Home & Garden

Homegrown: Growing and preparing gai lan

A weekly CSA box that Debbie recently received contained a bunch of brilliant green that looked a little like broccoli, but the thin stems had a few lovely white flowers that resembled a bouquet.

The supplier, Tom Kumpf of Double T Farm in Garner, told her it was a variety of broccoli. It has several names: Chinese broccoli, Chinese kale, gai lan or kai lan. The flavor is tender and sweet even when raw, and both the papery flowers and small leaves are edible along with the pencil-sized stems.

Kumpf said it’s more tolerant of heat and humidity than conventional broccoli, matures faster, and produces a small center head and side shoots that are all tasty. It’s also more disease-resistant. He plants spring and fall crops.

“It’s a more refined broccoli, in my opinion,” Kumpf says. “It’s more tender and better tasting in the fall because I think cold weather makes it even sweeter.”

The official botanical name for Chinese broccoli is Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra . The variety works as either a warm- or cool-season crop in the Triangle.

Chinese broccoli is not common in supermarkets, but it’s a staple at Asian markets. The vegetable is a wonderful addition to a stir-fry or good eaten on its own. It has none of the woody texture or bitter flavor that conventional broccoli can have.

The important thing about Chinese broccoli is not to overcook it, so you retain its flavor and texture. If steaming it, it needs just a couple of minutes of cooking time.

Store Chinese broccoli the same way you would conventional broccoli, in a bag in the refrigerator. Use it within a few days. Also, watch for too many flowers, which may indicate the vegetable is old.

Asian markets may also sell the seeds. Kumpf grows the Happy Rich variety and orders seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds ( johnnyseeds.com) and Kitasawa Seed Company ( kitazawaseed.com).

Sow seeds directly into the soil or start seeds indoors in early January and transplant the seedlings in early spring.

Grow Chinese broccoli in containers that hold at least a gallon of potting mix per plant, or in garden spots that receive full sun. Plants will reach 12 to 18 inches tall and wide.

The rich forest green foliage is very attractive in the landscape or container gardens of seasonal flowering plants. Allowing the plants to produce a few flowers helps bees and other pollinators.

Harvest the stalks when they’re about the diameter of a pencil, and cut outer leaves, too. The plants will continue to sprout new leaves and sprouts.

Many Asian cooks serve Chinese broccoli simply stir-fried until crisp-tender and drizzled with a bit of oyster sauce. This recipe from “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young (Simon & Schuster, 2010) dresses up the vegetable.

Reach Carol Stein and Debbie Moose at homegrownmoosestein@hotmail.com