|Before rinsing them in the sink, Ralph shows off a handful of just-picked Asian greens
While the Asian greens he picks — tatsoi, yokatta-na, Tokyo bekana, purple pac choy and joi choi — may be unfamiliar to most Americans, all are members of the Brassica family, which includes other more familiar cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale and bok choy.
|Some of the more familiar cruciferous plants in the Brassica family
Ralph has been growing and harvesting these greens for a couple years now. That’s long enough to know he wants to keep planting them forever. Each one has a wonderfully mild, slightly sweet taste and is not at all tough or bitter like many other vegetables in the cabbage family. We use them in salads, stir-fries, omelets, soups and roasted vegetables as well as in place of lettuce in sandwiches.
Unlike broccoli, a cold-weather vegetable that suffers in Florida’s hot summer, this selection of Asian greens can be grown year round. Ralph plants seeds in 15-gallon containers filled with a rich mixture of mushroom compost, peat and decomposed woodchips. Although he sows multiple seeds in one container, he ends up with five or six plants per pot, transplanting extra seedlings to other containers.
|Transplanting young tatsoi plants growing in 15-gallon containers
The young plants grow quickly, a feature of these leafy vegetables that endears them to my Brassica-hungry hubby. Less than three weeks after planting seeds, he begins to harvest young leaves.
“I snip off the outer leaves and stems as close to the base as possible, then push the soil up around the base to encourage new growth,” Ralph explains.
|Using a scissors, Ralph snips off a few of the outer young tatsoi leaves to eat for lunch
Within a week, more leaves develop, and he snips the tender tops and stems off again, repeating the process day after day, week after week, regardless of what season it is or how hot it is outside.
|The Asian greens in Ralph's garden grow year-round - even during Florida's hot summers
Renee’s Garden, one of our favorite seed sources, describes tatsoi as a plant that “Grows quickly and easily into flat rosettes of deep green, teardrop-shaped leaves with mild flavor that is sweeter than other Asian greens. A vitamin- and anti-oxidant-rich powerhouse.”
While I’m sure it’s possible to grow large rosettes of tatsoi and the other Asian greens, Ralph prefers to harvest ours when they’re still relatively small. When young, even the stalks are tender, sweet and juicy without a hint of stringiness.
The discovery of these vegetables has made a big change in our eating habits. For years, broccoli held the seat of honor in our vegetable patch. Ralph grew it. Ralph ate it. Ralph couldn’t live without it.
|Large heads of broccoli bring a big smile to my full-bearded broccoli-loving husband
Then he discovered tatsoi, which led to joi choi, which led to experimenting with growing various other varieties of heat-tolerant, easy-to-grow, sweet and tasty cousins of his favorite food.
I’m not saying broccoli no longer holds top spot in the veggie hierarchy, but even Ralph would agree it’s no longer the lone contender in the best-vegetable-ever field.
|A plate full of homegrown goodness. From top going clockwise: Purple pak choy, yokatta-na, Tokyo bekana, tatsoi, joi choi.
The five Asian greens Ralph currently is growing all have slightly different characteristics. Tatsoi is sweet and mild with spoon-shaped thick dark green leaves while the leaves of yokatta-na (which in Japanese means ‘that’s a good vegetable, isn’t it?’) are bigger and look more like the leaves of bok choy.
The leaves of Tokyo bekana are pale green and frilly and look much like lettuce, although they’re more flavorful without any bitterness at all.
|Tokyo bekana has frilly leaves that look a lot like lettuce
Purple pac choy and joi choi taste similar — both are mild, sweet and slightly juicy — but the color of their leaves are different. Joi choi leaves are dark green while the leaves of purple pac choy are light purple with green veins. According to another one of our sources, the Fedco Seeds catalog, the purple coloring comes from anthocyanins, which improve memory and cell health.
I suppose I haven’t consumed enough servings of purple pac choy yet because I still have trouble remembering which Asian green is which. All I can say is that each one is delicious and while I can’t claim to have a green thumb like my husband, I have no trouble devouring the fruits — or in this case, the vegetables — of his labor.