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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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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Beautiful Beet Sandwich

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Beautiful Beet Sandwich

Peter called in the the middle of the day and said he had a little free time and could we have lunch together. My husband knows there is always food at home. Having been hungry when I was growing up made me anxious when the food supply is low — my two large fridges in the kitchen are always full.  We live 5 minutes from his hospital and usually it means he can easily go back to work 24/7 at a moment’s notice. But today is one of the rare occasions that living close afforded him a quick stolen lunch at home.  I had just made Angela her favorite massaged kale salad when Peter called, and there was left over beet in the fridge from yesterday.

Ten minutes later Peter was home and this tricolored lunch was already waiting at the table as if I had been expecting him to come home all along. I almost felt like a magician. This very satisfying vegetarian sandwich could definitely last him until dinner.

If I didn’t already had the kale salad, I would have used arugula or cucumber. Or I could substitute pine nuts with pistachio nuts, or walnuts.

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Ingredients:

Cooked beet, sliced

Kale salad, click here for recipe

Goat cheese

Pine nuts

Avocado, sliced

Lemon juice or balsamic glaze

Salt and pepper to taste

Bread slices

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Preparation:

Spray goat cheese on bread and sprinkle pine nuts.  Toast in the toaster oven until the crust is crunchy and the cheese soft. Layer sliced cooked beet. kale salad and avocado slices. Drizzle with lemon juice or balsamic glaze or both.

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Open Sandwich with Smoked Salmon, Fresh Pesto and Pickled Onion

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I made a quick run to Costco to buy bulk food for a friend, who is hosting a large party tomorrow in Tahoe. Angela is in up there in Tahoe at a writers’ workshop and I will be driving there first thing in the morning to attend some of the panels. Instead of succumbing to the temptations of buying oily chips and the sugary drinks for the road trip, I prepared the most delicious sandwiches using the multigrain bread with seeds that was freshly out of the oven from Costco. I used home made fresh pesto simply because it is the easiest thing to do and it tastes so much better than what you can buy from a store.  For lunch today, I made an open faced version of the sandwich that reminded me of the ones I had in Budapest last summer when I was filming Marco Polo. But the resemblance stops when it comes to flavor and texture. My smoked salmon pesto sandwich is so delicious and healthy that you should definitely try it. Or if you are a vegetarian, try my favorite vegetarian open sandwiches by clicking here

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Open Sandwich with Smoked Salmon, Fresh Pesto and Pickled Onion

Ingredients:

Fresh multigrain bread from Costco or any other bread of choice

Wild Alaskan smoked salmon

Cucumber slices

Fresh pesto, click here for recipe

Pickled onion, click here for recipe

Pine nuts

Olive oil spray

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Preparation:

Spray the sliced bread with a little olive oil and toast it until crust is crunchy. Spread the bread with pesto, layer with cucumber slices and then salmon. Top with smoked salmon and sprinkle with pine nuts.

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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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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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Rhubarb & Strawberries with Healthy Vanilla Ice Cream

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Rhubarb is in season — plump, crimson and shiny like jewels. I bought two pounds of these ruby stocks today and decided to try them in two different flavors. One with grapefruit juice, which turned out to be best chilled, and other other with a bit cinnamon and brandy that is better served warm. They are both quite delicious by themselves, but absolutely divine with my home made healthy vanilla ice cream.

Most people might associate Rhubarb with British desserts, but the Chinese have actually used the rhubarb roots as medicine for over two thousand years. Rhubarb traveled along the Silk Road to Europe in the 1400s, and then from England to America with the early settlers.

Why did my ancestors only use the roots for medicine and not the delicious stocks for dessert? As a matter of fact, my contemporaries in China don’t eat rhubarb either.  2700 years after it’s first recorded use as medicine in China, I think it’s high time for rhubarb to travel back to China as a dessert!  I am taking Audrey to see my parents in Shanghai this summer and will bring rhubarb seeds with us.  Apparently the rhubarb roots that are used for medicine in China is of a different variety from the one that we use in America to make desserts.

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Rhubarb & Strawberries in Grapefruit Juice

Ingredients:

5 cups rhubarb, sliced into 2 to 3 inch long strips

2 cups strawberries, stemmed and halved

1 cup or more red ruby grapefruit juice

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoon xylitol or sugar

Zest from 1/2 lemon

Mint leaves for garnish

Preparation:

Place rhubarb, juice, xylitol or sugar, 1/2 of the zest in a pot over medium high. Cook until rhubarb is soft, gently stir as it cooks.  It may appear to have not enough liquid in the beginning, but as the rhubarb softens, it should be completely submerged in the liquid.  Add a little more grapefruit juice if there is not enough liquid.

Make sure that you don’t cook the rhubarb for too long or it will become too mushy. 

Turn off the stove and let it cool for a minute before folding in the strawberries. Serve cold or chilled.

Healthy Vanilla Ice Cream

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cup fat-free Fage or other Greek Yogurt

1 1/2 cup 2% milk, or milk of choice

4 1/2 tablespoons xylitol or sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Preparation:

Blend all ingredients in a food processor. I used Vitamix. Pour into the ice cream maker and let churn for 25 to 30 minutes.

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Alternative:

Rhubarb & Strawberries with Brandy

Ingredients:

5 cups rhubarb, cut into desired shape

2 cups strawberries, stemmed and halved

1 cup water

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoon xylitol or sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/4 cup brandy

Preparation:

Place rhubarb, water, xylitol or sugar, vanilla, cinnamon in a pot over medium high. Cook until rhubarb is soft, gently stir as it cooks. Pour the brandy in and stir for 30 seconds.  Turn off stove and add strawberries. Mix and let cool.  Serve warm or cold.