Looking for ways to get your kids to eat more vegetables? We took up the 52 New Foods Challenge to introduce one new fruit or vegetable a week to vary our children’s diet. Each month we share some ideas, tips and recipes to help you move beyond carrots and peas. This month, pak choi.
So, the Chinese theme continues. After last week’s kumquat catastrophe, I figured I might as well remain in the East and take on the little spoon-shaped Chinese brassica, the pak choi.
I can’t really explain why pak choi and my son had never made each other’s acquaintance in his three years. Perhaps I had just written it off as a grown-up’s vegetable (whatever that means). When you think about it, though, pak choi actually has a lot going for it in the child-approval stakes: mild flavour, unusual shape and, if you are three, a greatly amusing name. Add all that to the fact that it’s perfect in a stir-fry and has juicy stems that are an innocuous white colour, and you’ve got quite a lot to work with when doing the new vegetable PR job on your child.Buying: Sometimes called bok choi, it is easy to find in all supermarkets but is the perfect thing to pick up cheaply in Chinatown or, if you happen to live close to one, a Chinese supermarket. Look for firm, crisp bulbs with no blemishes and no split stems. They keep well for a few days in the bottom of the fridge.
Look out too for the other Chinese greens: Chinese broccoli or gai lan is especially good with it’s delicious, almost asparagus-like, thick stems, which may have greater appeal to younger children than the more leafy pak choi. Tatsoi occasionally makes an appearance in supermarkets too but it has a much spicier flavour than pak choi so may play less well with small people.Season: Pak choi appears in the winter section of the book but is available pretty much year round in the UK. Points: 15. Full marks for this one: although lighter in texture and taste that its cabbage relatives, it is still rich in vitamins A, B6 and C, calcium and potassium and is a great source of beta-carotenes.
How: Chastened by last week’s failure, I elected to follow Jennifer’s strategy of incorporating pak choi with a known (and liked) food, rather than launching a steaming pile of solo wilted greens upon him. Don’t get me wrong – this is not vegetables-by-stealth. There is a world of difference between hiding seven vegetables in a blended pasta sauce and adding chopped greens to a rice or pasta dish. If there is one thing most toddlers do well, after all, it’s spotting, isolating and removing any unknown plant matter, however well you feel you have incorporated it.
We therefore landed on the clay-pot chicken – a very low maintenance scaled back version of the Chinese classic. I tweaked the recipe ever so slightly (as I am pathologically incapable of not tweaking) and it went something like this:
- Wash and dry 4 bunches of pak choi and then cut into 1 inch sections. Separate the leaf sections from the stalk ones.
- In a bowl, mix together 2 crushed cloves of garlic, 1 tbsp of mirin (optional), 60ml soy sauce, ¼ tsp Chinese 5 spice, 2 tsp fresh grated ginger and 1 tbsp of honey.
- Add 450g boneless chicken thighs, cut into ½ inch dice. Mix well and leave to stand (ideally for an hour).
- Add 400g long grain brown rice to a pan, cover with 500 ml chicken stock and 500ml water.
- Heat until boiling and then reduce to a simmer, cover and leave to cook until almost all the liquid has been absorbed (about 20 minutes).
- While the rice is cooking, heat a large frying pan or wok over a medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon neutral cooking oil like grapeseed or groundnut (NOT olive oil) and stir fry the chicken until just cooked through and crisping at the edges (about 7 minutes). Take care not to have the heat too high – the soy sauce in the marinade catches really easily if too hot.
- Just as the rice is finishing cooking, add the pak choi stalks, cover and cook for two minutes.
- Add the chicken and the pak choi leaves, cover and cook for two more minutes until the leaves are just slightly wilted.
- Stir everything together and serve.
From an adult perspective, with some sliced spring onion and chilli on top it made a very respectable Sunday evening dinner. It is not, by any means, as complex as a classic clay-pot and you probably won’t be whipping it up for a dinner party but, for a simple weeknight dinner, it really hits the spot and is tastier than its simplicity would suggest.More Ideas: This ‘clay-pot’ would also work really well with broccoli. If using ‘normal’ broccoli, chop into small florets, allow about four minutes total steaming time before adding the chicken and finishing for the final two minutes.
For a meat-free version along similar lines, try this ginger sweet tofu and pak choi idea from BBC Good Food, with or without the chilli depending on your child’s age and tolerance.
The key with pak choi is to keep the white central stem slightly crunchy. Don’t even think about boiling it – a short blanch (under a minute) is the most it can take without turning slimy. Similarly, if steaming, keep a close eye and remove as soon as the stems are just tender.
Stir-frying is a great way to cook it – it really only needs a glancing moment in the hot pan to cook through and can be added to your child’s favourite fried rice or noodles.
Garlic, sesame, oyster sauce and ginger are its best friends and are not as child-unfriendly as you may think. I have known many a picky eater to devour vegetables with oyster sauce; sesame, too, is popular with many kids. Following the Asian theme, Jennifer’s book also suggests this Cinnamon Beef Noodle soup as a beginner’s pak choi vehicle (fine unless, like me, you have a child who rejects soup on the basis that he doesn’t understand what it is), which can also serve as a base for other leafy greens such as spinach or kale.
Finally, if you have any of Nigel Slater’s books (and if not, why not?), he is borderline obsessed with these Chinese brassicas and his vegetable bible Tender: Volume 1, in particular, has a whole chapter dedicated to them.
Read all about the 52 New Foods Challenge here.
For more ideas and inspiration for family-friendly vegetables, check out our 52 New Foods Winter board on Pinterest. Kate Douglas-Hamilton is Mr Fox co-founder. A recovering lawyer, she now spends most of her time staring at a screen and occasionally writing about learning to love eating plants on her blog The Buckwheat Adventure. She has one son, aged 3. Her perfect winter Sunday involves phoning for take-away and talking over Homeland to the irritation of her husband.