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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Enjoy Tortilla Chips without Guilt!

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I received a package today from Que Pasa with three bags of chips made of organic whole grain yellow, blue and red corn, just in time to celebrate Cinco De Mayo.  There was also a bottle of yummy organic salsa that came with the chips.

I grew up in China and knew nothing about Cinco De Mayo when I was there.  As a matter of fact, I had not known about its meaning until I read about it on wikipedia today. According to wikipedia, the date is observed to commemorate the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over the French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín. It is a victory celebration!

These chips are quite delicious — fresh, crunchy and salty (but not too salty).  The only negative is my tendency of consuming too much of it in one sitting. So I decided to make a salad with the chips. This way you can at least eat a lot of fresh vegetables while you indulge on your chips.  The salad turned out beautifully with such vibrant Mexican colors, flavors and texture. It was so delicious that I had two plates of it. No guilt, though. I had to use a fork (for the vegetables), a spoon (for the salsa) and my hands ( for the chips and to scoop up the salad with the chips) all at once.

The salad was made of the vegetables that I would have used to make a guac plus a few more ingredients. It doesn’t need any dressing except for the lime juice that I used to coat the avocado, salt and pepper and a little salsa from Que Pasa.

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Some of the chips arrived crushed in the mail, but perfect for sprinkling on the salad

Cinco De Mayo Salad

Ingredients:

1 cup Que Pasa tortilla chips

1 to 1 1/2 large avocado, sliced and coated with lime juice

2 cups tri-color cherry tomatoes

1 cucumber, sliced

5 to 6 radishes, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon minced red onion

fresh corn kernels from one ear of corn, cooked

1/4 cup queso fresco cheese or fresh feta cheese, crumbled (omit if vegan)

3 to 4 tablespoon Que Pasa salsa

1 stock green onion chopped

Salt & pepper to taste

1 lime, for juicing

cilantro for garnish

Preparation:

Mix all the vegetables. Lay them on tortilla chips in separate individual plates. Top with chopped green onion, minced red onion, cheese, salsa and garnish with cilantro.

Or

Mix all the vegetables. Top with chopped green onion, cheese, salsa. Sprinkle on crushed chips and garnish with chopped cilantro and salsa.

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Note:

It’s important to enjoy the salad as soon as it is mixed if you don’t like soggy chips.

Fennel Salad with Grapefruit Orange & Avocado

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We are having the balmiest early spring here in San Francisco. I decided that it was a perfect day for a refreshing salad when I saw the beautiful, tender bulbs of fennel in the neighborhood grocery store. I love fennel. If you have not yet tried fennel salad, you ought to. For me, the best way to prepare fennel is marinating it in fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Simple, but perfect. I usually serve it with Burrata cheese, but decided to serve it today with avocado, orange slices and grapefruit slices.  It was crunchy, creamy, sweet, tangy and savory all at once. My favorite salad just got better.  It was absolutely delicious!

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Fennel Salad with Grapefruit Orange & Avocado

Ingredients:

2 heads fennel, thinly sliced

1/2 to 2 avocado, sliced

1 orange, peeled, pith removed and sliced

1 grapefruit, peeled, pith removed and sliced

1/2 cup tender green leaves of choice (I used watercress)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon lemon and orange zest

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon fennel fronds

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Ingredients for Dressing:

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

Salt & pepper to taste

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Preparation:

Place fennel, oil, zest and lemon juice in a shallow dish; season with salt and pepper. Let stand 15 minutes.

In the meantime, slice off the skin of the grapefruit and orange, remove the pith.  Save the juice in a bowl to use in the dressing.

Peel and slice the avocado.  Squeeze lemon juice on the avocado slices to prevent them from getting brown.

Mix ingredients for the dressing in a bowl.

Divide marinated fennel into four to six plates, top with orange and grapefruit slices, avocado slices, green leaves, fennel fronds. Drizzle with dressing before serving.  You need only very little dressing since the fennel is already marinated.

Note:

Use only very fresh and tender fennel bulbs for fennel salads. 

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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.

