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Fig season is here! Farmers markets and grocery stores have baskets of plump, juicy figs, drops of sweet sugary nectar often found oozing from them. Living in California has many advantages, including the ability to have fruit trees in your yard. Fig trees are scattered everywhere in my city. Many people just ignore the fruit, leaving it to the birds and squirrels. That means a lot of fat, happy birds and squirrels.
My introduction to figs was, naturally, a Fig Newton. I learned to love the taste and texture of a cooked fig from that cookie. My mother enjoyed fresh figs, and soon I loved fresh figs too. But I really loved the cookies.
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As I got older and began to go to fine dining restaurants, I would often find unique and appealing fig dishes on the menu. There were sweet desserts, savory entrées and interesting appetizers. I realized the flavor of a fig complements so many other flavors: aged and fresh cheeses, salty cured meats, dessert wines and many nuts.
Fresh figs can be roasted, grilled, stuffed, used as a pizza topping, wrapped in salty cured meat, tossed with a salad or pasta, cooked down into a sweet sauce or baked in a tart or cake. I have even sampled a fig cocktail. But don’t forget you can eat them as nature made them, sweet and plump and juicy. If nothing else, figs are versatile little fruits that have been enjoyed for thousands of years.
Types of figs
My fig of choice is the California Mission fig, with its purple-black skin and deep red flesh. The Mission fig gets its name from the Spanish missionaries who planted them as they traveled up the California coast from Mexico.
Depending on your location, there may be different varieties of figs at your local market:
- Brown Turkey figs are large and pear shaped, with brown skin.
- Calimyrna figs are rather round and green skinned. They are often found dried, but when fresh they are honey sweet.
- Kadota figs are green skinned, with luscious amber-colored flesh when ripe.
- Black Mission figs are black skinned with amazingly deep red flesh.
- 4 bone-in pork loin chops, about 1-inch thick
- Sea salt and pepper to taste
- 4 to 6 fresh figs, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup Cambozola cheese, cut into small pieces
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 egg, lightly beaten with about a teaspoon of water
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- Heat the oven to 350 F. With a sharp knife, cut a pocket into the chop starting from the end farthest from the bone. Cut carefully through the middle of the chop, almost to the bone. Repeat with the remaining chops.
- Season the chops with salt and pepper on both sides and inside the pocket.
- Place a small amount of figs into the pockets of the pork chops.
- Cover the figs with a good amount of cheese, pressing it down into the figs.
- Close the top flap of the pocket over the figs and cheese, adjusting as needed to seal the seam.
- Place the flour, egg and panko bread crumbs each into a separate shallow dish or plate.
- Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
- Coat each chop with flour, patting to remove any excess.
- Dip each chop into the egg mixture, making sure to coat them evenly.
- Place the chops into the panko breading, pressing lightly and turning them to cover the chops completely. Make sure the seam is well coated with panko to prevent the cheese from oozing out while cooking.
- Place the chops onto the prepared baking sheet.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Main photo: Mission figs and Cambozola cheese. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas or field peas, are a staple of many cultures around the world. Black-eyed peas have been cultivated in Africa for thousands of years and traveled to the New World with slaves who were brought to the Americas.
Every New Year’s Day, I am sure to have black-eyed peas and rice on my table. They are considered good luck, just as greens represent money. The greens can be collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard, even cabbage. There would usually be a couple of meaty smoked pork hocks simmered with the black-eyed peas and the greens when I was growing up, a tradition I still follow, although I may substitute the hock with smoked bacon. Commonly known as Hoppin’ John, the mix of black-eyed peas and rice is a Southern staple that has spread nationwide.
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Guyana, a small country in South America, has a dish called Cook-Up Rice, which is eaten on New Year’s eve. Like Hoppin’ John, it is a mix of rice and legumes, such as black-eyed peas or pigeon peas. Simmered with coconut milk, meat and aromatics, the rice and peas cook up into a flavorful meal.
Black-eyed peas, which are actually legumes, are usually found in the supermarket dried. But during summer and fall you can often find fresh black-eyed peas in the pod at your local farmers market. When fresh, they quickly become tender when cooked, making them a good source of protein for a cool summer salad.
