Every autumn when I watch the bok choy plants in my garden plump up in only a month, I am amazed at the accomplishments of the ancient plant breeders of Southern China. From a bitter mustard they eventually created crisp, thick-stemmed bok choy, also spelled pak choi or pac choi. Under any name, bok choy deserves a place in every fall garden for these reasons:
- It's fast. Depending on variety, you will wait only 40 days for a head of baby bok choy, or 50 days for a full size variety. Bok choy is especially suited to the shortening days of fall, and its broad leaves have a special talent for making use of dwindling natural light.
- It's nutritious. A one cup serving of cooked bok choy (about half of a baby bok choy) provides all the vitamin A you need in a day, and more than half of your daily quota of vitamin C.
- It's beautiful. Bok choy's thick leaf stems grow so quickly that they seldom suffer injuries, and they make a beautiful green-and-white vegetable on the plate. In the last few seasons I have enjoyed trying red-leafed varieties, which look stunning in the garden and turn green when they are cooked.
What is Bok Choy?
One of two types of Chinese cabbage, bok choy has thick, crisp stems that have earned it common names including Chinese chard and spoon cabbage. Seeds have been found in ancient burial sites in China more than 5,000 old, but English-speaking gardeners have been growing bok choy for less than 100 years. The name bok choy is based on the Cantonese word for "white vegetable".
Baby bok choy are dwarf varieties that mature to less than 10 inches ( 25 cm) tall. In the fall garden, sturdy little baby bok choy are as easy to grow as radishes.
Like other mustards, garden bok choy faces serious challenges from flea beetles when grown in spring, and is also quick to bolt when days are getting longer and warmer. Bok choy grown in the fall garden has far fewer pest problems, and rarely bolts. When mature heads are cut high, with the stub remaining in the ground, bok choy will regrow a small second head.
I have read accounts of bok choy surviving temperatures below 0°F (-18°C) in an unheated greenhouse, and indeed bok choy is an excellent low-light vegetable to grow through winter under protected conditions. However, in the open garden it is best to harvest bok choy before the plants freeze hard, which can happen at 25°F (-4°C). When freezing weather is predicted, I gather any bok choy left in the garden and store it in the refrigerator.
Cooking Bok Choy
In typical mustard style, bok choy often tastes slightly bitter raw, though cool weather has a sweetening effect on the leaves. Cooking bok choy neutralizes any bitter compounds present while brightening the leaves' color. The most classic bok choy cooking method is to stir fry trimmed stalks or halved heads with garlic and ginger, which is often served with braised tofu or seared salmon.
Historically, bok choy has been stir fried, braised or sautéed, which preserves much of the nutrient content of the leaves. You can also grill bok choy, or chop it into Asian-flavored soups. If your garden produces more bok choy than you can use, you can steam and freeze it, or ferment it into Korean style kimchi. Like properly made sauerkraut, kimchi will keep in the refrigerator for several months.
Bok choy is one of those crops that grows so well in gardens that you will probably promote it from an experimental oddity to staple fall crop after a couple of seasons. I think it is among the most outstanding veggies you can grow in the waning days of autumn.
By Barbara Pleasant