Roasted Figs with Buche de Chevre & Balsamic Glaze

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There was a skinny fig tree in front of my childhood home — the original home, the only one that appears in my dreams, that I have hopelessly yearned for since the day I left for America.

Throughout my childhood, I remember tasting a sweet ripe fig only once. I grew up in the years of extreme food scarcity and no child could wait until the figs were ripe to harvest them. My brother and I began picking them earlier each year because we wanted to get them before the other children in the neighborhood could steal them. We tried to leave the raw figs in the rice sack or in the sun for them to ripen, but the figs stayed hard no matter how long we waited. 

One day, I was idling by the 2nd floor window daydreaming, which was something children often did in that era. A gentle breeze ruffled the leaves of the fig tree and a pinkish purplish bulb caught my eye. A ripe fig! I had never before seen a fig like this, rufescent and drooped from the slightly wilted stem. I nearly killed myself trying to pluck it with the help of a clothe hanger. I quickly stuffed it in my mouth before anyone could see me. There are no words that can describe the intense and shocking burst of pleasure as my teeth sunk into the flesh of that fig.

As I prepared these roasted figs today, I felt a nostalgic tug in my heart — a nameless longing. Was I twelve or thirteen? What was I daydreaming about? The neighbor boy with a “bad reputation” to play badminton with? The faraway lands I secretly read about in forbidden hand copied books? Or was it food? I was always a little hungry in those days and food was never far from my thoughts.

Not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined roasting dozens of ripe figs in an oven — a wonderful contraption I didn’t know existed until I came to the US.

As I used to daydream by the window, I now do by the oven. These roasted figs are sumptuous. They are great as appetizer, dessert or a snack. I used Buche de Chevre which was absolutely exquisite, but goat cheese will also taste great with it. The balsamic glaze is an important ingredient that is not optional in my mind. It is a perfect finishing touch to complete the dish.

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Roasted Figs with Buche de Chevre & Balsamic Glaze

Figs

Brown sugar

Buche de Chevre

Balsamic Glaze

Pinch of salt

Pine nuts

Mint leaves

Olive oil spray

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Rinse the figs and pat them dry, then cut off the stems and, without cutting through the base, halve them from top to bottom.

Spray a baking pan with good olive oil. Dip the cut side of the fig in a dish of brown sugar. Line the figs cut side up in the baking pan.

Bake until the sugar is bubbling and the figs is heated through, about 15 minutes.

Sprinkle broken cheese on top. Drizzle with balsamic glaze. Top with pine nuts and mint leaves. Serve warm.

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Cabbage Nectarine Salad

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My nectarines were of the perfect ripeness today — succulent but not too soft. I used them to make this simple cabbage salad and it turned out absolutely delicious — sweet and tangy with a hint of mint — a summery transformation of a cool weather vegetable. I used a sweet mulberry vinegar, but I imagine cider or white vinegar will work perfectly with it too.

Cabbages are one of the most nutritious vegetables, but few ever talk about them. They just seem so common place and boring. However, the seeming blandness is why I love them — they are versatile. I have often stir fried them or used them in Chinese pork vegetable dumplings. I have also pickled them or made salads with them.

As you can see here — cabbages are beautiful.

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Cabbage Nectarine Salad

Ingredients:

1 small head of cabbage, outer leaves removed and shredded (about 6 cups)

2 to 3 nectarines, thinly sliced (about 2 1/2 to 3 cups)

3/4 cup toasted walnuts

2 tablespoons mint leaves, chopped (optional)

Dressing:

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons mulberry vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preparation:

Gently toss together sliced cabbage, sliced nectarine, mint leaves with the dressing. Let sit for 10 minutes for the juice from the nectarine to release into the salad. Add walnut before serving.

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Fresh Corn Salad

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I woke up with a pang of sudden realization that the last day of August was upon us. To live summer to its fullest potential I loaded the grocery cart with lots of seasonal produce: berries, nectarines, peaches, figs, fresh corn and watermelon. I am going to hold on to my favorite season a little longer by enjoying an abundance of summery food. 

Fresh corn is one of Peter’s favorite foods. Though he never tires of eating the simple corn on the cob, I decided to give hime some variety today by making this simple and refreshing corn salad. It went deliciously with the grilled chicken.

This is a summer must eat dish.