The inspiration for this salad is Hoppin’ John. Rice-shaped orzo pasta is used instead of actual rice. The addition of a variety of fresh vegetables and a Creole spiced herb vinaigrette make this vegan salad perfect as a main dish or as a side dish with an assortment of grilled foods.
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 4 cups cooked black eyed peas
- 1 cup sweet corn
- 1 chopped bell pepper
- 2 scallions, sliced on diagonal
- 2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- ½ cup champagne vinegar
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1½ teaspoons Creole seasoning
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
- Cook the orzo according to package directions, drain and rinse with cold water.
- Place the cooked pasta, black-eyed peas, corn, bell pepper, scallion and tomatoes into a medium bowl.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, Creole seasoning, salt and thyme.
- Pour the dressing over the other ingredients, mixing well to distribute the dressing.
- Let the salad sit for at least an hour to let the flavors meld.
Main photo: Black-eyed peas fresh from the pod. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
My journey to being healthy has been one long and twisted adventure, basically covering my entire life. I’ve never been thin, nor do I want to be. I like my curves. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat healthy and exercise so I can live the best life I can. That means leaving behind old flavorless “diet” foods from another generation and embracing tasty healthy superfoods.
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As a child I remember my mother joining Weight Watchers, and I would sometimes go to meetings with her. I also remember eating some absolutely horrible “diet” food with her. One of my mother’s favorites was toast with cottage cheese on top, sprinkled with cinnamon and Sweet’N Low.
These days, I am now a member of Weight Watchers. I am not on a diet, just being mindful of how I eat and what I eat. For me, this is a logical step on my journey to improving my well-being. I was a caregiver to my mother and single mother to my daughter for so many years I stopped taking care of me. Now it is my turn.
Recently, I discovered mushrooms are a superfood, or a food that is nutrient dense while being low in calories. Some superfoods, such as mushrooms, pomegranates and blueberries, are being studied for their ability to help fight cancer and other diseases.
I was not always able to eat mushrooms. I have a very distinct memory from childhood of mushrooms being sautéed on the stove, and when I smelled them I became nauseated. I hated mushrooms so much they turned my stomach. As an adult, I lost my aversion to mushrooms and enjoy cooking with them often.
Making soup with the superfoods
Rustic Mushroom Soup is very simple and fast to prepare, making it an ideal weeknight meal. Most markets now offer an organic baby leafy greens salad, usually with a mix of chard, spinach and kale. These mixes are great as a salad, but also perfect for tossing into a soup for added nutrition and flavor. And you do not have to prep anything, just open the bag.
Although kale is “so over” for many people, I enjoyed it before it became a superfood and will enjoy it after its 15 minutes of fame are over. Almost any leafy green can be substituted for the baby greens, including collard, mustard and turnip greens, Swiss chard or arugula.
A variety of mushrooms can also be used in this soup. Just chop them into bite-size pieces, then follow the recipe as written.
This soup is healthy, filling and satisfying, and the Weight Watchers Points Plus value for one serving is only 1 point.
Rustic Mushroom Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ medium onion, thinly sliced
4 fresh thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound crimini or brown mushrooms, quartered or cut into six pieces if large
1 container (32 ounces) vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 cups baby kale, chard or spinach salad mix
1. In a medium soup pot or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium flame.
2. Add the onion, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper. Stirring occasionally, cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until the onion is softened.
3. Add the mushrooms and stir well to coat them with the aromatics. Cook 5 to 7 minutes until browned and the mushrooms have released their liquid.
4. Add the vegetable broth and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
5. Add the baby greens, cook for 1 to 2 minutes until wilted.
6. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.
Top photo: Rustic Mushroom Soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
In my front yard are two old, thorny Meyer lemon trees. I do nothing special for these trees, just let them have water and sunshine. And I have no control over the sunshine. Twice a year those dwarf trees are loaded with lemons. They cannot be more than 6 feet tall, but both produce hundreds of pounds of lemons each. The weight comes from the abundance of juice each lemon holds.
