Taming of the Squash: Chayote and Tomato Tart

Okay, I have two apologies to get out of the way:

#1 – I’m sorry I have been MIA . The craziness of summer caught up with me and I’ve fallen behind. Roaming the aisles of Berkeley Bowl looking for exotic produce inspiration takes quite a bit of time, which I haven’t had any extra of as of late. But I’m back now, and just in time for my favorite time of the year: tomato season. Which brings me to my second apology…

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#2 – I’m sorry that I’m shamelessly using chayote as an excuse to make a tomato tart. The truth is chayote is a stand-out veggie that deserves to star in its own dish. But on this freakishly hot September day in Berkeley — my first free Saturday in weeks and thus my one chance to cook up something exotic for my blog — all I was craving was an heirloom tomato tart. But how could a tomato tart be exotic enough for My Berkeley Bowl? After featuring cherimoya, barlauch, and milpero, I couldn’t just plop some tomatoes on a pie crust and call it exotic. So I had to use that chayote squash sitting in my fruit bowl to get to what I really had my eye on — luscious, juicy, heirloom tomatoes.

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I can’t help but feel like I’m acting out the plot of 10 Things I Hate About You (the teen movie version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) in my kitchen: Cameron (me) is smitten with the beautiful Bianca (tomatoes) but in order to get around her father’s strict rules around dating (my blog’s strict rules around only posting recipes with exotic produce) he has to set up a date for Bianca’s shrewd, less popular sister, Kat (chayote squash).

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But just as Kat ultimately finds love (I would say “spoiler alert,” but you’ve had 15 years to see the movie and 425 years to read the Shakespear play…), so too did the chayote squash find love in this stunning, scrumptious, Summer tart. In fact, it turns out that the chayote didn’t just act as a neutral bystander, but actually improved the dish. The chayote doesn’t have much flavor on its own (as Specialty Produce puts it, it’s a “carrier sponge of other accompanying ingredient’s flavors”), but its crisp, firmer texture helped save the tart from being overly wet and mushy from the supple, ripe tomatoes.

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If you’re still wondering what chayote is, let me shed some light. Also known as a “vegetable pear,” it’s a type of gourd with thin skin (no peeling necessary!), lime green color, and a pear shape. It comes in both smooth and spiny varieties, but all have a crisp white flesh with a mildly sweet flavor. It can be eaten raw or cooked, taking on whatever flavors you combine it with. It’s delicious grated on salads or sliced thinly in a Mexican-inspired Carpaccio, roasted with other veggies, or cooked in stews, curries and soups. It has a very high water content, very low sodium content, and lots of vitamins and minerals, so it’s definitely on the list for people looking to manage heart health, weight, diabetes, blood pressure, etc.

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Back to the tart, if you have time to make your crust from scratch, I highly recommend this wonderful “How to Make a Pie Crust” tutorial by Melissa Clark from NYT. But if you’re like me with very limited time and an intense desire to stuff your face with tart within the hour, keep some frozen pie dough on hand (I like Trader Joe’s).

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Even more important than choosing or making a perfect crust is choosing the perfect tomatoes. This tart will taste like crap if you use mealy run-of-the-mill tomatoes from your blah grocery store. Don’t bother making this unless you go carefully select the perfect heirloom tomatoes from your local farmers’ market or organic grocery store or, better yet, your garden. Promise me!

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Last but not least, I topped my tart with a fresh, gooey burrata. There are thousands of food bloggers declaring their deep, passionate love affair with this cheese– even writing an occasional ode to burrata — so I’ll spare you from one more. But just know that, albeit trendy and “so San Francisco” to put burrata on something these days, it went exquisitely well with this tart. If you are avoiding trends or avoiding spending $10 on a ball of oozing, cream filled mozarella, then you could grate a bit of good old-fashioned Parmesan cheese and call it a day.

Chayote Tomato Tart

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 50 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

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  • 1 pie crust (frozen or homemade) rolled out 1/8″ thick to cover tart pan
  • 1 Tablespoon very good olive oil
  • 1 chayote squash, seed removed and sliced thinly
  • 3-4 perfect heirloom tomatoes, sliced into 1/3″ slices
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary plus a sprig to garnish
  • Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper
  • 1 ball of burrata cheese (or may use mozzarella or cheese of your choosing)

Press pie crust into 10 or 12″ tart pan and trim off any excess hanging over the sides. Refrigerate for 10 minutes while you pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees and slice the vegetables.