Noodle Salad with Tahini Dressing

P1090172Tahini in most US super markets is of Middle Eastern origin, but it is an ideal substitute for Chinese sesame paste, which is usually only sold in Chinese markets.  Noodle salad with sesame paste is a very traditional and basic Chinese dish and it is usually made with thinly sliced cucumber and carrots.  Since I swiped a few packs of fresh baby corn from our Marco Polo kitchen, I made mine today with blanched fresh baby corn, bean sprouts and sweet snap peas.  I also added shredded  chicken breast into the noodle to make it a more substantial meal, though the dish is perfectly delicious without the meat as a vegetarian dish.

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Noodle Salad with Tahini Soy Dressing

Ingredients:

200 g soba noodle (I used soba noodle because it is slightly healthier compared to Chinese noodle)

5 to 6 fresh baby corn

3/4 cup sweet snap peas

3/4 cup bean sprouts

1 to 2 red chili peppers

1 poached chicken breast

Green onion and toasted sesame seeds for garnish

1 teaspoon sesame oil

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Ingredients for Dressing:

3 tablespoons tahini

2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

2 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon Chinese peppercorn

6 to 8 thin slices ginger

2 stocks green onion, cut into 2 inch sections

1 chili pepper, chopped

2 tablespoon cooking oil

1 to 2 tablespoon water for thinning if desired

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Preparation:

To make the dressing, heat the oil in a wok or sauce pan on medium heat. Add the ginger, chili pepper, green onion and Chinese pepper corn.  Stir until aromatic and browned but not burned.  Discard the the ginger, chili, green onion and pepper corn. Save the fragrant oil.

Blend the oil with tahini, rice vinegar, honey, garlic and water in a blender until smooth. 

Cook the noodle according to package direction to al dente.  Rinse the noodle and drain thoroughly.  Mix with sesame oil to prevent from sticking and clumping.

Blanch the vegetables in a pot of boiling water.  You only need to leave the vegetable in the boiling water for about 30 seconds.  Rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly.

Boil a pot of water with a few slices of ginger.  When the water is boiling, add the chicken breast with half cup Shao Xing cooking wine. Let boil for a minute or two with the lid closed.  Turn off the stove and let it sit in the hot water for another 10 minutes.  Let cool and shred by hand.

Mix everything together with the dressing and garnish with chopped green onion and sesame seeds.  Serve at room temperature.

Note:

If you are pressed for time, you can also make a simpler dressing by mixing together the tahini, soy sauce, rice vinegar and garlic with 1 tablespoon of water in the blender without making the fragrant oil, but the fragrant oil does give it an extra special flavor. Add a teaspoon or two of Sriracha sauce if you want a little heat to the dressing.

You can also try the original Chinese sesame paste noodle with thinly sliced cucumber and carrots to the noodle.

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Apricot Chili Soy Glazed Chicken

P1090086I was on my way to the Pilate class when I heard the driver cracking his knuckles.  I instantly thought of Audrey, who pops her joints loudly all the time — not only her knuckles, but also her neck the way a burly man does before a fist fight.  Looking out the car window, I recalled how I used to nag her about it — telling her that no good men would want to marry a girl who cracked her knuckles; how I tried to bribe her with sleepovers and pocket money to stop doing that.  Suddenly I was washed over by a craving for her so strong that I felt my guts being tugged.  Missing someone you love deeply seems to come in waves. In the calm sea of my daily routine today, I was hit by a tidal wave without any warning.  The tides of my heart are entirely dictated by a gravitational force from far away — the waxing and waning of the moon that is my loved ones.

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Audrey on the set of Marco Polo in Budapest

Three more weeks to go — the countdown begins.  In the olden days, a trip between here and the US would take at least three weeks on the ocean liner.  I will pretend that I have already embarked for San Francisco, getting closer to home with every sunrise.

Looking into my fridge, I saw a bottle of apricot jam sitting in the door pocket that was a part of the welcome package from the production when I first arrived in Malaysia. I decided to use the jam as an ingredient to cook the chicken. 

Since I am on a ship in the middle of the ocean, there will be no more trips to the grocery market. I will cook with only what’s on board for the next three weeks.

