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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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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. Continue reading

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