Brush the crust with half the olive oil and line the bottom with one layer of thinly sliced chayote. Arrange the sliced tomatoes and the rest of the chayote on top and sprinkle with the freshly chopped rosemary. Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 and bake 25-35 minutes more or until the tops of the tomatoes are slightly browned and shriveled.

Remove the tart from the oven and let cool to room temperature. When ready to serve, top with slices of burrata, drizzle with the remaining olive oil, and garnish with a sprig of fresh rosemary.

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Fried Plantains with Roasted Milpero Salsa

For some, the plantain might be the exotic part of this dish. But to me, the milpero were the little nuggets of exotic, tangy perfection that inspired this concoction. If you’re debating whether to read on, let me just say that my trusty taste-tester Mike threw his hat on the floor and cried out “this might be the best one yet!” So I suggest you hop on board his enthusiasm train ’cause it’s headed for Yumsville.

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First, a bit about the milpero, which is a baby brother variety of the tomatillo. About a third of the size of a tomatillo, it is quite a bit sweeter and more flavorful, but still with a delightful tartness that makes it perfect for salsa verde, green mole, and other tangy green salsas. It’s native to Central America and Mexico, and was an important part of Aztec and Mayan cuisine.

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The fruit can be green or purple-hued and, like tomatillos, they are covered in a papery thin husk. I love peeling the husk away because it reminds me of peeling away the tissue paper to reveal the gorgeous green pears my aunt used to order from Harry & David every Christmas.

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For those of you who have fooled around with milpero or tomatillos before, you know that they’re covered in a sticky film that you have to rinse off. This sap contains withanolide, a phytochemical that bugs find disgusting but that has anti-bacterial and anti-cancer properties for us, so these bug-free antioxidant balls are a win-win! Plus, they’re low-calorie and a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, niacin, potassium and manganese. Boom.

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So, onto this delicious dish, inspired by milpero salsa verde…

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What could possibly could go better with tangy milpero than the sweet richness of fried plantains and earthy black bean purée, topped with a bit of cotija cheese? Nothing, I tell you. And best of all, making all of this is quick and easy. The hardest part is not eating up all the salsa verde while you fry up the plantains. And then the hard part becomes not eating all the fried plantains before you plate them with the salsa and black bean purée. Make sure you save some to enjoy all together in the trifecta of flavors, because it’s worth it.

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Fortunately, I made extra, and it makes GREAT leftovers. I felt a little guilty eating my fried plantains and black bean purée with milpero salsa for lunch next to my co-worker who was eating Subway. So, get outta here and go make your co-workers jealous!

Fried Plantains with Roasted Milpero Salsa

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 40 minutes
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

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  • 1 pound milpero, husks removed and washed well
  • 3-4 small cloves garlic, skin still on
  • 6-8 scallions, ends trimmed
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, halved and seeded
  • 1 green pepper, halved and seeded
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 lime

For the black bean purée:

  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red pepper, seeded and diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 cups cooked black beans
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the plantains

  • Oil for frying
  • 2 large ripe plantains (peels should be almost completely brown)

For the salsa, place all the ingredients (except the lime) on a parchment-lined roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Place under the broiler and broil for 5-8 minutes or until the vegetables begin to lightly char in places. Flip vegetables over with a spatula and broil for another 5-8 minutes on the other side. When done, remove from oven and let cool. Then, place all the contents from the roasting pan (including any liquid that has oozed out) into a food processor (removing the peels from the garlic), add the juice from 1 lime, and pulse until you have a chunky salsa verde. Taste for salt and lime and adjust seasoning.

For the black bean purée, sauté the onion and garlic on medium heat for 7-8 minutes or until the onion is nice and soft. Then add the pepper and sauté for another 3 minutes. Add the cumin and cayenne and let toast in the pan for a minute to release the flavors. Next, add the tomato paste, black beans, and vegetable stock and let simmer for 2-3 minutes to meld all the flavors. Purée with a hand blender or in a food processor until you have a smooth black bean purée. Adjust the seasoning and thickness to your liking.

For the plantains, pour oil into a skillet until it is about 3/4″ inch deep. Heat the oil over medium heat. Peel and slice the plantains at a diagonal angle into 1/2″ thick slices. Add the plantain slices to the pan and fry for about 2 minutes until golden brown. Turn the slices over and fry an additional 1-2 minutes until golden on both sides. Remove plantains from the oil and place on a paper towel to drain excess oil.

When ready to serve, place some black bean purée on a plate and top with the fried plantains and the salsa verde. Garnish with some crumbled cotija cheese and cilantro, if desired.

