Here’s the challenge. Create a daily spa menu with 1,000-1,200 calories. Do not use refined sugar or salt. Use fresh fruit, vegetables, low-fat animal proteins, fish and whole grains. That’s how chef Christine Denney at the Oaks at Ojai begins every day. She prepares meals using full-flavored, fresh ingredients. To celebrate fig season, she demonstrated three easy-to-prepare dishes: a stuffed baked figs appetizer, a side dish of fig salsa and a bitter greens salad with figs, almonds and Manchego cheese.
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Most of Denney’s career was spent in fine-dining restaurants. Ten years ago, when she took over the kitchen at the Oaks, she had to rethink how she created flavor. No more beef, pork or lamb. No using butter, refined sugar, salt, white flour or white rice. And, she needed to create vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes.
Faced with those restrictions, she returned to basics and decided, as all good cooks do, that good food relies on good ingredients.
Fortunately, the Ojai Valley is just a half-hour from the California coast inland from Santa Barbara. The valley is famous for growing high-quality produce, citrus and avocados. On the property itself, Denney harvests ingredients she uses in her dishes.
Many of the plants at the Oaks that guests take to be purely ornamental are in fact used in her kitchen. Mature orange, lemon, guava and tangerine trees surround the pool where swimmers do laps and the morning exercise class does its workout. Along the walkway to the 46 guest cottages, she harvests rosemary, prickly pears, lavender and mint. And, of course, there are fig trees growing on the property. In good years, Denney gets a bumper crop.
Unfortunately, this year her fruit trees aren’t doing well, a consequence of California’s continuing drought. In a normal year, the figs at the Oaks are ready to harvest in early fall. This year, what figs did appear ripened a month early at the end of summer.
Luckily there are fig growers in the valley. For the video demonstration, she found a good supply of Calimyrna, Brown Turkey and Black Mission figs.
Use good-quality, fresh ingredients for flavorful and healthy meals
As part of her culinary strategy, she believes in creating meals that are full of flavor. Long ago she realized that extreme diets rarely lead to long-term weight reduction. At the Oaks, her goal is to serve meals that illustrate a culinary approach focused on farm-fresh produce and fruit, balanced servings of starches and proteins, and animal and seafood products low in fat and herbs.
Figs fit nicely into that mix.
Because Denney avoids using refined sugar in her dishes, she likes adding figs because of their natural sweetness.
A good source of fiber and manganese, the versatile fruit can be eaten raw, baked, grilled, poached or made into jam.
Baked Stuffed Figs
Use any variety of available fresh figs. They can be any size you like, large or small.
The figs should be ripe, neither too hard nor too soft.
The stuffed figs can be baked in the oven or placed on the “cold” side of a hot outdoor grill. In the summer, while hot dogs, chicken breasts, hamburgers and steaks are on the hot side of the barbecue, the nut- and cheese-stuffed figs can cook on the “cold” side.
Serve the stuffed figs either as an appetizer or as a dessert.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
8 to 12 fresh figs depending on size and appetite
12 mint or basil leaves
1 to 2 ounces soft cheese, preferably blue, feta or goat cheese
12 toasted pecan halves or 1/4 cup toasted, sliced almonds
1. Wash and pat dry the figs.
2. Preheat oven to 350 F or grill to hot.
3. Trim stems from figs using a sharp paring knife.
4. Using the paring knife, from the top of the fig, cut down halfway. Make a second cut from the top so the fig opens like a flower.
5. Place a fresh mint or basil leaf on the inside of each fig.
6. Place a teaspoon of cheese on top of the leaf.
7. Add the nut on top of the cheese.
8. Press the four sides of the fig together.
9. Place the figs onto a baking tray and put in the preheated oven. If grilling, place the baking tray on the “cold” side of the grill. Cook 15 minutes or until the cheese softens.
10. Serve warm.
Fresh Fig Salsa
A good accompaniment for grilled turkey burgers, hamburgers, grilled chicken or sliced turkey.
Use any kind of fresh fig. For color contrast, use a mix of Calimyrnas and Black Mission figs.
Use a microplane or small-hole grater to grate the fresh ginger root.
After mixing, the salsa will gain flavor if allowed to rest at room temperature for half an hour.
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 1/2 cups diced fresh figs
1/4 cup diced yellow bell pepper
2 tablespoons finely minced red onion
1/4 cup dried cranberries or black raisins
2 tablespoons finely minced jalapeno pepper or 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh mint (optional)
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely minced or finely grated fresh ginger root, peeled
1. Combine the fresh figs, dried fruit and vegetables in a large bowl. Toss gently to mix well.
2. In a small bowl, mix together lemon juice, olive oil, jalepeno or red chilli flakes, fresh mint (optional) and grated ginger root.
3. Drizzle the dressing over the figs, dried fruit and vegetables.
4. Toss well.
5. Serve at room temperature.
Bitter Green Salad With Figs, Nuts and Grated Manchego Cheese
Use any greens you enjoy. For the cooking demonstration, Denney used arugula. Watercress, frisee, chicory and escarole would also be good, as would conventional lettuces like green or red leaf or romaine.
Denney uses oil and vinegar produced by the Ojai Olive Oil Co. If flavor-infused olive oil and vinegar are not readily available, use high-quality extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
When grating lemon zest, Denney advises caution so that only the peel and none of the white, bitter pith are used. The best tool for zesting is a microplane. If one is not available, use a grater with small holes.
Total time: 20 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
6 cups arugula or other greens
3 tablespoons fig-infused balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1/4 cup finely minced fresh basil
5 tablespoons basil-infused olive oil
8 fresh figs, washed, pat dried, stems removed, cut into quarters or sliced
1/4 cup grated Manchego cheese
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds or pistachios
1. In a large bowl, add bitter or leafy greens.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, herbs and seasoning.
3. Add olive oil to the seasoned vinegar. Just before serving, whisk well to emulsify the dressing.
4. Drizzle dressing over greens. Toss well.
5. Transfer to a platter (if using). Garnish with figs, cheese and nuts and serve.
Main photo: A plate of fresh figs (Black Mission, Calimyrna and Brown Turkey figs) at the Oaks at Ojai. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt