well as Western chefs who have taken a fancy to fusion food and featured the likes of mizuna, bok choy, and lotus root in their dishes.
But while consumers may have come to know certain dishes by name, vegetables are still somewhat mysterious, Ross contends.
For one, they look much different prepared on the plate than in their raw state on the market shelf. And the canned stuff has always been limiting.
Part of it, Ross says, has to do with the simple concept of recognition. "If you can't name it you're not going to cook with it!" she says during an interview. But seeing how mainstream markets are carrying more Asian vegetables than ever, this is prime time to learn. Enter this chefs new book: "Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook's Guide to Asian Vegetables."
Here, not only does Ross identify various familiar and not-so-familiar vegetables, but she also includes buying, storing, and growing tips and, most important, recipes.
The crisp photos leave no question as to how these vegetables look in their raw state, from the leafy greens, squashes, and roots to sprouts, peas, and herbs.
On the pages' margins are the Chinese characters, so you could actually go to Chinatown and point to the characters if you're looking for a particular vegetable and the shop owner doesn't know it by the English name.
Ross has studied with several master chefs, including Marcella Hazan and James Beard. Naturally, many of her recipes stem from classic Chinese ones, but she also includes "fusion" dishes and Western delights, such as salads and "Shiso Risotto."
Ross notes that being adventurous is not risky in the world of Asian vegetables. "Most of the vegetables' flavor is delicate," she says, except perhaps the strong-tasting bitter melon.
And, you don't need to make just Chinese meals or stir-fry, she notes. "You can always incorporate."
Soybean Sprouts With Pork and Black Beans
In Chinatown, you will see mounds of these soybean sprouts alongside the more common mung bean sprouts, although you can use either in this recipe, the larger soybean yellow heads are crunchier and stand up well to stir-frying. You can also substitute beef flank tips for the pork, if you prefer.
1 pound soybean sprouts
1/2 pound pork tenderloin
FOR THE MARINADE:
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons fermented black beans
2 garlic cloves, mashed
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1/3 cup chicken stock or water
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Wash and spin-dry the sprouts in a salad spinner. Set aside.
Cut the pork (or beef tips) into thin strips and mix with the soy sauce and cornstarch for the marinade. Let stand 10 minutes.
Rinse the black beans to remove excess salt. In a small bowl, lightly mash the beans with the garlic. Add the oil and mix well.
Combine the sauce ingredients in a bowl.
Heat a wok. Add the black bean mixture and stir-fry, tossing frequently, until the pork loses its pink color, 3 to 5 minutes.
Add the sprouts, toss once or twice, then add the sauce ingredients, making sure that the cornstarch is mixed in well.
Continue to toss and stir-fry until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute.
Snow Pea Soup with Ginger-Thyme Cream
Snow peas are so common but here they are used in a slightly different way. Select tender young pods for this lovely soup. Chef Ross serves this dish with a small bit of infused ginger-thyme cream drizzled over the soup at the last minute.
FOR GINGER-THYME CREAM:
1 pint heavy cream
6 slices fresh ginger, cut into matchsticks
6 lemon thyme sprigs, or thyme sprigs
FOR SNOW PEAS:
2 pounds tender young snow peas
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, minced
4 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper
Thyme sprigs, for garnish (optional)
Make the ginger-thyme cream: In a small saucepan, combine the cream, ginger, and thyme sprigs. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for 20 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand 10 minutes. Strain and reserve.
While cream is cooking, string the snow peas, if necessary, and pinch off the ends. Wash and drain.
In a deep saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter and saut the onion until soft, stirring often so as not to burn it. Add the snow peas and stock, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the peas are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
Strain the peas, reserving the stock. In a food processor or blender, pure the snow peas. Return the pure and reserved stock to the pan, season to taste with salt and pepper, and heat. Drizzle a bit of the ginger-thyme cream on each serving.
Meatballs Braised In Chinese Cabbage
This recipe is a variation on the traditional giant Chinese meatballs called lions' heads. The smaller size makes them easier to serve. It is best to make this dish in a covered casserole that can be brought to the table, so the cabbage 'lid' is not disturbed before eating.
1 head Chinese cabbage, (about 2 pounds)
FOR THE MEATBALLS:
4 dried Chinese black mushrooms
2 tablespoons dried tree ears (wan yee)
1 pound ground pork
1/2 cup diced jicama or fresh water chestnuts
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
2 scallions, green and white parts, minced
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg
FOR THE SAUCE
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1-1/2 cups chicken stock or water
1 teaspoon Szechwan peppercorns
1 2-inch piece orange peel
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch, mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
Rinse the cabbage, cut off the base, and remove 16 whole leaves. Shred the remaining cabbage and reserve.
To make the meatballs: In 2 small bowls, soak the mushrooms and tree ears in warm water until soft, about 15 minutes. Drain the mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off the stems and discard, and coarsely chop the mushrooms. Drain the tree ears and coarsely chop.
In a large bowl, combine the mushrooms, tree ears, pork, jicama, ginger, scallions, orange zest, soy sauce, vinegar, cornstarch, salt, sugar, pepper, and egg. Mix well to combine. Form into 16 to 18 meatballs, about the size of golf balls.
To make the sauce: In a small bowl, combine the mushroom liquid with the soy sauce, vinegar, stock, Szechwan peppercorns, and orange peel, and set aside.
Using 8 cabbage leaves, line a heavy cast-iron casserole with 2 layers of the leaves.
Heat the oil in a large skillet and brown the meatballs, a few at a time, transferring them to the casserole as they are done. Pour the sauce over the meatballs, cover with the shredded cabbage, then use the remaining 8 leaves to cover in a double layer. Place the lid on the casserole, bring the liquid to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer 40 to 45 minutes, until the cabbage is melting tender and the meatballs are thoroughly cooked, firm to the touch.
Add the cornstarch mixture to the sauce. Return to a boil and simmer until the sauce thickens.
Bring the casserole to the table and serve the meatballs and cabbage over steamed white rice.
-- Recipes adapted from "Beyond Bok Choy: A Cook's Guide to Asian Vegetables, with 70 Recipes," by Rosa Lo San Ross, Artisan, 191 pp., $25"