Do you like bok choy?
If you answered yes to that, you may want to skip the next paragraph - I'd hate to ruin your perfectly nice relationship with this particular cabbage. If, however, you're not a fan, or you believe your affection for it to be beyond the reach and sway of other's opinions, well then, read on. But don't blame me if you can never look at bok choy the same way again.
One night, many, many, many years ago, I had a show-down with baby bok choy. And lost horribly. The bok choy was served whole, per usual, with its green leafy part all wilted and shriveled in towards its limp, bendy white stem. Knowing my family, it was probably flavored with ginger, garlic, soy, or a combination of the three. But even those flavors, some of my favorites, weren't enough to save the vegetable for me. They were dwarfed by the impossible-to-get-around texture: soft, limp sliminess. The slippery leaves that were difficult to bite through and threatened to slip down my throat in long strands, and the stem with its odd sensation of being slightly soft, slightly crunchy. I couldn't eat the stuff - every bite activated my gag reflex. Needless to say, it was a very long, unhappy dinner, the memory of which has never left my mind. And I have never been able to eat bok choy again.
Josh has this theory that food aversions are more a matter of texture than flavor. I had never thought of it that way before, but once he said it, it made perfect sense. There are very few foods that I truly, fundamentally don't like, but for the majority of the ones I have a problem with, it all comes down to the way they feel in my mouth. Bok choy, obviously. Okra is another. Rare meat. Bologna. (Well, okay, that last one is admittedly also about flavor.) It seems a bit odd to me that an off-putting texture could overpower even extremely appealing flavors, but given that eating is very much about the sensory pleasures of the table, it makes sense that I would not want to repeat an experience that left me gagging.
The truth to Josh's theory is exhibited all the time in our children (who, like all children, are the most honest people I know). Kalen will very often decide he doesn't like something, and when pressed to explain why, he usually says, "I don't like the feeling in my mouth." Wylie, while not as articulate (yet), appears to make his food choices along similar lines: he doesn't like rice, or most vegetables if they're cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces, but put it all through a food grinder and turn it into mush, and he'll gobble it right up. Apparently, he just doesn't like the feeling of little pieces of things in his mouth.
The importance of texture in the overall enjoyment of a dish is not a new concept, but it is one that I haven't paid as much attention to in the past as I should have. Because texture can easily be adjusted and changed (the food grinder being just the simplest example of such a transformation), writing off a food forever due to a bad texture experience seems particularly short-sighted, especially coming from a trained cook. As a mother, though, one who is trying to raise good eaters, I've been thinking more about ways to emphasize flavors while downplaying or outright eliminating offending textures. Hopefully, my kids will end up with very few foods about which they can make blanket statements such as, "I don't like bok choy. At all. Ever." Because goodness, the vegetable's been eaten by millions (billions?) of people for centuries - it's got to have some redeeming qualities, right?
So I'm resolving to figure out a way to like bok choy, and I'm open to any and all ideas. Just don't ask me to eat it whole. In the meantime, though, I'd like to share a recent transformative-texture experience.
Recently I bought a pint of Haagen-Dazs Rum Raisin ice cream. Sounds good, right? I had actually been thinking about the flavor for a long time, wondering if anyone made it anymore, since it seems so retro. Suddenly, it appeared at my grocery store, so of course I had to grab some. I was so excited for it, and eagerly scooped it into a bowl, took a bite . . . and discovered that I don't like plump, squishy, pop-when-you-bite-them raisins in my ice cream. I think I had imagined that they'd be more chewy, almost candied (which makes no sense, given that I know they're soaked in rum!), and to be confronted with such an opposite texture, one that was all tender and yielding and moist, was unnerving.
Don't get me wrong, I ate the stuff (yes, the entire pint, but not in as few days as I normally would), because the flavor was still excellent. But all the while, I knew that I could take that flavor and turn it into a texture that I also loved. Which is exactly what I did last weekend.
My solution was so easy that I'm sure other people out there have made very similar ice creams. I simply took my rum-soaked raisins, plus some additional concentrated dark rum, and pureed it. This intense, boozy sauce then got stirred into my ice cream base right before it went into the freezer, and voila! Rum raisin ice cream that's better than the original, in my opinion. No squishy raisins to offend my mouth, lots of flavor distributed evenly throughout the ice cream (which I like better than the random pockets the Haagen-Dazs had), and the addition of vanilla bean to give the confection one more layer of flavor. It's really, really good.
It's also reminded me of how much I like to purée things, and the power of sauces in general. They're common in my savory cooking (I make pestos out of just about any green vegetable, and love a good pan reduction sauce), but they're often the missing element in our dessert course. Like a really well-thought out garnish, though, a good sauce can put the final, perfect touch on an ordinary, every day dessert, making it seem much more interesting and elegant than it might otherwise be. Professional pastry chefs know this like they know how to crack an egg. Being out of kitchens for so long, I had gotten out of the habit of thinking about desserts as an assemblage of components. I'm starting to get back into it now, and am really enjoying the process.
So, to bring this thing full circle, what do you think about a bok choy pesto? It might just be the key to unlocking the elusive pleasures of bok choy for me. At the very least, it would eliminate the limp sogginess that bok choy is forever linked with in my memory. And then, finally, I might be able to concentrate on the taste. It would be great to have another texture victory under my belt, to go along with my rum raisin ice cream.
Rum Raisin Ice Cream
yields 1 quart
Make the vanilla ice cream base:
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups half and half
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 vanilla bean
6 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
Combine the cream, half and half, milk, and light brown sugar in a medium metal bowl set over a pot of just-simmering water. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add those to the cream mixture, along with the vanilla pod. Heat the mixture until hot.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, granulated sugar, and salt. Temper the yolk mixture by slowly whisking in a small amount of the hot cream, then add it all back to the cream mixture and cook over the double-boiler, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon (nappe, in technical culinary terms). Be patient and really get the mixture as thick as possible - your ice cream will be all the better for it.
Strain the ice cream base through a fine sieve into another metal bowl, and transfer that bowl to an ice bath. Stir frequently and add ice to the ice bath as needed to quickly cool down the base.
At this point, the ice cream base can be refrigerated for up to three days, until you're ready to churn ice cream. This base recipe actually yields 1.5 quarts of base, so you'll have an extra pint to play around with after you make the rum raisin. I usually just add some vanilla extract and make vanilla ice cream, since it's so versatile and useful to have on hand. But this base is great for any number of flavors, so feel free to experiment!
Make the rum raisin sauce:
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup dark rum, divided
Combine the raisins and 1/2 cup rum in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Soon after it starts to bubble, the rum will ignite - be ready for this! Allow the alcohol to burn off for 30-40 seconds before you put out the flames (by putting a lid on the pan). Cool, then puree. (I used a mini food processor. You could also use a stick blender or regular blender.)
Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of rum in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once it ignites, let it burn until the rum is almost reduced by half, then cover to put out the flames. Cool.
Make the rum raisin ice cream:
Measure 1 quart of ice cream base into your ice cream maker. Add the reduced rum and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, if desired (dip a spoon in the base to see if it needs more vanilla for your taste). Churn according to the manufacture's instructions.
Once the ice cream reaches soft-serve consistency, pour it into the container you'll be freezing it in. I like to use 1-quart lidded glass bowls. Stir in the rum raisin sauce, working quickly as the ice cream will start melting. Don't worry about getting it all evenly distributed, but try not to have any large blobs of sauce in there or un-sauced portions of ice cream. Press plastic wrap on the surface, put the lid on, and stick the container in the freezer. It's ready to eat once it's firm! Ice cream keeps, frozen, for up to 2 months, but why would you ever let it hang around that long?