Kohlrabi Lettuce Wraps

Hippies and foodies seem to rave about kohlrabi but, outside of this circle, this veggie still seems to be quite exotic. Maybe even unheard of. Unless you’re a Fraggle Rock aficionado and remember that in episode 506, one of the fraggles uses kohlrabi juice to poison the knobblies. Don’t let kohlrabi’s five minutes of TV infamy make you think that it’s poisonous, though. It is anything but (more on its health benefits later).

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I was kohlrabi-ignorant until only last month. I mean, I had this vague idea of what I thought it was, sort of like how I think I know what the capital of Australia is, but then when I try to grasp at my notion it eludes me (Sydney? Melbourne? No, it must be Perth…).  Fortunately, my friend My put an end to my ignorance when she came to stay with Mike and I for a week. She’s a permaculture student at Merritt College and planted two dozen of these unidentifiable leafy objects in our garden that looked like some sort of kale. But then some developed a big white bulb and others a big purple bulb that continued to swell and swell until our neighbor Ms. Green came out and said, “Why did you plant that kale in those plastic balls?” I had to call My and ask what on earth it was and she said “kohlrabi, of course.”

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Since then, there has been a kohlrabaissance at our house. Mike, who doesn’t even really cook, has been yanking these things out of the ground and whipping up kohlrabicentric meals left and right. This is one friggin’ amazing vegetable and I can’t believe it’s not on more menus. It’s a brassica (in the cabbage family) and has a taste similar to turnip and broccoli stem. The bulb is deliciously crisp and flavorful when eaten raw (just peel it first), and also cooks to a perfectly tender and juicy morsel. Throw it in soups, shred it on salads, stir-fry it, or roast it in the oven. Plus, if I haven’t sold you already, the bulb is topped with delicious, healthy greens that can also be eaten raw or cooked like any leafy green. Ta-da!

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Kohlrabi comes in two styles: whitish green bulbs and purple bulbs. They are grown all year round but are best from July to November. Everyone from paleo people to diabetics should flock to it because it’s a nutrient-dense superfood but also low in calories and carbohydrates, with only 27 calories per half cup serving. Kohlrabi is packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals like isothiocyanate, sulforaphane, and indole-3-carbinol that protect against cancers and inflammatory diseases. It’s also full of B-complex vitamins which aid in metabolism. The leaves are as healthy as any other dark leafy green, with lots of carotenes, vitamin-A, vitamin K, minerals, and B vitamins.

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The flavor of kohlrabi makes it delicious even on its own, but I think its delicate broccoli-like flavor pairs especially nicely with asian flavors. That’s what inspired these kohlrabi lettuce wraps. These are a vegan version of the ever-so-popular PF Chang’s lettuce wraps, but I daresay they are even better. So even if you are a meat-eater, please give these a try on a Meatless Monday and bask in the perfection of this wonderful vegetable.

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By the way, the capital of Australia is Canberra.

Kohlrabi Lettuce Wraps

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

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  • 2 tablespoons oil (olive, peanut, or whatever you prefer)
  • 2 kohlrabi, bulb diced into cubes, leaves sliced.
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1″ nub of ginger, minced
  • 4 scallions/green onions, sliced
  • 1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and diced
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry wine (or white wine)
  • 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 3 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce (if gluten free substitute gluten-free soy sauce)
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce (like Huy Fong)
  • Fresh lettuce leaves for serving as wraps (such as iceberg or butter lettuce)
  • Fresh chopped cilantro and scallions for garnish

To prepare the kohlrabi, first trim the leaves from the bulb at the base of each stem. Then peel the bulb with a vegetable peeler to remove the tough outer layer. Dice the kohlrabi into small cubes. Then take the leaves and separate them from the stems. Slice the stems and set aside with the kohlrabi cubes. Slice the leaves and set aside.

In a large wok or skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the kohlrabi stems and three quarters of the kohlrabi cubes (not the leaves) and stir-fry for 3-5 minutes or until the kohlrabi begins to brown slightly. Next add the minced garlic, ginger, and scallions to the wok and stir-fry 1 more minute. Then add the mushrooms, kohlrabi leaves (if you have them) and sherry wine and stir. Let simmer on medium-low heat for a few minutes while you make the sauce, stirring occasionally.

For the sauce, combine the hoisin sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar and chili garlic sauce. Set aside 1/3 of it to use as a dipping sauce. Pour the rest in the wok and stir to coat the kohlrabi mixture and cook until the vegetables are nice and tender. Turn the heat off and add the remaining raw kohlrabi cubes you set aside earlier for added crunch.

