December 23, 2014 Grilled Fig Salad with Spiced Cashews




A pile of several months worth of food magazines were accumulating so one afternoon I sat down with a stack and some sticky notes to mark the pages of the recipes that intrigued me.  October’s Salad of the Month in Food and Wine demanded a second look, grilled fig salad with spiced cashews. This recipe was contributed by  Ratha Chaupoly and Ben Daitz, chef-owners of the Cambodian sandwich shop, Num Pang with six locations in New York City.

The first step in making this recipe and one of the things that makes this salad quite different is cashew brittle. A good brittle should be hard, but not hard to make. They just require a bit of patience and your undivided attention. Combine sugar and a few tablespoons of water in a heavy bottomed pan over medium high heat and bring to a boil.  Continue to boil over low heat undisturbed until you see a light amber caramel start to form. Immediately take the pan off the heat and whisk in butter and the ingredient that makes this brittle unique, five spice powder.

Five spice powder actually gets it name from the five elements in Chinese culture and can contain as many as ten different spices. Traditionally it is a blend of star anise, cloves, cassia or Chinese cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns and fennel. Since it was banned in this country for many years, some premade blends swap out ginger or black pepper for Szechuan peppercorns. It adds a spicy fragrance and flavor to both sweet and savory recipes.

Since it is the middle of December I was not going to fire up the grill for the figs. A grill pan did the job quite nicely. Fresh figs this time of year come from California  but nothing beats a fresh fig right off the tree. Joe is growing six varieties of fruit bearing fig trees. Our season for fresh figs is late summer through early fall. We keep a close eye on the ripening process. Too green and the figs are tasteless and watery. If left too long to ripen the figs burst open and all their sweet deliciousness becomes a treat for the bees. In our horticultural zone fig trees need to be protected in the winter. Last year’s harsh winter gave Joe concern that some of the trees might have died off.  They didn’t and in addition he made new cuttings this spring to add to our tree collection.
The dressing for the salad combines traditional Chinese ingredients, rice wine vinegar, ginger, scallions and sesame oil. Be sure your sesame oil is toasted, not cold pressed, it has an amazing fragrance and a warm toasted flavor. Black sesame seeds are worth searching out, they have a richer flavor than their white counterparts. All this being said I found the dressing on it’s own to be a litttle lackluster so I added a quarter teaspoon both of  oyster sauce and a spicy ginger syrup. To bring an element of salty crunch to the salad, I added some speck, a salted and cured ham that I browned in a pan.

The original recipe called for Bibb or oak leaf lettuce but I feel a mesclun mix that includes a more assertive green such as spinach or baby chard would make a better salad.  I should mention too that the brittle is delicious on its own for snacking and it would be easy enough to swap out another nut or spice to make it different.

Grilled Fig Salad with Spiced Cashews

Serves 4

Adapted from Food and Wine Magazine October 2014


  • 1/2c sugar
  • 1/2T unsalted butter
  • 1/4t Chinese five-spice powder
  • 1 cup roasted unsalted cashews
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/4c canola oil plus more for brushing
  • 2T toasted sesame oil
  • 2T unseasoned rice wine vinegar
  • 3T peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1/4t ginger juice with honey
  • 1/4t hoisin sauce
  • 1/3c  scallions, green parts only, finely chopped
  • 1T toasted black sesame seeds
  • 12 fresh figs, halved
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4c plus spring mix salad greens


  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and 2 tablespoons of water to a boil. Boil over moderately low high, undisturbed, until a light amber caramel forms, about 5 minutes.
  2. Using a wet pastry brush, wash down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter and the five spice powder. Stir in the cashews until evenly coated. Scrape the cashews onto the prepared baking sheet and spread in an even layer; season with salt to taste and cool. Break the glazed cashews into individual pieces.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk 1/4c canola oil with the sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, ginger, ginger juice, oyster sauce, scallions and sesame seeds.
  4. Sauté several slices of prosciutto or speck until brown. Drain on paper towels and when cool, crumble for salad.
  5. Heat a grill pan over high heat and brush lightly with oil. Brush the cut sides of the figs with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over moderate heat just until lightly charred and barely juicy, about 2 minutes per side, transfer to a plate.
  6. In a large bowl, toss the lettuce with 2/3 dressing and season with salt and pepper.  Arrange the lettuce on plates and top with the ham and figs. Drizzle more dressing over the figs, sprinkle with the candied cashews and serve.
This easy brittle is worth making on its own.
One of our fig trees in late August.  Figs were not ripe yet.
One of our fig trees in late August. Figs were not ripe yet.