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The harvests are always so abundant I give bags of lemons to friends and neighbors, make lemonade, lemon curd and lemon cake. But most important, I make limoncello. I make lots of limoncello because I like to give some of it away. I also like to give some to myself.
But this limoncello is slightly different than the traditional Italian style of limoncello. I use the entire lemon in the initial infusing. Most recipes call for lemon zest only, but my Meyer lemons are so lovely I like to include the juice in the process. The majority of the flavor and aroma of the lemon is found in the zest, but the juice adds another layer of citrus intensity to the limoncello. The pith of the Meyer is also not as bitter as other lemons because it is a sweeter lemon. It is thought to be a cross between a regular lemon and a Mandarin or other variety of orange.
Traditionalists would say this is not true limoncello, as my method is different, if only slightly so. I was even chastised by a 21-year-old from Belgium after I posted a picture of my quartered lemons steeping in vodka on my Instagram page. She wrote “You have to peel the lemons and put them in the alcohol (not the entire lemon).” Well, all right then.
Now that a girl from Europe young enough to be my daughter has tried to set me straight, I will continue to do it my way. The limoncello I make is absolutely delicious, so I see no need to alter my recipe, even if I am bucking tradition and offending Italians the world round. If you make something that you like, even if you do not follow the traditional way of making it, it’s all right.
The lemons should be steeped for two weeks, but can be steeped up to four weeks. When ready to finish the limoncello, be sure to have a lot of clean bottles or jars to fill with the liquid gold. Or if keeping it all to yourself, one large jar.
Meyer Lemon Limoncello, California Style
Makes 2 to 3 quarts
10 to 15 Meyer Lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed
1 (750 milliliter) bottle vodka or Everclear (grain alcohol)
2 cups water
1½ to 2 cups raw sugar
1 cup honey
1 large glass vessel to prepare the limoncello (large enough to accommodate 15 lemons and a bottle of alcohol)
Smaller bottles or jars to keep the finished limoncello (enough to accommodate about 3 quarts)
1. Cut the lemons into quarters and place into a large, clean jar.
2. Pour the bottle of vodka over the lemons.
3. Seal the jar and place it in a cool corner of the kitchen.
4. Let the lemons steep in the vodka for 2 to 4 weeks.
5. Strain the alcohol into a large bowl, reserve.
6. Place the lemons, water, sugar and honey into a large pot.
7. Turn the flame to low.
8. Using a potato masher, smash the lemons to release all their juices. Mash and stir until the sugar and honey are dissolved.
9. Strain the syrup, discard the lemons, and let the syrup cool.
10. Mix the reserved alcohol and the syrup.
11. Pour the limoncello into your jars and/or bottles. Place the bottles into the refrigerator, and let the limoncello rest for at least a day, preferably a week, before drinking.
Top photo: California-style limoncello. Credit: Cheryl Lee
Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, has quickly become my favorite winter squash. The texture is somewhat like a chestnut or potato, unlike most squash and pumpkins, which, when cooked are very soft.
Kabocha can be cooked in a multitude of ways, including roasting, mashing, baking and even in soup. They can be used to make pies and other desserts. When eating in a Japanese restaurant, if there is kabocha in the vegetable tempura, I will always get an order.
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I often substitute kabocha squash in recipes that call for other winter squash, such as butternut or acorn squash. The difference in flavor profiles can completely change an old standard into a brand-new classic.
One Thanksgiving, about five or six years ago, I decided to add a kabocha squash recipe to my dinner. Every year I used to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family and extended family. This is usually very traditional fare, featuring turkey, dressing, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, green salad, maybe a Jell-O mold fixed by my mother, and rolls. My sister would always make the candied yams and sweet potato pie, and bring them over.
Interested in bringing slightly healthier fare to my Thanksgiving table, I wanted another option to balance the buttery sugary overload of the candied yams. I brushed the kabocha squash with a very small amount of melted butter and spiced it with warm spices, including cinnamon. When the squash was done, I drizzled pomegranate molasses over the top. The tart and sweet molasses blended beautifully with the spiced sweetness of the squash.
Of course, once the family saw the kabocha squash, everyone asked what in the world it was.