When ready to serve, have each person make a lettuce wrap: top a lettuce leaf with the kohlrabi mixture, garnish with fresh cilantro and scallions, and serve with the dipping sauce you set aside earlier.

Falafel Waffles with Armenian Cucumber Slaw

A few years ago, my sister Catherine surprised me with her invention of an amazing culinary treat: “fawafel.” No, that’s not a typo or a speech impediment. It’s falafel waffle. She wanted the delectable taste of falafel without the extra mess and calories from frying, so she threw some falafel mix into waffle batter and voila — fawafel!

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How has this not caught on? Dippin’ Dots were a food craze and they’re not even good. Falafel waffle is not only delicious, but it’s also fun to say. I have a hard time calling them “fawafel” though — it reminds me of the troubles I faced as a kid named Laura who couldn’t say my “L’s” and “R’s” (“Hewow, I’m Wohwa…”).

My sister’s invention inspired this recipe, which combines the already unique falafel waffle with a unique veggie I found in Berkeley Bowl, the Armenian cucumber. These puppies are the Cadillac of cucumbers: extra big, extra crispy, not too seedy, thin skinned, no bitterness, and beautifully decorated with scalloped edges. If you could design the perfect cucumber, this would be it (but Ancient Armenians already beat you to it).

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But funnily enough, the Armenian cucumber is not even a cucumber. It’s a muskmelon, in the same family as honeydew and Crenshaw. (By the way, in case you’re nitpicking, I realize it’s a fruit and not a veggie, but my lawyer says that the same 1893 Supreme Court decision that ruled that tomatoes are a vegetable also applies here). Another interesting fact is that although they originated from — you guessed it — Armenia, there are now actually more growing in California than in their namesaken country.

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The Armenian cucumber is perfect for this slaw. It holds up very well sliced thinly because it’s not all seedy like the traditional cucumber. And I can’t get over how beautiful they look with their fluted edges, like little edible doilies. I couldn’t resist the fancy rainbow carrots that were on sale at Berkeley Bowl, but you could make your slaw with any old carrot and that would be fine and dandy.

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The metaphorical cherry on the top of this dish is the harissa yogurt sauce. Don’t forego the sauce.

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Happy falafel waffling everyone and thanks, Armenia, for the perfect cucumber.

Falafel Waffles with Armenian Cucumber Slaw

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 20 mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

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For the Waffles:

  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas (canned is fine)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 cup chopped parlsey
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 cup flour

For the Slaw:

  • 1 Armenian cucumber, sliced thinly
  • 1 white onion, sliced thinly
  • 4 colorful carrots, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley
  • Juice from 1 large lemon
  • 2 Tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

For the Harissa Yogurt Sauce:

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon Harissa paste (or more to taste)
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the waffle iron to the highest setting and preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Place the chickpeas in a large bowl filled with water. Rub the chickpeas between your hands for about 30 seconds to loosen the skins, which will float to the top. Skim off the skins before draining the chickpeas.

Place the chickpeas in a blender along with eggs, milk, canola oil, green onion, garlic, salt, lemon, cilantro, parsley, cumin, coriander, and cayenne. Blend until you have a fairly smooth batter. Add the baking powder and flour and blend on low for a few seconds until combined.

Brush the hot waffle iron with grease or cooking spray and pour in the batter. Cook the waffles for 7-10 minutes, depending on the strength of your waffle iron, until they are golden brown. Transfer directly to the wire rack in the preheated oven to stay warm while you cook the rest of the waffles.

While the waffles are cooking, combine all the slaw ingredients and set aside. Combine the harissa yogurt sauce ingredients and set aside.

When ready to serve, top each waffle with the slaw and drizzle with the yogurt sauce and serve immediately.

Green Papaya Gazpacho

Gazpacho is my absolute favorite summertime food. But because the cornerstone of the dish is ripe, juicy tomatoes, I only get to make it a few months out of the year. When it’s that time, I go buy tomatoes by the flat at the farmers market (negotiating like a crazy pirate woman) and keep a couple gallons in my fridge at all times so I can guzzle a glass for breakfast, have a bowl for lunch, drink a cup-full as a snack when I get home and — you guess it — slurp up a big bowl-full for dinner.

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Well, unfortunately, tomatoes are not “exotic” enough for this blog (no offense, tomatoes of the world). And they’re not in season yet anyways. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and boy do I have a will for gazpacho.

