It's not a happy experience going out into the garden on a balmy autumn afternoon only to discover that an entire bed of one of your staple winter vegetables has suddenly run to seed. I'm talking about my leeks – all 150 of them. One minute they were short, fat and dark green; the next they'd turned an ominous yellow and were reaching to the sky with little bobbles at the end of their tall central stalks. Other than the long hot summer we've had, I can't account for it, especially as I kept the water up to the plants and didn't once let them dry out.
All in all, it was a pretty miserable experience and my despair could well have set in for the week were it not for the fact that, later that very day, Xia arrived on our doorstep. A fluent English-speaking Chinese from Shanghai, Xia (pronounced 'Sha') was looking for a WWOOFing host and just happened to call by at a time when we were in need of a helping hand in the garden. By evening, she'd settled into her cabin, weeded an impressive area of paths, and was offering to prepare dinner (it turned out that her favourite hobby was cooking). All she needed to make dumplings for dinner, she said, was some Chinese Leeks.
What then ensued was the sort of conversation everyone has whenever Chinese leeks are mentioned: a confused sort of tossing around of the various names this allium goes by including garlic chives, Chinese chives, Oriental garlic and the new one I now have thanks to Xia: 'gau choy'. Not that it did us much good, however, as a thorough search of the garden revealed that the patch of Chinese leeks I thought I had had somehow disappeared.
What then took place was an even crazier conversation as Xia marched around the garden muttering something about dumplings being completely impossible without Chinese leeks, while I followed meekly behind pointing out everything I could think of that might suffice from chives to spring onions, garlic tops, red bunching onions, and even (I was getting desperate) the tiny bulblets on my tree-onions. 'No,' she said. 'It has to be Chinese leeks.'
If I was in despair about my leeks going to seed, I was even more traumatised by the thought of missing out on dumplings which just happen to me one of my favourite foods and which I only ever get to eat when I visit Auckland and head down Dominion Road to those wonderful Chinese restaurants that have sprung up in recent years. I was about to stomp my food on the garden path and have a full scale toddler tantrum when Xia paused in her methodical searching and stared across the garden at the bobbles on the leeks stalks.
'Chinese leeks!' she almost shrieked. 'That's them!' It wasn't, of course, but with a rumbling stomach and no idea what to cook for dinner if we weren't having dumplings, who was I to disillusion her? Within minutes I'd handed her a knife and she was whacking through the seeding leek heads and loading me up.
While Xia began cooking (I couldn't believe how finely and evenly she could dice vegetables) I dived onto the 'net to check out if Chinese leeks were, after all, what I thought they were. They were but to my surprise, I discovered that, in Chinese cooking, it is the leaves with seed heads that are the most sought after part of the vegetable. Our leeks with their seeding heads weren't Chinese leeks, but to Xia, they were the next best thing.
For me, of course, they were the very best thing because, suddenly, I had a solution to my bolting leek catastrophe: not only did I not have to ditch the leeks and confine them to the compost bin, but I could actually turn what I had, just a few hours before thought of as waste, into a fabulous dumpling filling!
I've since watched in awe as Xia has cooked the leaves of seeding lettuce into a delicious soup and combined dried shitake mushrooms with past-its-best cabbage to create yet another kind of dumpling filling. The upshot is that I certainly won't be looking at my less-than-perfect vegetables in quite the same way ever again. On the other hand, I do find myself spending far too long studying a map of China and checking out the current airfares to Shanghai!