One cousin even remarked, “Black folks don’t eat that!” I replied, “You do today” and explained what the dish was.
Gamely, everyone took a small piece to try. And wouldn’t you know, they loved it. They all came back for more. So I guess black folks do eat kabocha squash.
This soup has an additional layer of flavor added by roasting the squash before use in the soup. You can roast the squash a day before, or if you have leftover roasted kabocha squash it can be repurposed in this recipe.
Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup With Kale
3 pounds kabocha squash, seeds removed, cut into 4 pieces
3 (15 ounce) cans low sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground ginger powder
½ teaspoon ground smoked paprika
2 cups torn kale
1. Heat oven to 400 F.
2. Place squash onto a baking sheet skin side down. Roast squash for 30 to 40 minutes, until tender.
3. Remove the squash from the oven, set aside to cool slightly. (This step can be done a day ahead.)
4. Scoop the flesh from the squash.
5. In a large saucepan, combine the cooked squash, chicken broth, salt, allspice, ginger and smoked paprika.
6. Using the back of a spoon or a potato masher, break the squash up.
7. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook the soup for about 30 minutes, until the flavors have melded.
8. Carefully purée the soup using a blender or food processor.
9. Return the puréed soup to the pot, and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
10. Add the kale, and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the kale is tender.
11. If needed, add a small amount of water to thin the soup if it becomes too thick.
Top photo: Roasted kabocha squash soup with kale. Credit: Cheryl Lee
I have never been a “decorate for the holiday” kind of gal. As I was looking for a pan to bake this pie, I found my mom’s pumpkin pie pan, which I had not seen in years. I was reminded of what a fantastic hostess she was.
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Every holiday meant some kind of décor change signifying the importance of said holiday. Acorn door hangings for Thanksgiving, Easter baskets with colorful eggs and Christmas joy everywhere! Christmas hand towels for the guests, Christmas wreaths, Christmas candies placed into crystal candy dishes. Crystal candy dishes shaped like Christmas trees, naturally.
If there is such a thing as an anti-hostess, that would be me. As a chef I can fill a table with amazing foods, but that’s as far as it goes. I put out plates, napkins and cutlery. Then I turn to my guests and say, “Bon Appetit and help yourself!” And I am often barefoot, because I like to be.
In my mother’s day, if someone stopped by, they were immediately asked whether they were hungry. Then she went in the kitchen and emerged a few moments later in a frilly apron with a fully loaded hors d’oeuvre tray and cocktails. How did she do that?
Being an anti-hostess, if you are a good friend, I will generally wave dismissively toward the kitchen and say, “You know where everything is.” My attire tends to run toward yoga pants and a T-shirt. And no shoes.
Finding the pumpkin pie pan, I knew it was time to turn over a new leaf, or new squash, if you must. I knew that this pan was the one to make my pumpkin pie in this year. It’s a baby step toward embracing the holidays and learning to be a good hostess, but it is still a step. I may even find that acorn door hanger and proudly display it on my front door. Maybe.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie With Coconut Milk
1¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold butter
2 tablespoons cold shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water
½ cup turbinado or raw sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1 can (15 ounce) pumpkin
1 cup light coconut milk
1. Heat oven to 375 F.
2. Mix the flour and salt in medium bowl.
3. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut butter and shortening into flour mixture, until mixture forms small crumbs.
4. Slowly add water 1 tablespoon at a time until dough forms.
5. Wrap dough in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Roll chilled dough out large enough to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Line pan with dough, fold excess under and crimp edges.
7. Line crust with foil, then add enough dried beans or rice to act as a weight.
8. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from the oven and remove pie weights. Let the crust cool.
9. Turn oven temperature down to 350 F.
10. In a large bowl, combine the sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla, ginger and allspice. Whisk together the mixture, until well incorporated.
11. Add the pumpkin, whisk until incorporated then stir in the coconut milk.
12. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the cooled pie shell, then bake for 40 to 45 minutes until the filling is set and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
13. Cool the pie on a rack.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie in a family heirloom holiday dish. Credit: Cheryl Lee