December 22, 2014 Two Dips for Holiday Entertaining


DSC_0253aHere are two new recipes to add to your holiday entertaining repetoire.  Kabocha squash and olive pomegranate walnut dips are unique, flavorful and will take you out of the everyday French onion and spinach dip rut.

Olive, pomegranate and walnut dip is also known as Zeytoon Parvardeh and originates from the northern Iranian province of Gilan, where fruit, olive and nut trees abound. Pomegranates, in peak season now, are used in two ways, for the crunchy seeds and deliciously tart pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate molasses can be purchased at Middle Eastern markets or if you are feeling a little adventurous, you can make your own by cooking down pomegranate juice with a little lemon juice, much in the same way a balsamic vinegar reduction is made. Olives, another major component in this dish, are pitted and  chopped to about the size of the pomegranate seeds. My choice was a mild buttery Castelvetrano, but any variety that is briny, not bitter will work. Walnuts are traditionally used in this dish but another Middle Eastern favorite, pistachios, would be a good  substitute.

This “dip” has the chunky consistency of a tapenade or a relish and in one instance I saw it referred to as a salad. We used it as a topping for fish and I could see it topping sliced lamb in a pita.  If you chopped the ingredients in a food processor as it was called for in some of the versions of the recipe, it would have more of the consistency of a dip.  Though tarragon compliments the flavors of the ingredients in this dish, some of the more authentic recipes called for mint and a seasoning called golpar or Persian hogweed. Used with vegetarian and bean dishes, it is often incorrectly sold labeled as angelica. Golpar translates to “rose feather” and has been described as fragrant and reminiscent of pepper or cardamom. Sounds like something I will have to seek out in the future.

We use winter squash in soups, casseroles and side dishes, why not in a dip? I improvised this recipe with ingredients I had in my kitchen. The honeyed sweetness and custardy texture of kabocha squash is a natural for a dip. The goat cheese brings a little creamy saltiness and contrasts with the heat of the curry powder. Sweet or hot curry powder would work according to your taste.The juice of a lemon brightens all the flavors. Kabocha squash dip is a natural for pita triangles or vegetable crudite.  Serve the olive, pomegranate and walnut dip with crostini that has been topped with a thin layer of chevre.

Green Olive, Walnut and Pomegranate Dip

Makes 2 1/4cups


  • 1/2c walnuts
  • 2c pitted briny green olives, finely chopped
  • 1/2c pomegranate seeds
  • 3T pomegranate molasses
  • 3T finely chopped tarragon
  • 3T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1T red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper



  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Spread the walnuts in a pie plate and bake until toasted, 10 minutes. Let cool, then finely chop.
  2. In a bowl, mix the walnuts with the other ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with pita chips, crudité or as a topping for fish.




DSC_0266aKabocha Squash Dip

Makes 2 1/2 cups


  • 1 small Kabocha squash
  • 4oz soft goat cheese at room temperature
  • 1/3c tahini
  • 2t or more curry powder (mild, hot, your choice)
  • Juice of one small lemon
  • Half and half or cream to thin out texture
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper



  1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Cut Kabocha squash into 2″ wedges, place on a baking sheet cut side up and brush lightly with olive oil. Bake squash until tender and browned in spots, about 45 minutes. Check half way through baking to flip the tray around. Let squash cool.
  2. Scrape two packed cups squash from the skin, save any additional squash for another use. Put squash, goat cheese, tahini, curry powder, juice of a lemon in a food processor and pulse until nearly smooth. Add a little cream to thin out, pulse until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and additional curry powder if desired.
  3. Scrape into a bowl and serve with crackers or crudité.




