June 24, 2012

The Culinary Arts of Hollow Hearts

"You know your heart, Jack?"
"Bam bam." I show her my chest.
"No, but your feeling bit, where you're sad or scared or laughing or stuff?"
That's lower down, I think it's in my tummy.
"Well, he hasn't got one."
"A tummy?"
"A feeling bit," says Ma.
I'm looking at my tummy. "What does he have instead?"
She shrugs. "Just a gap."
Room, Emma Donoghue
A gap for a heart may not be a good thing in humans, but it's a great quality in a vegetable. One vegetable has a Chinese name (空心菜) that literally translates into "hollow heart vegetable," because its stalks are hollow. It's also sometimes called Chinese water spinach. This vegetable grows so quickly that the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually classifies it as a noxious weed. In this case, one person's noxious weed is another's gustatory treasure.

"Hollow heart vegetables" are one of my father's favorite foods. He has told me on multiple occasions (usually while munching away on said vegetable) that he would gladly eat them every day without getting sick of them.

In addition to never failing to bring a smile to my dad's face, this vegetable has another awesome quality: It can be converted into two different dishes. I'm invariably pleased when a food serves more than one purpose in the kitchen. For example, lemons can offer juice and zest. Eggs are not just one ingredient but two — whites and yolks — which are wonderful together, but even more wonderful because they can be separated to serve completely different purposes.

A bundle of hollow heart vegetables yields two dishes: first, a dish of the sauteed leaves, and second, a spicy dish made with the stalks. The stalks can also be added to fried rice.

To prepare this vegetable, pluck the leaves off the stems, put them into a bowl, and wash them thoroughly. Then rinse the stems and slice them; since they have "hollow hearts" they become tiny rings once sliced. After they're cooked, they exhibit a crunchy, not tough, texture.

The stems of the hollow heart vegetable can be transformed into a spicy concoction that's delicious on top of rice, served alongside their leafy counterparts.

Two-Part Recipe for Hollow Heart Vegetable
Part 1: The Leaves
1 bunch of hollow heart vegetables
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp sesame oil (or regular oil, if you don't have any)
salt & pepper

1. Pick the leaves off the stems using your hands. Wash and chop the stems, and set aside for part 2. Wash the leaves thoroughly in water and drain. Heat a skillet with the oil and garlic until the garlic is fragrant. Throw in the washed and drained leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste, and cook until the leaves have just wilted. Move on to part 2.

Part 2: The Stems
1 1/2 cups chopped stems
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha or other chili sauce
dash of salt
a few turns of black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp sesame oil

Saute all ingredients together over medium-high heat for about 3-5 minutes. The stems should still be crunchy and green; don't overcook them. Serve with the stir-fried leaves with a side of rice.

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