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Fresh Corn Salad

Ingredients:

4 ears fresh corn

2 tablespoons minced shallot or red onion

1 tablespoon minced red and greenn jalapeño (seeded)

2 to 3 tablespoons minced cilantro

2 to 3 tablespoons finely diced tomato (seeded)

Juice from 1 large lime (about 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Scant 1/4 cup roasted pine nuts (optional)

Salt to taste

Preparation:

Cook the corn. I microwaved them one by one with a layer of husk on, each for 3 minutes. Using a bread knife, cut the kernel off the corn.

Mix the minced red onion or shallot, jalapeño, lime juice, olive oil and salt in a bowl and let sit for a minute or two for the onion to lose the sharp sting.

Mix the rest of the ingredients except for the pine nuts.

Taste it to adjust the flavors.

Add pine nuts before serving.

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Peach Matcha Panna Cotta

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This peach matcha panna cotta is not only yummy, it is light, healthy and good for you. Matcha is a super food that boasts a long list of health benefits that range from memory boost to body detoxification. I bought my matcha from Davids Tea. It is infused with peach flavor and slightly sweetened — perfect for making dessert.

The ingredients of this panna cotta is deceptively simple — milk, Greek yogurt, peach matcha powder, xylitol and gelatin. I made the dessert the night before and served it with sliced ripe nectarine as breakfast for Peter. A great way to begin the weekend!

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Peach Matcha Panna Cotta

Ingredients:

2 cups of milk (4%)

1 cup full fat Greek yogurt

2 to 3 tablespoons peach matcha powder (I used 2 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon, but if you like the matcha flavor more intense add another teaspoon or two.)

1/4 cup xylitol or sugar

1 pack unflavored gelatin (1 1/4 ounce packet)

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Preparation:

Pour 1 cut of milk into a sauce pan or small pot. Sprinkle the gelatin powder evenly on top of the milk and let stand for a few minutes. Turn stove on to low and heat the milk with gelatin as you slowly stir until the gelatin is melted. Don’t let milk boil.

Blend 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of yogurt, 1/4 cup xylitol and peach matcha in a food processor until smooth. Add the melted gelatin to the processor and blend until well mixed.

Oil the container before you pour the mixture if you will invert the panna cotta onto a plate to serve. You can also pour the mixture into the bowls or cups and serve directly from them.

Leave in the fridge for 2 hours or longer.

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Linguine with Salmon & Cilantro Jalapeño Pesto

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Yesterday I saw the most beautiful and the freshest wild sockeye salmon at Costco, but even the smallest package was more than two pounds. I suppose that’s the only drawback to shopping at Costco — everything is in bulk. I roasted the fish for dinner last night. The fish was so fresh that all the ingredients that I needed was salt, pepper and olive oil. Simply preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Wash and dry the fish with paper towel, rub generously with olive oil, salt and pepper; roast the fish for 10 minutes. Peter and I ate as much as we could without bursting and there was still plenty leftover.

Leftover seafood can turn fishy if you reheat it. I usually use it in a salad or just eat it like cold cuts. Today I mixed the leftover salmon in a linguine with pesto sauce. Linguine with pesto sauce is an easy dish that I have often cooked.  It is so simple that even Audrey can prepare it without any help from me.  As I was about to make the pesto sauce, I thought to myself why not be creative and try something different? We live in such a diverse city where cultures constantly influence each other and, as the idiom goes, variety is the spice of life. So I changed my usual pesto sauce to a cilantro jalapeño tahini “pesto.” I can imagine this pesto also as a dip for vegetables or as a sauce to pour over grilled chicken.

Peter and I loved it, but if cilantro jalapeño pesto sounds too adventurous or simply is not your thing, try my basic pesto sauce.

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Cilantro Jalapeño Pesto

Ingredients:

2  to 2 1/2 cups cilantro (a small bunch)

1/2 cup tahini

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 clove garlic

1/2 teaspoon or more salt

2 tablespoons olive oil (I used the oil that I had fried the garlic chips in)

1 jalapeño, seeded (or more if you like it more spicy)

Preparation:

Puree all ingredients in a food processor.  Sauté the jalapeño in a little oil makes the sauce even more flavorful, but using it raw is fine.

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I made some crispy garlic chips to sprinkle on the pasta. They added extra flavor and a little crunchy texture to the dish. The way to make perfect garlic chips is to use large garlic cloves, slice them into thin slivers, line them up in a single layer at the bottom of a small non stick pot. Put the pot on medium heat and pour just enough oil to submerge the garlic slices. Let the chips fry to a golden color before scooping them out and lay them on a piece of paper towel. Garlic chips burn easily and you should watch over it while they fry.

