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Bok Choy Broth

Bok choy-based hot and sour soup

Bok choy-based hot and sour

Usually when I get home from traveling I’m in a state where I don’t really want to cook, but I want real food, and I’m sick of the bread-and-cheese-sticks-and-carrots-and-nuts we bring on the plane in self-defense.  The other thing I really want right away is vegetabalia–restaurants, particularly hotel restaurants, seem reluctant to put any on the plate. Microwaved fresh vegetable soup is an easy and satisfying answer–15 minutes and you don’t have to go shopping for anything fancy.

It’s also the answer when it’s cold and rainy and everyone in the house has been down with the crud (aka “Losangelitis”). Today, I wanted something with greens in it like minestrone, but tasting more like hot and sour soup, to cut through the fog that had condensed in my head, and I did NOT want to work hard (also because of said mental/temporal fog). I had the basics for a vegetable broth–an onion, some celery stalks, a handful or so of “baby cut” carrots  more usually reserved for my daughter’s school lunches. A fat clove of garlic. Half a bunch of bok choy that was still in decent shape from two days ago when I microwaved it as a side to stretch leftover Chinese takeout. And in the cupboard, miraculously, I still had three dried shiitake mushrooms in a plastic bag.

Bok choy is one of the Cheap Vegetables ™–usually below a dollar a pound, even in big-chain supermarkets. Not baby bok choy, which is cute and pretty and mild; stores charge three times as much for that. I like the full-grown, poetically dark-leaved, white-stalked bok choy, the kind sumi-e masters choose for their still lives.

Sometimes for a vegetable at dinner (as mentioned above) I just nuke a cleaned and trimmed head of bok choy whole for a couple of minutes in a longish lidded container with a little water in the bottom, cut it up and serve it as-is or drizzled with a little soy sauce and sesame oil. You don’t need anything else to dress it up (and of course, I have pretty low standards for presentation). Its fresh, radishy flavor mellows into something richer and more aromatic as it cooks down and produces its pale-green pot liquor. You don’t want to waste that; it’s a perfect addition to a vegetarian consommé, especially when you’re going light on salt or calories.

I sometimes even skip the onion-carrot-celery-garlic vegetable stock base and make a really simple broth by just microwaving the bok choy all by itself with water to cover–especially when my head and stomach aren’t cooperating with me or with anything else. But that’s a little on the purist side of things, when I’m feeling so miserable all I want is something hot, clean-tasting and fresh with no distractions. For better times, I want a real soup with a bit more richness and variety, and bok choy definitely plays well with others.

Back to the hot-and-sour scenario, for example:

Shiitake mushrooms are expensive fresh at your local Whole Foods, about $13/lb. But a package of 15 or so dried caps sells for $3.50 in the Asian or International Foods section of your local supermarket, and the dried mushrooms are so much better for infusing a broth with pungent richness. They’re easiest to soak up in a microwave–a few minutes rather than half an hour.

Between those and the carrot-onion-celery aromatics, plus of course garlic, you’re set. Especially if you have a little container of z’khug (hot pepper-garlic-cilantro paste) in the freezer and can saw off a chunk to spice up your soup. Toasted sesame oil, vinegar, and low-sodium soy sauce–all optional. Ginger? You could. Ginseng? According to a friend from a Cantonese family, only if your mother insists.

Bok choy vegetable soup with peas

Some very lightly cooked frozen peas, cut up green beans, peeled broccoli stalks, or cubes of tofu (fried or unfried) are good to add as desired to individual servings rather than the main stock (keeps them from turning brownish or disintegrating in the soup if you make enough for several days).

If you don’t really like hot-and-sour, you can skip any part of the hot and sour business that turns you off and just put in the things you do like.

If you want to get fancy and stir beaten egg into the hot broth for egg-drop soup (and you know how to do it), probably it’s best to do that 1) on the stovetop rather than the microwave and 2) only for whatever amount you’ll serve for the current meal rather than keeping egg drop soup in the fridge for several days. Same for cooked shredded meat, as far as I’m concerned (plus I’m leaning toward the vegetarian options here).

The only thing I don’t do to this soup (after trying it once)  is add cornstarch or potato starch or arrowroot as a thickener. Not just because microwaves tend to heat unevenly or because you can’t stir while it’s cooking,  and it leaves you with a rubbery mass at the bottom of the bowl that won’t reincorporate like a good little ingredient when you try to stir it back in. The real reason I don’t thicken hot and sour soup at home is I just don’t like the texture that much. I’d rather have the same flavors in a clear broth.

Granted, a chicken or turkey stock would be richer and have more protein, but a basic vegetable broth is clean and tastes good when you want something light. The stock will be richer if you take a couple of extra minutes to brown the main vegetables well in a frying pan before adding water, but you definitely don’t have to. Don’t load it up with salt or more than a drizzle of soy sauce or you’ll drown out the greenness of the bok choy.

Microwave Bok Choy Broth

  • 1 head of full-grown bok choy
  • vegetable stock base: 1 medium onion, 2-3 carrots chopped, 2-3 stalks celery chopped (optional, as base–you could skip these and just use the bok choy if you want a pure light green flavor instead of the richer standard broth base)
  • 1 big clove garlic, mashed/grated/minced
  • 3-4 dried shiitake or other aromatic mushrooms if you have and like them, washed of any grit, broken up, microwaved covered in a soup bowl of water for 2-3 minutes and left to stand and soak up another 15 minutes with the lid on
  • water
  • low-sodium soy sauce, optional and added sparingly
  • dab of z’khug (hot pepper/garlic/cilantro paste) or shake of hot pepper flakes, optional
  • vinegar and sesame oil, both optional and sparing
  • grating of fresh ginger, optional
  • 3-4 cleaned, trimmed scallions, chopped or slivered

If using onion-carrot-celery broth: Chop and microwave the big vegetables together in a covered pyrex mixing bowl for 5 minutes until wilted, then pour water over them to cover by 2 inches or so, add the garlic, soaked shiitakes and their soaking water (filter through a coffee filter or at least be careful not to pour the silt at the bottom of the soaking bowl into the big pyrex bowl), and ginger, z’khug or 1-2 T soy sauce if using any of these.

If you’re not including any stock vegetables other than the bok choy itself, just chop the bok choy and pour water over it to cover by a couple of inches, add the soaked shiitakes and their broth and any of the flavorings other than sesame oil and vinegar, cover and microwave 5-6 minutes on HIGH. Add the sesame oil and vinegar to taste afterward–they’re both volatile.

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