When I saw this green papaya at Berkeley Bowl I thought, “hmmmm…” and then I thought “heeeeeey!!!!” when the idea struck that I could make gazpacho out of it. Cucumbers, green pepper, garlic, and tanginess are what goes into gazpacho, and I have also enjoyed all of those paired with green papaya in East Asian dishes.

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The key to a good gazpacho is blending the olive oil, garlic, salt, and vinegar first in a good blender so that the olive oil emulsifies into a creamy elixir of the gods that will permeate the whole dish. Once you’ve blended those ingredients, you can start heaving the rest of the ingredients in the blender in no specific order. Because I like to make big batches all at once, this usually requires a couple blender-fulls, which would mean you’d need to save some of the liquid to distribute in each batch. I pour each batch into one “master mixing pot” that I stir, taste, adjust the seasoning, and then blend the whole thing all over again to get it really smooth and creamy.

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This exotic version of gazpacho happens to be even more healthy than the original. That’s because papaya is a super food, not to mention the mother of all super foods — avocados — which, along with the olive oil, pack this gazpacho full of omega fatty acids. Green papaya is just a papaya in its unripened state, most commonly used for cooking because it is very hard and not at all sweet. But the green papaya is even healthier than the ripened papaya because a) it has much less sugar, and b) it is much higher in papain, a powerful enzyme that helps us digest protein and keep the gut healthy. It’s also a great source of so many vitamins and minerals like copper, magnesium, folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C. And with 5 grams of fiber per serving, it fills you up, protects you from cancer and heart disease, and keeps things moving!

So blend up a big batch of this gazpacho and enjoy as much as you want of it, guilt-free, on a hot summer day. I served mine with a drizzle of crème fraîche with fresh mint, but that’s just being fancy. It’s just as good straight out of the ladle.

Green Papaya Gazpacho

  • Servings: 6
  • Time: 20 minutes + chill time
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

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  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1.5 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1/3 cup lime juice (about 3 limes)
  • 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
  • 1/3 cup good olive oil
  • 1 medium to large cucumber, peeled and sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced
  • 1/2 green papaya, peeled, seeds removed, and cubed (about ~3 cups cubed)
  • 1 small avocado, flesh only
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and sliced

Put the garlic, olive oil, vinegar, lime juice, cumin, and salt in a good blender and blend until frothy and emulsified. Then, add the sliced vegetables in batches, using some of the water with each batch, and blend each batch until smooth. Pour the contents of each batch into a large pot, bowl or pitcher to serve as a mixing container. Once all the ingredients have been blended and poured into the mixing container, stir it and taste. Adjust the seasoning by adding more salt, more acid (lime juice or vinegar) or more water depending on your preference. Once the seasoning is to your liking, put the mixture back into the blender to blend through one more time to obtain a smooth and creamy texture. Chill in the fridge before serving.

Optional: you can serve this with a drizzle of crème fraîche into which you stir fresh chopped mint.

Prickly Pear Sorbet

Nothing screams summer like frozen treats. So in honor of the first week of summer, I am introducing you to my life-changing sorbet. Yeah, that’s right, LIFE-CHANGING.

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This sorbet is so lusciously and luxuriously magenta, you won’t be able to stop staring at it. And when you take your first bite, you won’t be able to stop eating it. And when it’s all gone, you won’t be able to stop talking about it. It is just that good.

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Who would have thought that the source of all this goodness could be the little prickly fruits that sit on top of the prickly pear cactus? This unsuspecting fruit is a nutritional powerhouse, as are the pads of the cactus plant itself (also called nopales). Both the fruit and the cactus pads have been shown to have many health benefits, including lowering blood sugar, cholesterol, and even preventing hangovers. And the fruit is packed with fiber (over 5 grams per cup!) and impressive amounts of copper and magnesium, two harder-to-come-by minerals that are important in immunity and enzyme function. And of course, a fruit so richly colored is super high in antioxidants like betalains and Vitamin C.

Prickly pear cactus: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/df/Prickly_Pear_Closeup.jpg/640px-Prickly_Pear_Closeup.jpg

But obviously, the prickly pear doesn’t make this sorbet all on its own. What’s the secret? A good ice cream maker, ripe prickly pears, tangy lime juice, and… drum-roll please… just the tiniest hint of serrano chili that will have your friends thinking, “I think it’s there… no, maybe not…but it sort of tastes like… hell, give me another scoop because this is damn good.”

