Butternut Squash Salad with Pomelo & Pomegranate

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Butternut squash is in season.  Pomegranate is in season.  Pomelo is also in season.  When I saw them in my neighborhood grocery, I decided to put them together in this delicious winter salad that bursts with flavors and colors.  During the filming of Marco Polo in Malaysia, Chef Duyen often prepared the most refreshing pomelo pomegranate salads with Vietnamese dressing for us.  The sight of the pomelos in the store brought back memories of that extended “summer camp” in the tropics, where every Thursday, my friend Russel would buy pomelos for me from the “Pomelo Man” who drove a truck to a certain cross road in Johor to sell the fruit from his farm. 

This is a relatively easy and simple salad to make.  The only time consuming part is preparing the pomelo and pomegranate.  The best way is to use your hands after you open the fruits with a knife.  I happen to enjoy this type of work where your eyes and the hands are engaged in a task and the mind is free and relaxed, you feel the sensual texture, inhale the sweet scent of the fruits and free associate.

Pomelo is a fragrant citrus fruit that is sweeter than grapefruit.  If there is no pomelo in your super market, you can probably substitute with a grapefruit.

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Roast Butternut Squash Salad with Pomelo and Pomegranate

Ingredients:

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed

1 pomelo, peeled, pith and seeds removed

Seeds from 1/2 pomegranate

1 packed cup arugula

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Ingredients for the dressing:

2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon light maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

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Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400F.

Mix all dressing ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Toss cubed butternut squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper.  Roast in a baking dish lined with parchment paper in a single layer for 30 to 35 minutes.

while the butternut squash is roasting, prepare the fruits.

When the butternut squash is done, take the baking pan out of the oven and let cool.

When the butternut squash is cool, mix in pomelo, pomegranate seeds and arugula.  Add the dressing and toss to coat before serving.

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2 Great Dishes with Fennel

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We went to a friend’s house for dinner last night.  I was to bring a fennel salad with burrata, yam casserole,  potato avocado salad and a no-bake mango cheesecake.  The ingredients for the dishes were prepared and packed in separate containers.  Then I took a shower, blow-dried my hair, put on makeup, got dressed and changed a few pairs of shoes before settling on a pair of Alexander Wang heels.  That was when I looked at the clock and realized that we were going to be late.  In the rush to leave the house, I left the pickled red onion for the potato salad and the burrata for the fennel salad in the fridge at home.  The mangos that I used to make the mango cheesecake were not as flavorful as the ones from Malaysia where I first made the cake.  I’m afraid that I have kind of ruined the Hungry Empress’s reputation.  

So today I remade the less-than-ideal dishes to redeem myself at least in my own mind.  I wish I could switch the dishes from last night like how people exchange gifts that don’t fit them on Boxing Day.

I received a beautiful two-toned ceramic serving bowl from my friend, whose house we were at last night.  I used it to serve my potato salad with the right ingredients for lunch. So Amy, if you read this, this is what I meant to bring yesterday.

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Potato Salad with Fennel, Avocado and Eggs in Greek Yogurt Dressing

Ingredients for the salad:

10 medium red skin potatoes, boiled and diced with skin on or off

1 tender fennel bulb, rough parts discarded and chopped

3 to 4 avocados, diced

4 to 5 boiled eggs

Pickled red onion from 1/2 red onion

Fresh lemon juice to coat the diced

Ingredients for pickled onion:

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

1/4 cup apple red wine vinegar

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon salt

Ingredients for the dressing:

1 cup Fage or other Greek yogurt

2 to 3 tablespoons pale mustard

2 stocks green onions, minced (optional)

Salt and pepper to taste

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Preparation:

Mix all the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl and set aside.

To make pickled onion, bring vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1/2 cup water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Add onion, bring to boil again and then remove from heat, and let sit 4 to 5 minutes; drain. Drain and let pickled onion cool.  Pickled onion should be crispy.  Don’t over cook it or let it stay in the hot brine for too long.

Boil the eggs for 5 minutes (counting from after the water boils) and rinse with cold water.  Do not over boil the egg. The yolks will get flaky if you overcook them.  Peel and cut into quarters.

Cook the potatoes in a pot of water to al dente and cut into bite size.

Cube the avocados and chop the fennel bulb.  To prevent the avocado from browning, coat the cubes with a little fresh lemon juice.

Toss all salad ingredients with the dressing.  Garnish with fennel fronds and serve at room temperature.

The recipe makes 8 to 10 serving.  You can easily half the recipe for fewer people.

I made a similar potato salad with chili peppers in the dressing when I was in Malaysia.  You can check out that recipe by clicking on the link here.

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Fennel Salad with Burrata:

Ingredients:

2 medium heads fennel, cored and very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving

6 strips lemon zest, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon lemon juice

8  to 12 oz burrata

Fennel fronds for garnish

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

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Preparation:

Place fennel, oil, zest and lemon juice in a dish; season with salt and pepper. Let stand 10 to 20 minutes.  Just before serving, arrange fennel salad on a large platter. Cut burrata into halves or quarters and lay on fennel. Drizzle with additional olive oil, if desired.  Garnish with fennel fronds.