December 12, 2014 Creamy Kale Gratin

DSC_0072aWhen it comes to Thanksgiving I’m “all about the sides”. Now don’t get me wrong, we had three turkeys for Thanksgiving, roasted, grilled and smoked, all cooked to perfection by my hubby. No fried turkey this year, we tried it one Thanksgiving and the combination of a deep fryer and a windy day on a wooden deck made for an interesting and potentially dangerous afternoon.

I love fall vegetables, a variety of interesting winter squashes, beautiful brassicas and hearty root vegetables all appear at our table. In previous years I would make myself crazy with last minute preparations for a half dozen complicated side dishes before we sat down to Thanksgiving dinner. Now I like to roast a combination of root vegetables tossed with olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper and supplement them with some other interesting sides.

If I am at home in the early afternoon I will occasionally turn on “The Chew”, a television program that has been described as “The View” for foodies. The panel includes among others, star chef, restauranteur and cookbook author, Mario Batali, and it was Mario’s recipe this day that caught my attention, Creamy Kale Gratin.
We are not newcomers on the ever expanding kale bandwagon. Joe has been growing it in the fall for quite a few years, before it achieved it’s current celebrity status. This year’s crop was abundant. He grew both the Red Russian variety with it’s reddish purple stems and curly leaves and the Lacinato or dinosaur kale with crinkly long dark green leaves. What most people don’t know is that after the first frost, kale becomes sweeter and could easily convert the most die hard kale hater.

Today’s episode was titled potluck party, focusing on dishes you could bring to a Thanksgiving dinner and I’m sure this dish would be a hit at any potluck meal, Thanksgiving or otherwise. Mario compared this dish to steakhouse creamed spinach, only made with kale. Mario had the assistance of actress Katherine Heigl, best known for her Emmy winning role on Grey’s Anatomy.  Her job, along with promoting her new television series, was to chop some of the kale while Mario made the Bechamel  sauce. I saw that chef Michael Symon was at the ready, most likely in case the task was too much for her to handle. I noticed she did a fine job, Michael said with a bit of surprise that she did a good job and Mario commented on her “mad skills”. She explained that she played a cook in one of her movies (Life As We Know It; I checked)  and they taught her to properly chop. She refered to it as a hidden talent, one of those things you learn as an actor.

The kale leaves are roughly chopped to the stem. Twenty cups may seem like a large quantity but like all greens, they cook down quickly. Rather than putting the stems in the trash, Mario puts the stems in half full pickle jars and snacks on them the next day. The kale is cooked in a large sautepan until wilted, it will cook fully when it is combined with the cheese sauce and croutons. A layer of croutons is placed on the bottom of a large buttered gratin dish. The next layer is the kale combined with the very cheesy sauce seasoned with freshly ground nutmeg. The remaining croutons are layered on top.

Either variety of  kale is suitable for this recipe. From my observation of the video it looks like they used a curly variety, I used the darker Lacinato with long crinkly leaves. I prepped my dish the day before, stopping before sprinkling the croutons with olive oil, salt and pepper. I brought the dish to room temperature the next day, finished the final steps and baked the gratin. The last dilemma the Chew tackled was how do you eat the bread bit? Fork and knife is fine but if you want to pick it up like a crostini, that’s just fine too.   We all enjoyed the gratin, a delicious way to enjoy one of the final offerings of the fall garden.

Lacinato kale in the fall garden.

Creamy Kale Gratin

Serves 10


  • 20 cups Russian or Lacinato kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
  • 1 loaf sourdough bread, cut into 1/2 inch slices
  • 6 T butter, and additional butter for the baking dish
  • 1/2c shallots, sliced
  • 1t red pepper flakes
  • 1/4c all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2c milk
  • 1 1/2c heavy cream
  • 8oz grated gruyere cheese
  • 8oz grated sharp white cheddar cheese
  • 1/2c crème fraiche
  • 1/2c Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
  • 1/2t freshly grated nutmeg


