In the pristine prep kitchen above Culver City’s Beacon restaurant, amid the bustle of lunch preparations, chef Vicki Fan is surrounded by vegetables. They cover her cutting board and worktable like a deconstructed garden: short mountains of gorgeous ying choy, the Cantonese name for red spinach or amaranth; long, recumbent leaves of gai choy, the distinctive Chinese mustard greens; a thin bouquet of nira, or garlic chives; impeccably julienned piles of wood ear mushrooms and jade green snow peas; and miniature emerald fans of a dozen baby bok choy.
Fan, who is co-chef-owner -- and general manager -- of Beacon with her husband, Kazuto Matsusaka, has assembled this ad hoc vegetable garden to show how easy it is to cook the Chinese leafy greens that she loves.
“I think people are scared of fresh vegetables,” says Fan, whose parents came to this country from Shanghai. Increasingly easy to find in California’s Asian grocery stores and farmers markets, the greens are fun to cook, delicious to eat and an integral part of Chinese cooking.
It doesn’t hurt that the morning’s show coincides with her mission to get her husband to eat his vegetables. Although Fan grew up eating plenty of fresh greens, her husband, who grew up in Japan, is a somewhat recent convert. “Pickled vegetables,” Fan says dryly, “don’t count.”
‘It’s about the ingredients’
Fan, a slender athletic woman with a bob of dark hair and laugh lines around her eyes, moves briskly around the kitchen, grabbing a seasoned one-handled wok, heating a pot of water, bringing small pans of garlic, ginger, salt and pepper to the stove. “Chinese cooking is very simple,” she says as she turns up the heat on her wok. “It’s about the ingredients and their freshness -- flavor first, aesthetics second.”
A quick stir-fry followed by a little steaming under a lid in the same pan is all it takes to bring out the best in Chinese greens, Fan says. You can give less-fragile vegetables a quick blanch first, or steam them a little longer. But keeping it simple and fast ensures that the vegetables don’t overcook and lose their freshness, beauty or nutrients.
Fan swirls a little oil around the hot wok, a sudden rinse up a curved black wall. Equal parts minced ginger and garlic go in next. “You stir-fry with garlic and ginger: It counters the hot aspect of the vegetable.” Fan isn’t talking about temperature but balance, the centuries-old Confucian notion of the yin and yang of cooking, in which certain ingredients’ “cool” qualities balance others’ “hot” qualities.
Fan stirs the mixture with a pair of chopsticks as it sizzles briefly. (This mix can burn easily, and Fan says that you can wait and add it with the greens instead, although the flavor won’t be quite as bright.) She tosses in the whole baby bok choy. These are especially small ones, about 3 inches long, which she likes because they’re just as flavorful as larger bok choy but more tender. Fan had picked them up at 99 Ranch, a Chinese supermarket.
“The Cantonese like to serve vegetables whole, especially at New Year’s,” Fan says. “It’s symbolic of unity.”
When she was growing up, her mother peeled away the outer layers of larger bok choy to get to the heart, which she served to her guests. “It’s traditional to serve guests the most precious part of the meal,” Fan says, smiling. “We’d get the leaves.”
Fan ladles a little water into the wok, then covers it with a lid so that the vegetables steam. You can use stock instead of water for a heartier note, or you can blanch the vegetables first instead of steaming them. Her mother would have blanched them -- in hot oil instead of water -- or added more oil to the wok instead of water. Fan prefers steaming the vegetables a little under a lid, both to avoid the extra step of blanching and to keep it healthier by using less oil.
Fan stirs the bok choy, adding a pinch of salt and black pepper (“the Chinese use white pepper more, but I don’t like white pepper”) and checking to make sure the bok choy isn’t browning.
“According to my mother, you can tell the freshness of the vegetable by how much water comes out,” Fan says. The less water, the fresher the vegetable.
After a few minutes, the bok choy are done. Fan wipes out her wok and begins the same procedure with Chinese mustard greens. The method is the same, only Fan cooks the greens a little longer and adds a pinch of sugar to balance out the slight bitterness of many mustard greens.
Next, Fan moves on to a small mountain of amaranth, which replaces water spinach in an old recipe of her mother’s. To the hot garlic and ginger, she adds a few cups of the amaranth stems.
“The Chinese are very practical,” observes Fan’s husband. Matsusaka, for eight years the head chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main and one of the founders of California’s Asian-fusion cuisine, is washing sushi rice in the sink behind her. “Americans throw away everything.”
After the amaranth stems steam, Fan adds the leaves, stirring them as they wilt, then makes a well in the center and adds a pungent spoonful of spicy fermented tofu. The tofu smells like aged cheese but mellows as it cooks, binding the greens together and adding a heady note to the stir-fried amaranth.
Fermented tofu, a traditional ingredient in many Chinese dishes, is potent stuff -- a little goes a long way -- and Fan says that the best way to judge its quality is to look for whole cubes that haven’t disintegrated in the bottle. It shouldn’t have additives, just salt.
The amaranth finished, Fan next chops the nira, or long garlic chives. Used as a vegetable rather than an herb or garnish in Chinese cooking, the chives look like spinach linguini and have a mild garlic flavor. “This is for when you’re running low on what to make for dinner,” says Fan as she makes soft-scrambled eggs in the wok, adding chives and a little salt and pepper.
Fan now contemplates the rest of the vegetables: Ten pans line her cutting board like a fleet of metal ships at anchor, each containing a different, perfectly julienned ingredient.
The dish is a traditional one her mother made every New Year’s called ru yi cai, or “as you wish vegetables.” The 10 ingredients, which can vary, represent wealth for the coming year. Fan is using wood ear and shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, carrots, snow peas (green for lucky jade), baked tofu, lily flowers (the dried stems and flowers of edible lilies), both sweet and sour pickled vegetables (available in Asian markets, but Fan’s mother makes them herself) and bean sprouts, a visual reminder of the emperor’s staff.
Fan’s mother would make this in enormous quantities: “She’d be slicing for days, and then she’d stir-fry them each separately.” This was both because of the size of the wok and because many vegetables cook at slightly different rates.
Fan stir-fries some of her ingredients in pairs to save time while keeping the flavors and integrity of the vegetables intact. First she separately cooks the snow peas and carrots, spreading them on a cookie sheet to cool so that they don’t lose their brilliant color. But she cooks the bamboo shoots and bean sprouts together, then both kinds of mushrooms and the lily flowers together. Each time she adds a new ingredient, she sprinkles a little pinch of salt, a smaller one of pepper. “You have to be careful not to over-salt,” Fan cautions, but a little seasoning added to each brings out the essence of the vegetable more.
After all have been quickly stir-fried, Fan combines everything but the snow peas, mixing them gently with a little sesame oil and spreading the mixture up the sides of the bowl to cool. She turns an electric fan onto the bowl to help the cooling. (“In the old days people did it by hand, with paper fans.”) After a few minutes, she adds the snow peas, then piles some high on a plate.
Matsusaka stops lowering pieces of black cod into a bath of thick miso paste. “That looks so good. How come you don’t do this all the time?”
Though Fan cooks more Chinese than Western food at home, this is only the second time in 13 years that she’s made her mother’s 10-vegetable salad. “Auntie Margaret usually makes it for us,” she reminds him.
As the traffic in the little kitchen increases -- it’s now peak lunch service -- Fan looks around, as if gauging her position amid the bustle, or perhaps the place of her mother’s traditional dish amid the contemporary movement of her life. On the horizon too is the couple’s second restaurant, a takeout and make-your-own salad spot also in Culver City, set to open in early summer. Fan seems to want us all to eat our vegetables.