Although we certainly have a wonderful heritage of vegetables that are unmistakably American, many ethnic vegetables have made their way into our cuisine. These vegetables have their own ethnic recipes, but can also often be substituted for other vegetables we are quite familiar with.
Pak choi is a staple of Asian stir fried dishes, although it also makes a delightful slaw or fresh salad. The pale green or white stems and dark glossy green leaves are all edible, and the crisp texture of the stems makes a good substitute for celery although the flavor is closer to a very sweet cabbage. The leaves are excellent in any dish calling for greens.
Baby pak choi has become quite popular for grilling. There is also now a red pak choi with dark maroon leaves and thin green stems.
Pak choi is quite simple to grow, as long as you keep in mind that it is a cool season vegetable. If you didn’t grow your own transplants, purchase them now and use the vegetable quickly as it will bolt as soon as the days begin to lengthen.
Lacinato kale, also called dragon kale or Tuscan kale, is a staple in Tuscany, most often used in traditional minestrone. The dark, almost black seersucker leaves are tender through the entire summer, never becoming bitter or tough. Long after spring cabbages have begun to turn fiery and tough in summer, kale keeps providing sweet, tender greens for the table. It produces well into fall, actually being sweetened by frost. Also, try a Russian kale called Winterbor — beautiful ruffly reddish leaves and tasty addition to stews and salads.
Asian eggplants are much smaller than traditional bulbous American or Italian eggplants, and thus are much more tender. They grow thin and long, and come in white, green, pale pink, lavender and darkest purple. The skin is also thinner on Asian eggplants, so they seldom need to be peeled before grilling or roasting.
Eggplants need full sun and rich soil and, since Asian eggplant plants are smaller, seldom need any staking or support. They will need protection from flea beetles early in the season, however, so planting a trap crop of Chinese cabbage or covering with floating row covers will suffice.
Chioggia beets are Italian heirlooms, also known as the bull’s eye or candy cane beet. The outer fuchsia skin encloses creamy flesh and concentric pink rings. The stems of the greens are striped red and green and are among the most tender of beet greens.
One advantage to the Chioggia beet, aside from its heartbreaking sweet flavor, is that the beets don’t get woody through the summer. They can be left in the garden and harvested all summer long.
Chioggia beets produce best in somewhat fertile, loose soil. When the tiny greens emerge, you will notice that they are in clusters, regardless of how carefully you space them. They need to be thinned to about four inches apart or they will not produce bulbs. The thinnings can be tossed into a salad or transplanted.
Kate Jerome, a Kenosha writer and teacher, holds a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and is the former Urban Farm director at Gateway Technical College. She is the owner of the consulting business Kate Jerome’s Garden to Kitchen. Her website is www.kjerome.com.