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I can’t stress enough the importance of making this in a real ice cream maker. Do NOT make this “granita style” by freezing it solid and scraping it or blending it later — the ice crystals that form will be way to big and clunky and you’ll miss out on the velvety, luxurious texture of this sorbet. I can’t think of a better way to spend money this summer than on an ice cream maker…

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Prickly Pear Sorbet

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 20 minutes plus chilling and freezing time
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

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  • 7-8 ripe prickly pears (should make 1 2/3 – 2 cups puree)
  • 1 cup water
  • Juice from one juicy lemon
  • Juice from one juicy lime
  • 1/2 – 2/3 cup sugar (depending on desired sweetness)
  • 1 serrano chili

To make the puree, slice the prickly pears in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh into a blender, getting as close to the skin as possible. (Caution: prickly pears can have invisible spines/fibers that are really annoying little buggers, so I recommend wearing gloves when you do this). Pulse the prickly pear pulp in the blender for a few seconds to make a puree and separate the flesh from the seeds. Strain out the seeds with a sieve and set aside the puree for later (you should have about 1 2/3 to 1 3/4 cup of puree).

In a small saucepan, heat the water and sugar until the sugar completely dissolves. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon and lime juice. Stir in the prickly pear puree. Next, use a fine grater or microplane to grate the sides of the serrano chili all the way around, avoiding the seeds in the middle. Taste the mixture when you are partway through grating the chili to see if you want to add more or stop there. Once the mixture is to your liking, put it in the fridge to chill completely.

Once the mixture is chilled, set up your ice cream maker and pour in the mixture, following your factory settings. Mine took about 20 minutes to set to a perfectly frozen yet velvety consistency. Serve immediately or put in the freezer for later. If you put it in the freezer, take it out of the freezer before serving to let it soften enough to be able to stir it with  spatula and bring back the smooth, velvety consistency.

White Asparagus with Preserved Lemon in a Mustard Vinaigrette

When most people think of Belgium, they think of chocolate, beer, or waffles (all delicious, I admit). But not me. I think of asparagus. White asparagus.

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It all started two springs ago when Mike and I arrived in Belgium. As we strolled the streets of Brussels for the first time, we were so confused — and not just because everyone was speaking Dutch, French and German all at once. We were confused because on every menu taped to a restaurant window or scrawled in chalk on an easel or shouted to us in one of their many national languages by a rosy-cheeked waiter with a pot belly, was the word “ASPERGES,” sometimes followed by one or more exclamation marks. We figured that it meant asparagus, but we were utterly confused as to why every single menu announced it like it was the second coming of Christ.

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Could these people really be so feverish for asparagus? I mean, I like asparagus — don’t get me wrong. But you usually find it listed as a side to a main entree on menus in America, not as the headliner. Something must be tremendously special about this asparagus. So we walked into a local-looking place and ordered a beer and some “asperges.”

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The waiter brought over our perfectly poured Tripel Karmeliet with a custard-like, frothy head and… wait, what?? White asparagus. Not green! Just beautiful, fat, juicy, stunningly white asparagus. They were topped with a lemony hollandaise sauce and draped with smoked salmon. One bite of this dish and I understood the aspergemania. So velvety, so tender, so mild-flavored, so perfect.

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I was shocked to find out that green and white asparagus are actually the same plant, but the color difference is due to the way it is produced. A tremendous amount of work goes into keeping these asparagus spears buried deep in the soil so they never see a ray of sunlight. This prevents the chlorophyll that would have turned them green from ever forming, and makes the stalks tender. Europeans go nuts for them, but they seem a bit underappreciated in the U.S. But maybe not for long…

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I learned from preparing these with a friend in Spain that you have to peel the outside layer off the bottom two thirds of the stalk because it’s a bit tough. I also learned that, unlike the green asparagus that we love to roast or broil until almost crispy, these asparagus are best boiled in salted water to maintain their juiciness and highlight their velvety texture.

I decided to pair these with a mustard sherry vinaigrette and some preserved lemon, my new favorite condiment. So simple to make, and adds such a pop of brilliance to any dish. Just look for some lemons to appear in the bargain bin at Berkeley Bowl (or on your neighbor’s tree when they’re out of town) and make yourself a batch.

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You could also prepare these white asparagus with a hollandaise sauce to experience the traditional Belgian/French preparation. However you prepare them, just luxuriate.