The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of mint leaves, but I found the salad delicious without it.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas morning is Audrey’s favorite time.  She wrote down a schedule for all of us the night before — when to get up, when to eat, when to open the gifts and when to take a walk in Crissy Field…   None of us followed her program, and that annoyed her for a while, but she quickly forgave us.

 When I went downstairs in my sleep gown with my eyes barely open, she was already in the kitchen, preparing a sumptuous Christmas breakfast. 

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Looking at her busying herself in the kitchen like a pro, I felt that I was the luckiest mother in the world.  Being served breakfast by my sweet girl was the best Christmas gift I could imagine.  Audrey was all perked up while the rest of us were in our creased pajamas with our messy hair, but her excitement for Christmas was so exuberant that we couldn’t help but join her in feeling the holiday spirit. 

Merry Christmas!

Crunchy Pumpkin Spiced Granola

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Breakfast

Around this time of the year, my brother-in-law’s family comes to stay with us.  They always bring us oranges from Peter’s parents’ yard, home baked Christmas cakes and granola.  This year, they brought us the most delicious pumpkin spiced granola, which we have been eating for breakfast, snack and dinner.

I imagine my sister-in-law in their kitchen, measuring, weighing, mixing, turning the granola every 15 minutes with a spatula, tasting… You can’t buy this in a store with money.

When I was a child, my father would occasionally bring home gifts from his patients — sweet rice cakes, peanuts, ham, live chickens or salted duck eggs…  In those days of scarcity, food expressed one’s gratitude more than anything else in the world.  My parents would in turn re-gift the live chicken and the ham to the artist who gave my brother free drawing lessons or the swim coach who let us use the pool during off hours. My brother and I were always forlorn every time the food was given away.

Nowadays, I get to actually eat the food from the gift bags.  This crunchy granola can be enjoyed in so many different ways.  I served it on top of my yam casserole as a side dish for dinner and everyone loved it.  You can bake the yam casserole before sprinkle a layer of the granola on top, or you can simply make an instant casserole by mashing the cooked yam with the ingredients and top it with the granola.

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Dinner

Crunchy Pumpkin Spiced Granola

Ingredients:

  • 3 and 3/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 2/3 cup unsweetened coconut
  • 2/3 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1/4 cup uncooked quinoa
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice*
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1/3 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil, melted (or vegetable oil)
  • 3 Tablespoons packed dark brown sugar (or light brown)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup dried cranberries

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Directions:

Preheat oven to 325F degrees.  Line two large baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper. Set aside. In a large bowl, toss the oats, coconut, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and salt together until combined.  Set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg whites for about 1 minute.  Whisk in the pumpkin puree, maple syrup, melted coconut oil, brown sugar, and vanilla until smooth and combined. Pour over dry ingredients and mix until everything is moistened. Spread onto two baking sheets and bake each batch for 40 minutes, making sure to stir the granola every 10-15 minutes to prevent burning.  Allow granola to cool for 20 minutes on the baking sheets. This will help it get crunchier. Pour into a large bowl and add the dried cranberries. Cover tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks. Granola will lose its crunch overtime because of the pumpkin.

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P1090389P1090406This wonderful granola recipe is from Sally’s Baking Addition.

Coconut Pomegranate Chia Pudding

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For a couple of days in the middle of a heat wave in Budapest this year, Audrey played Christmas music in the apartment and wished it was already winter.  “I can’t wait for Christmas,” she cried. “It’s my favorite time of the year!”  Through out the year, the thought of Christmas would come upon her suddenly just like that and she would say, “I wish it was Christmas already.”  And after each Christmas, she would keep the colorful lights in her bedroom until it is time for spring cleaning.

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I don’t know another person who is as excited about Christmas as Audrey, certainly no one from our family.  Last ChristmasI wrote about how I was the “Grinch” who stole Angela’s Christmas when she was four years old.  However, I doubt she would have been a Christmas enthusiast for long even if I didn’t ruin it for her on that fateful day.  Angela is fiercely independent and unique in a sense that she doesn’t buy into any preassigned emotional response — the simplistic templates that the society applies to something as complex as life.  She is someone who questions all popular sentiments, and since her early teens she has believed Christmas to be just a commercialized religious holiday.  There are certainly much worthier things to celebrate than that.  But in recent years, she has gone Christmas shopping with her friends and learned to enjoy gift giving.  I suppose that’s the true pleasure of the season — playing Santa Claus.

Having been raised in Communist China, I had never heard of that jolly pot-bellied man in a red suit and white beard until after I was 20 years old. I was alone in New York.  The festivity around me only made me more homesick.  Distant relatives and my parents’ friends took me in.  I remember feeling awkward and ashamed when I receive the gifts from them, but did not have any money to get gifts for them in return.  For a while, Christmas was a lonely and alienating time.  As years passed, I have come to love the Holiday season for the sparkling lights and glittery wrapping paper, for the piney scent of the tree and the toasty aroma of the fireplace burning, for the cozy family time playing banana gram and drinking hot chocolate with peppermint. And most importantly, for Audrey’s happy face when she opens her gift on Christmas morning.