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Spicy Thai Peanut Dip

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There was a large pile of unopened mail waiting for me at home upon my return from China a week ago. It took me a few days to sort them all out.  It’s quite a chore, but sometimes there are pleasant surprises within the pile.  A couple of days ago, I opened a package and found a bottle of Pic’s Really Good Crunchy Peanut Butter and a bottle of dry roasted peanuts from New Zealand.  Our whole family have been enjoying the peanut butter in the past couple of days. We love the pure and intense peanut flavor in this very simple and delicious peanut butter with only two ingredients – peanuts and sea salt. I have written in previous blogs about my love for peanuts, be it peanut chocolate fudge or peanut chocolate ice cream pie or noodles with Asian peanut sauce. There is definitely a peanut loving gene in my body.

I made a spicy Thai peanut dip for the okra that I found in the farmer’s market. I blanched the okra in boiling water for less than a minute. I then rinsed it in cold water and drained it. Within 10 minutes there was a simple, satisfying low carb meal on the table. You can use the dip for any number of vegetables of your choice: carrots, celery, turnip, cucumber… You can even use it as a sauce for noodles.  

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Spicy Thai Peanut Dip

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons peanut butter (I used Pic’s Really Good Crunchy Peanut Butter)

1 1/2 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 teaspoon hoisin sauce

1 teaspoon xylitol or sugar

1 teaspoon lime juice

1 to 2 teaspoons Sriracha (depending on how spicy you want the dip to be)

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic (optional)

1/4 teaspoon grated ginger (optional)

1 teaspoon pure sesame oil (optional)

Chopped green onion, crushed peanuts and chili peppers for garnish

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Preparation:

Using a big spoon or your fingers, mix all the ingredients together. Garnish with chopped green onion and chili flakers.

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Caprese Salad

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Caprese Salad

Audrey and I spent 5 weeks in China where we worked on a Chinese comedy about the art of traditional Chinese cooking. I played a character by the name of Tom, which in Chinese sounds like Mother of Soup汤母, and Audrey played the young version of my character in the flashback.  We stayed in a hot spring resort in the boondocks of Xing Yang by the Yellow River.  Everyday, the production brought us two three-tiered lunch boxes with staples such as stir fried tomato with eggs, bell pepper with shredded pork, braised eggplant or mutton radish soup. After two weeks, Audrey groaned whenever those shiny tin boxes were delivered to us and she craved for caprese salad and pizza. When I had a day off, we drove for an hour to the nearest large city of Zheng Zhou in search of them.  We found pizza in a shopping mall, but no one there had heard of caprese salad.

Naturally that was the first thing we ate when we came home. And we have been enjoying it almost every other day. A little deprivation does wonders to renew your appreciation of something you took for granted. I have been jet lagged and there is so much to catch up around the house after a long absence. This caprese salad is not only delicious, it is also the easiest meal to make.  The trick is to buy the best quality tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Drizzle with the best quality balsamic cream or glaze and olive oil.

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Caprese Salad

Ingredients:

Cherry tomatoes (halved)

Fresh baby mozzarella balls (halved)

Fresh basil leaves

Extra virgin olive oil

Balsamic Glaze or balsamic cream

Salt and pepper

Preparation:

Half the cherry tomatoes and the mozzarella balls. sprinkle with fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with balsamic glaze and extra virgin olive oil.

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Healthy Mini Tarts with Fresh Berries

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The last week of May in San Francisco is absolutely my favorite time of the year. Today is a warm and sunny day that signals the coming of summer. Audrey and I will be going back to China to visit my parents when school breaks.  She will also be playing my character on screen in the flashback scenes.  We went shopping for summer clothes for our upcoming trip.  In a little boutique on Union Street, I saw the prettiest skirt in the whole wide world but they didn’t have my size. “I’m so fat,” I lamented. Audrey stopped me right there and said, “Don’t ever say things like that about yourself.  You are beautiful.” Did I sense some sort of a role reversal? She totally sounded like the mother between us when she said that.

After we were done with shopping, we came home and made these simple and delicious tarts with patriotic colors to celebrate Memorial Day.  They are healthy and quite guiltless to enjoy. For those of you who are allergic to gluten, They are also gluten free!