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Chicken with Apricot Chili Soy Glazing

Ingredients:

4 small chicken thighs

1/4 cup cooking wine

2 tablespoon soy sauce

4 slices of ginger

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Ingredients for the glazing:

1/4 cup apricot jam

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoon lime juice or rice vinegar

2 teaspoon sriracha sauce

2 Thai red chili, seeded and minced (leave the seeds in if you want extra heat)

2 cloves garlic, minced

Preparation:

Mix the ingredients for the glazing and set aside.

Wash the meat and marinate in the wine, soy sauce and ginger slices for 30 minutes or longer, turning them now and then to marinate evenly.

Discard the marinade and pat dry the thighs with paper towel.  Heat the oil and brown the meat in a nonstick pan on medium heat for about 5 to 7 minutes on each side. 

When the chicken thighs are browned and cooked thoroughly, pour the glaze into the pan and let cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until the glaze is thickened and sticky, but not burned.

Garnish with spring onion and sesame seeds and serve on a bed of sautéd vegetables. Click on the link for the recipe for sautéd vegetables.

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Avocado and Mango Salsa

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I’m beginning to pack for my trip to Budapest to start Marco Polo season 2.  Though I will be away from my kitchen, I will be exploring eastern European cuisine when I am in Hungary and Slovakia, and collecting recipes to try on weekends.  I will continue to share my travel and work experiences with you, with an emphasis on food, of course.

I found this delicious salsa recipe on one of my favorite cooking website skinnytaste.com and decided to try it since I had all the required ingredients at home.  I also had some tortillas that were getting a little stale in the fridge, so I cut them into wedges and toasted them in the toaster oven into chips to go with the salsa.  I didn’t add any oil or salt or flavor to the chips.  Those simple chips turned out to be perfect for the richly flavored salsa. 

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Avocado and Mango Salsa

Ingredients:

1 1/2 mango, peeled and diced

1 large avocado, peeled and diced

4 big grape tomatoes, diced

1 jalepeño, seeded and diced

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tbsp fresh lime juice

1/4 cup chopped red onion

1 tbsp olive oil

A few shakes of garlic powder

salt and fresh pepper to taste

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Preparation:

Combine all the ingredients and let it marinate in the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.

Adapted from: skinnytaste.com

Red Cabbage Slaw with an Asian Twist

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I read an article on today’s New York Times about a 78-year-old Iowa man, who has been arrested and is now on trial for having sex with his demented wife in the nursing home.  Apparently, he visited his wife almost daily, sometimes twice a day, praying rosary by her bedside and taking her to church on Sundays, and occasionally he made love to her.  According to social workers in the nursing home, the wife was always happy to see her husband and they would hold hands and talk.  Sweet old man is all I can say. 

I asked Peter if he would visit me twice a day when I am institutionalized for dementia.  He just said, “All I want to know is what vitamins he was on?”  Well, whatever vitamins he was on have brought him big trouble now.  The problem was that she was so demented that she was not deemed fit to give consent to sex.  And without consent, sex is rape.  The demented wife who was not deemed fit to consent to sex had to go through an examination with a “rape kit.”  It that even legal?  Anyway, Peter just reminded me to add in my “Advanced Healthcare Directive” that he has my consent to do you know what.

Peter, who usually doesn’t like coleslaw, loved this red cabbage slaw with an Asian twist.  He seems to believe that it contains aphrodisiac properties, and is also a cure for headaches.  So, yeah…

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Ingredients for the Salad:

1/2 head red cabbage, thinly sliced

1/4 mint leaves, chopped or cilantro, chopped

2 tbsp minced green onion or chives

1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds

1/2 cup chopped candied walnuts or candied cashews (I used cashews)

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Ingredients for the Dressing:

1 tbsp minced ginger

1 tsp minced garlic

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1/4 tsp lime zest

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

1 tbsp 100% pure sesame oil

2 tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsp fish sauce

1/2 tsp Sriracha sauce

2 tsp brown sugar + 2 tsp xylitol (you can use 4 tsp brown sugar if you prefer)

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Preparation:

Thinly slice the cabbage and put in salad bowl.  Mix all ingredients for the dressing in a bowl.  Pour the dress over cabbage and mix well.  Let sit for an hour in the fridge. 

Before serving, add everything else to the salad bowl and give it a few good toss.

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