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Audrey and I bought our Christmas tree today and she singlehandedly decorated it while the Christmas music played in the house.  I am finally feeling the season’s beckoning.

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A simple coconut pomegranate chia pudding seemed a perfect dessert for a day full of errands to run. it is delicious, healthy and it looks so cheerful.

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Coconut Pomegranate Chia Pudding

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup coconut milk (not from a can, but the beverage that comes in cartons)

3 tablespoon chia seeds

3 tablespoon shredded coconut

2 tablespoon xylitol or sweetener of choice

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Seeds from 1 pomegranate

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Preparation:

Put the first 4 ingredients in a mason jar and shake vigorously before storing in the fridge for 8 hours or over night.  Stir in pomegranate seeds before serving.

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Coconut Macadamia Blondies At Home

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The master shower is broken.  One of the garage doors does not work properly.  The heater needs repair.  It’s almost amusing how the appliances seem to know that the superintendent has been away and they can misbehave.  The kitchen floor is scummy.  The formal (or former) dining table is piled with opened and unopened mails…  None of this matters. I am finally home.  Nothing is better than being home. 

It’s intensely gratifying and almost a bit shocking to be able to touch the warm bodies of my loved ones after seeing them only on my cell screen for the past months.  Audrey, who was an inch shorter than me when I left for Malaysia, shot up and is now taller than me.  I am officially the shortest person in the house.  When I was away, I clung to the comforting memory of my family — the one constant in my life.  But even the most familiar and constant is ever changing.  What I have missed in their lives will remain missing. I think humans possess imagination because we need to conjure up the missing pages in our lives — be it past or future.

Angela was writing her English paper today — a fictional piece based on real history.  Over hot chocolate and blondies, we talked for hours about my upbringing in Shanghai and how the Cultural Revolution impacted my family and my peers.  Her interest in my previous life — one that seems to have little to do with who I am today, but is in fact the most integral part of my character — was moving to me. 

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At Grandparents’ house before my parents were sent down

Before returning to San Francisco, I went to Shanghai to visit my parents for a week.  Being a mother myself, I understand much more viscerally how they must have missed my brother and me when they were sent down to the countryside for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution. How they must have worried sick about our well being. I was 8 and my brother was 10.  We had the use of their salary and decided to subsist mostly on red bean popsicles.  Other than popsicles, we had rice.  There were two pots of scallions on the window sill and we always ate our rice mixed with a little soy sauce, lard and chopped scallion.  Though it was only for a few months that both my parents were away, it felt like forever to me.  I was the happiest little girl when my mother finally came home.  She surprised me with two colorful pullovers with checkered pattern in the front.  A book worm and a pure intellectual all her life, she has been inept in doing anything domestic except for knitting those two beautiful sweaters for me in the dim light of an oil lamp in the re-education camp.

Now, a little about these delicious blondies — they are vegan, gluten free and pretty easy to whip up. High in dietary fiber and low in simple carbs, they are guilt free to indulge.

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Healthy Coconut Macadamia Blondies

INGREDIENTS:

1 15.5 oz can white beans, washed and drained

1/4 cup almond flour

1/4 cup shredded coconut

1/4 cup roasted macadamia nuts

1/4 cup pure maple syrup

2 tablespoons coconut oil, melted

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Pinch of salt

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PREPARATION:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Blend all ingredients except for shredded coconut and macadamia nuts in a food processor until smooth.  Mix in shredded coconut by hand.  Pour mixture into a greased 8×8 baking pan.  Add macadamia nuts.  Bake for 30 minutes.  They are a little crumbly, so make sure you let them cool completely before handling.

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Frog Legs and Porridge

IMG_0196I will be shooting almost everyday for the rest of my stay here and will not have time to cook. As my thoughts turned to packing, I began to give away things from my kitchen.  Though I will miss cooking, I am excited to try some of the local restaurants that my friends have been telling me about.  There are many unique and delicious places in Johor if one knows where to look.  My Singaporean friends often drive across the border to eat the more authentic pepper crabs, braised duck rice noodle or crispy fried pork chop with preserved beancurd in Johor. 

Tonight, my friend Russel and his wife Judy took me and another friend to a place that specializes in frogs and porridge.  I am not exactly a frogs fan— as a matter of fact I have always been a bit squeamish about the idea of eating frogs — but I went along out of curiosity since they had been raving about it.  Am I glad I did!  It was one of the most delicious meals that I have had in Johor.  It’s interesting how we become more adventurous and game to try things when we are traveling.  That was what I did and I was amply rewarded by the experience. 

We ordered frogs in two different flavors —  Kung Pao and Ginger Scallion, along with some of their other signature dishes such as Steam Egg Custard, Crispy Pork Chops, Tofu in onion and scallion oil and Otak-otak. Their Otak-otak was especially tasty because it was made of fresh fish fillet mixed with spicy fish paste.  We ate the flavorful dishes with a pot of porridge with sesame oil and ginger.  In about 20 minutes, we finished the first pot of porridge and had to order a second pot.

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The four of us pigged out for about US$35 and could hardly move after we emptied all the plates.