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F
  2. Preheat a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons butter and a drizzle of olive oil. When the butter has melted, add the shallots, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the kale and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until wilted about 4 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Meanwhile, in a separate heavy bottomed pot (think Le Creuset) , melt 4 tablespoons butter. Add flour and stir to combine. Cook the flour mixture for 2 minutes, stirring continuously. Slowly pour in the milk and cream and whisk to combine. Continue to cook,, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until the béchamel sauce coats the back of a wooden spoon (about 5 minutes). Remove from the heat. Add in the cheeses and whisk until smooth. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in the reserved kale mixture.
  4. Butter a large gratin baking dish. Lay an even layer of the read slices in the bottom of the gratin dish. Pour the creamy kale over the bread. Top the casserole with the remaining bread slices, placing them tightly together. Season the bread with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Place in the oven to bake for 30 minutes, until the topping is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
A rough chop is all you need for this dish.
A layer of bread slices are placed at the bottom of the dish.
Next, a layer of creamy, cheesy kale.
Then another layer of sourdough bread rounds.
Brush sourdough lightly with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper and bake. Delicious!


December 7, 2014 Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Asian Pear and Ginger


Squash soup is a constant on our Thanksgiving table. As a novice cook it was the tried and true Silver Palate version of butternut squash soup with apples and curry that I turned to. This delicious soup with a little bit of sweet and a little bit of spice was always met with rave reviews from friends and family. In recent years I have tried to change it up a little. My basic formula is to combine a winter squash whether it’s Hubbard, butternut, kabocha, with a fall fruit like apples or pears and spiced with flavors that remind me of fall, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice or ginger.

This year’s recipe was developed with inspiration from a visit to the farmers market, butternut squash soup with fresh ginger and Asian pears. When choosing a butternut squash look for one that is evenly beige in color and heavy for it’s size. There should be about an inch of intact stem and the skin should be matte, not shiny in appearance. If the stem is removed, it is easier for bacteria to enter the squash. A shiny butternut squash was picked too young, or worse, waxed. I look for a butternut with a thicker “neck” and a smaller ball. I cut the squash in two pieces, where the neck meets the ball. I find that it’s easier to peel in two separate units. I prefer a vegetable peeler for this task but a thin bladed sharp knife will work as well. I don’t always have the time, but when I do I also toast the seeds for a snack or a garnish.

Butternut squash is a common find at the farmers market in the fall  but freshly harvested ginger, that was a new discovery for me. The most visible difference in the freshly harvested ginger was that the skin was soft, not woody and the flesh was much juicier. A little investigation and I discovered it’s not that difficult to grow your own ginger, in our case indoors, since we lack the year round tropical climate. We can try this in the spring when the ginger at the supermarket is at it’s freshest and easiest to root. I’m sure I can convince Joe to try this, maybe growing our own will be the alternative to the shriveled up piece I always seem to have in the fridge.

Asian pears are native to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan and we even have a few trees in our orchard. The fruit is pome shaped like an apple and unlike it’s European counterparts must fully ripen on the tree. Also, Asian pears are consumed when the flesh is firm and crisp with a somewhat gritty texture, not buttery soft like an Anjou or Bosc.

This is an easy soup to put together, toss the cubed vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast until they are soft and browned in places.  The vegetables are pureed in the food processor with just enough chicken stock to make a thick soup. Cook the puree mixture over medium heat to blend the flavors together. If this soup is made in advance, it will thicken as it sits, just add enough chicken broth to thin it out.


Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Serves eight


  • 1 large butternut squash 4-5 lbs., peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1 Asian pear, peeled, cored and sliced
  • 1 medium onion in 1-inch dice
  • 2 carrots, peeled in 1-inch dice
  • 1 large stalk celery in 1-inch dice
  • 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled if necessary, cut into 6-8 pieces
  • 3T olive oil
  • 3-4 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • Kosher salt and pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large bowl combine the butternut squash cubes and olive oil. Mix together, coating the cubes well. Sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.  Spread  the squash pieces evenly on a rimmed baking sheet. Be sure not to crowd.
  2. In the same bowl, toss the pear, carrots and celery to coat with the olive oil that remained in the bowl. Sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.  Place on a second baking sheet and place both sheets in the oven. Roast for 35-40 minutes, rotating trays top and bottom halfway through the cooking time. Vegetables should be soft and browned.
  3. In batches, add the roasted cubes to the food processor with enough chicken stock to blend the mixture. Add blended vegetables to a large soup pot and cook over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered for twenty minutes.
  4. Serve soup warm garnished with pear slices.
Fresh ginger, the skin is much softer and the ginger is juicier.