White Asparagus with Preserved Lemon in a Mustard Vinaigrette

  • Servings: 2-4
  • Time: 15 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

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  • 1 bunch white asparagus
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 drops Sherry vinegar
  • black pepper and a pinch of salt
  • 1/4 of a preserved lemon
  • fresh mint or parsley to garnish

Trim the bottom inch off the asparagus spears. Peel the outside skin off the bottom two thirds of the spears. Fill a deep pan with water and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil. Add the asparagus and simmer for 6-10 minutes or until tender, depending on thickness. Drain and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking. Set aside.

Meanwhile, whisk together the mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, vnegar, and a dash of salt and black pepper to make the vinaigrette. Cut the lemon pulp away from the lemon peel and discard the pulp. Dice the lemon peel into small bits.

To assemble the dish, plate the asparagus spears and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Top with the preserved lemon pieces and a pinch of chopped mint or parsley for color. Serve room temperature.

 

Watermelon Radish and Pineapple Carpaccio

I work in Fruitvale, the latino neighborhood of East Oakland, where all the signs are in Spanish, tamale carts are part of the morning commute, and technicolor quinceañera dresses fill shop windows. But I think my all-time favorite part about Fruitvale is the fruit carts.

Around lunchtime you can find a fleet of fruit carts along International Blvd, the main street running through the neighborhood. I can’t resist them. Ever. Baggies of fresh-cut fruits — the kind that is so annoying to prepare yourself — just sit there in perfect temptation: mango, watermelon, jicama, papaya, cucumber, coconut. And as if that weren’t tempting enough, your saliva production will go into high gear as you watch the fruit cart lady squeeze a lime, salt and chili powder on top before handing you your baggie. It is this fruit cart experience that inspired this simple but delicious recipe.

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Well, it’s not really a recipe. It’s more of a “display.” Just whip out your mandolin (or a really sharp knife) and slice a watermelon radish and a pineapple super thin, and then display them beautifully on a plate. Then get in the mindset of a fruit cart lady: a squeeze of lime… a sprinkling of salt… a dash of chili powder…  a big smile and a “que tenga un buen dia.” There isn’t a more simple and stunningly beautiful way to enjoy this gorgeous radish, in my opinion.

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The watermelon radish, also known as shinrimei or red meat radish, is a type of heirloom daikon. Its pale green exterior and bright pink flesh make it look like…you guessed it…a watermelon. While it doesn’t taste like a watermelon, it is slightly sweeter and less peppery than a common red radish.

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This nutritious veggie is a member of the brassica family, like broccoli and kale, which gets a lot of love in the nutrition world for being an antioxidant- and anticarcinogen-wielding superhero. In fact, the Chinese have their own version of our old adage “an apple a day…” but using a radish: “Eating pungent radish and drinking hot tea, let the starved doctors beg on their knees.” In addition to its healing and health benefits, it’s very bikini-body friendly, with only 16 calories in a cup.

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You can enjoy this stunning radish in so many ways, so buy a couple and get crazy. I pickled some (see below), I threw some on salads, and I just ate them straight up. But the carpaccio was my favorite so it’s the one I’m sharing with you!

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Watermelon Radish and Pineapple Carpaccio

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Time: 5 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

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  • 1 watermelon radish
  • 1/2 small pineapple
  • 1 lime
  • sea salt
  • chili powder

Slice the radish thinly using a mandolin or very sharp knife. Trim the outside off the pineapple and slice it in thin rounds as well. Lay out the slices on a plate. Juice a lime over the radish and pineapple slices, sprinkle with salt and chili powder, and enjoy!

Santiago Under The Stars

I’m a complete sucker for anything almond. Almond croissants, almond-scented lotion, marzipan, almond paste straight from the tube… yeah, I have been that desperate before.  The word “almond” on a dessert menu can magically create a vacancy in my stomach that just a second earlier seemed stuffed to the brim. If you are like me, then you would LOVE Tarta de Santiago.

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The template used to make the cross on the Tarta de Santiago

Originally from the province of Galicia but now enjoyed all over Spain, a traditional Tarta De Santiago is a beautifully simple torte made with ground almonds, eggs, sugar, and a touch of lemon zest. It’s typically dusted with powdered sugar in the shape of the cross of Santiago (Saint James).  Pilgrims who walk the famous 500-mile camino that ends in Santiago de Compostela (where the remains of the apostle St.James are entombed– or so it is said) earn themselves a huge slice of this cake. Lucky for them, this torte can be found in almost every shop window of this medieval city, enticing almond lovers like me to taste and compare as many as possible.