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Healthy Mini Tarts with Crispy Almond Flour Crust & Fresh Berries

Ingredients for the Shells:

1 cup almond flour

1/4 cup oat bran

1 1/2 tablespoon honey or molasses

2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

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Ingredients for the Creamy Filling:

1/2 cup nonfat Fage or other Greek yogurt

1/2 cup 1/3 less fat cream cheese

3 tablespoons xylitol or sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Fresh berries to top it off

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Preparation:

Pre-heat oven to 325.

Grease muffin pan well with coconut oil (grease only 8 cups and not all 12 cups)

Mix all dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix all the wet ingredients in another bowl. Fold wet into dry and knead until well mixed.

Separate the dough into 6 to 8 equal balls. Press into 8 muffin cups to create the shape of the tart shells. If you make 8 mini tarts, the shells will be thinner and shallower. If you make 6, the shells will be thicker and deeper.

Bake for 13 to 15 minutes. Let cool.

Cover the muffin pan with a cutting board and flip them over. Pat the back of the muffin pan with your hands to loosen baked shells from the pan.

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Roasted Halibut with Miso and Wine

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When I was filming in China, I was able to spend time in my parents’ kitchen now and then, baking them healthy desserts without the use of measuring utensils. Sometimes it turned out beautifully and other times it was a disaster, but my parents were always pleased with whatever I cooked for them and dutifully ate everything until the last bite. My mother has been getting increasingly forgetful. If I prepared the same dish that she had liked the week before, she would exclaim that she had never tasted anything this delicious ever in her life.

Whenever I had a free day from filming, I would sit with her and listen to her telling me stories from her past.  On some days, she would tell the same story a number of times. As the present becomes hazier, her focus has turned more and more toward her childhood.

During the Japanese invasion of China, my grandparents left to study in England when my mother was four and my aunt was two.  My mother lived with her maternal grandparents and her schizophrenic uncle while her sister lived with another branch of the family. 

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My maternal grandmother had this picture taken in a photo studio before leaving for England

My mother’s uncle was an extremely talented artist who had a teaching position in an art school, but every winter he would take a few months off because that was the season when his schizophrenia became severe. During those months, my mother would have a playmate.  According to my mother, her uncle loved her more than anyone else in the house. During his winter craze, he would either put her on the handle bar of the bike and ride around the streets in lightning speed, or he would hold her in his arms and tell her that he would throw her down from the balcony. He told her not to be afraid because she could fly. He told her that she would be rewarded with sweet roasted chestnuts if she let him throw her. “He would try to hang me over the railing, and I would giggle and hold onto him with all my strength,” my mother said without any sense of drama. If my mother’s childhood experiences happened today in America, she would need a life time of therapy to overcome the trauma. I wonder if her generation is more resilient because life was harder.

When time came for me to say good-bye to my parents, I was very sad, though I was also anxious to get home to my daughters and Peter in San Francisco. My parents and I never hug or say I love you.  That’s how we have always been.  But as I was getting into the car this time, my mother pulled me into her for a hug as if she felt this might be the last time she would see me.

I pulled a Chen, as Peter would say; I read the departure time wrong by an hour. The airline called me to say that they were closing the check-in desk, but I begged them to keep it open for another 15 minutes and told them I would not need to check in any luggage.  I sprinted from the car to the check-in desk and the airline staff rushed me through the border control, security and all the way to the gate. However, after five hours of waiting on the tarmac, the flight got canceled. I called my mother and told her about the cancellation. “You poor girl,” she said in her soothing and sympathetic voice as she has done countless times in my life whenever I told her about anything that was frustrating or disappointing. Then she brightened up, “No worries.  Just come home.” I wondered if she would remember this call and be really surprised when I went back to her apartment.

My mother was expecting me when I arrived, remembering clearly that I had called about the flight cancellation. Sheepishly, she said to me, “I’m so sorry. I forgot to say a prayer for you as I always did before you’d fly. I will pray for you tonight and everything will be all right for tomorrow.” She felt as if her negligence must have somehow caused the mechanical problems of the plane. My mother grew up in a missionary school taught by a British missionary and she believes firmly in the power of prayers. 

I have been home in San Francisco for a while now, but I have been too jet lagged and behind on so many things to make a dish worth blogging about until today. This simple roasted halibut with wine and miso is easy and delicious. You can enjoy it with rice, or some sliced cucumber, or by itself. I used the crunchy Japanese rice seasoning as garnish, but it actually is a crucial ingredient that enriches the taste and the texture of the dish.

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Roasted Halibut with Miso and Wine

2 pounds fresh halibut, cut into desired size

1 1/2 tablespoon red miso paste

1 1/2 tablespoon Shao Xing cooking wine or Japanese mirin

1 teaspoon cooking oil

Cooking spray to grease the baking pan

Garnish with:

Nori Katsuo Furikake (Prepared sesame seed & seaweed)

Chopped spring onion

Chili flakes

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Preparation:

Marinate the fish in the miso, wine and oil mixture for 30 minutes to an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 425.

Line a baking dish with foil and spray oil before laying down the fish.

Roast for 13 to 15 minutes or until fish is browned on the outside and opaque in the inside.

Garnish with Nori Katsuo Furikake, green onion and chili flakes.

Serve hot.

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Dan Dan Noodles

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I have written in a prior blog about my Sichuan ancestry and the spicy food that was a part of my upbringing. Dan Dan Noodles is a Sichuan street food that became well known all over China. Traditionally it is made with ground pork, but today I made it with 99% fat free ground turkey in an effort to curb our red meat consumption. It turned out to be absolutely delicious. I made it for lunch, but Peter asked me to make it again for dinner. I was watching a beautiful film called Five Days in Maine at the SF Film Festival when I received a text from Peter, “ These noodles are so fantastic that I can’t stop eating them.” 

This is a dish best made with fresh ramen, which gives it the extra chewiness and elasticity. I bought mine at a Chinese supermarket on Clement Street. It comes in a package of 2.2 pounds divided in 4 bundles.  Each bundle is about 2 servings. You can replace it with other noodles or pasta such as fettuccine if fresh ramen is not available.  

I usually make Dan Dan Noodles with a spicy pickled mustard called 榨菜 Zha Cai, but today I used a crunchy pickled lettuce that comes in a jar from the Chinese supermarket.  It adds flavor and crunch to the minced meat.

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Pickled Wo Sun, a Chinese lettuce stem

Dan Dan Noodles

Ingredients:

4 oz 99% fat free ground turkey or ground pork, beef, or chicken

1/3 cup Chinese pickled lettuce, chopped (Chinese market, see photo)

1 teaspoon pickle juice from the same jar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

3 tablespoons chopped green onion

1 teaspoon, grated or finely minced ginger

2 teaspoons dark soy sauce

1 1/2 teaspoon Shao Xing cooking wine

1/2 teaspoon tapioca or corn starch

8 to 9 oz fresh ramen noodles (Asian super market)

1 tablespoon oil

2 tablespoons ground peanuts

1 cucumber, thinly sliced

sliced red chilies, sesame seeds & chopped green onion for garnish

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Sichuan peppercorn & chili

Ingredients for Chili Oil:

3 tablespoons oil

2 cloves crushed garlic

4 to 5 dried red chili, chopped or 2 teaspoons chili flakes (more if you like it very spicy)

1 1/2 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn 

Ingredients for Sauce:

1 tablespoon +1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 heaping tablespoon tahini sauce

2 teaspoons dark sweet rice vinegar (Chinese market)

1 teaspoon sugar

2 coves garlic, peeled and very finely minced

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Preparation:

Mix the first 9 ingredients in a bowl, cover with saran wrap and set aside in the fridge.

Heap up the oil in a small pot on high. When the oil is piping hot, add the chili, Sichuan peppercorn and crushed garlic. Close the lid and turn off the stove. Let the oil sit on the stove for 5 minutes before filtering out the chili, peppercorn and garlic and keep only the oil in a bowl.

Whisk together all the ingredients for the sauce with the chili oil. Set aside.

Boil a large pot of water to cook the noodle to el dente. Rinse in cold water and drain completely. (Fresh ramen cooks fast. Make sure you check the doneness often.)

Heap up 1 tablespoon oil in a wok or pan on medium high. Stir fry the minced meat mixture until done.

Mix the noodles, the chili oil sauce, the cooked minced meat together. Top with chopped green onion, chili flakes, sesame seeds. and serve with cucumber slices.  Mix about 3 tablespoons chili oil sauce with the noodles first and taste it before using the rest of the sauce just in case it’s too strong for you.

You can also mix the noodles with the chili oil sauce first. Separate into two serving bowls. Then top them with the cooked minced meat and the rest of the other goodies.

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