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The scallop shell, marking the path of the “Camino de Santiago” through a typical town of Glaicia

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Typical rainy day in Galicia

Tarta de Santiago has always been my favorite Spanish dessert, so I was a little weary to mess with a classic. But when I saw the starfruit at Berkeley Bowl, I felt inspired to incorporate this beautifully shaped delicacy into the torte. I wanted to capture an image I have of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela under a starry night sky.

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I decided to slice the stars and lay them in the bottom of the torte pan dusted with a little sugar before pouring the batter on top, so that the fruit would caramelize during baking. The result after flipping the torte over is as beautiful as it is delicious.

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A little background on the fruit, which is also known as Carambola in Southeast Asia where it originated. Its flavor and texture are like a combination of apple, pear and grape. Starfruit is very low in sugar for a fruit (only 4% sugar content) so it has a slight sour taste that makes it great for poaching or cooking, just like green apples. You’ll get lots of antioxidants, potassium and vitamin C along the way.

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It’s important to warn that people with kidney problems should avoid starfruit completely– it’s high oxalic acid content is thought to make star fruit dangerous, or even deadly, for people with poorly functioning kidneys. Also, people on cholesterol lowering statin drugs or other prescription meds should avoid starfruit because it has the same potential to interact with medications as grapefruit (potent cytochrome P450 inhibitor).

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Santiago Under The Stars

  • Servings: 10-12
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

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  • 1 starfruit
  • 1 tablespoon brown or demerara sugar
  • 8 ounces blanched almonds (can be whole or slivered)
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 1 1/3 cup sugar
  • zest from 1 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Slice off the very ends of the starfruit. If it has any browning on its five ridges, trim them carefully and then slice into 1/4″ thick slices. Grease the bottom and sides of a 10″ or 11″ springform cake pan with some butter and sprinkle the brown/demerara sugar over the bottom before laying the starfruit slices across the bottom. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the almonds in a food processor and grind until you have a fine meal.  Set aside.  With an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar until it they are smooth and creamy. Add the lemon zest, almond extract, salt, and ground almonds and mix well.

With clean beaters, beat the egg whites in a large bowl until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold them into the egg and almond mixture until it is well incorporated. Pour the batter over the starfruit slices in the cake pan and bake for about 45 minutes or until the middle feels firm when touched lightly.  Remove from the oven and let cool.

Run a knife around the outside of the tart to ensure it is not stuck to the sides before releasing the springform pan and inverting the cake onto a serving plate. Carefully lift off the bottom of the springform pan to reveal the starfruit-topped cake below. Serve small slices, as this is a dense, flavorful cake.

Roasted Daikon “Bravas” Style

imageYou can’t walk into a bar in Spain without seeing someone eating the classic tapa, Patatas Bravas (meaning “fierce potatoes”). Fried chunks of potatoes drizzled with a spicy paprika-garlic sauce is hard to beat when it comes to bar food, but it can scare off the carb- or calorie-conscious. Why not smear that bravas sauce all over something a little healthier?

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Daikon might be the answer. Like a mild-tasting radish on steroids, daikon literally means ” large root ” in Japanese. It is a staple in Asian cooking where it is pickled, stir-fried, boiled in soups, fried in fritters, or eaten raw. But for some reason it’s kind of ignored in the west, its obscurity putting it on the exotic vegetable list. But hopefully not for long! It’s a more flavorful, less starchy, healthier alternative to potato. With only 21 calories, 5g carbs, and 2g fiber per cup (and very rich in vitamin C and copper) you health nuts out there should make daikon your new best friend.

wpid-img_20150507_200304.jpgwpid-img_20150426_113159.jpgKeep in mind that because daikon is less starchy and more watery than potato, it can’t perfectly pose as a potato. With some high-heat roasting or frying, you can achieve a slightly crisped outside with a tender, moist interior, but don’t expect curly-fry crunch. I chose the roasting method to make this dish even more guilt-free.

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wpid-img_20150426_110914845.jpgIf you can’t find daikon, you can experiment with a different root veggie like turnip, parsnip or rutabaga. Or if you want to make the traditional version of patatas bravas, just use the recipe below for the sauce but drizzle it on fried potatoes instead. Either way, the dish should be served with toothpicks and cañas (small glasses of cheap beer so that it’s always ice-cold) and shared among friends.

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Roasted Daikon 'Bravas Style'

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Time: 40 minutes
  • Difficulty: easy-moderate
  • Print

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  • 1 small daikon radish, peeled and cut into bite-sized cubes
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil + 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 shallot, peeled and sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 1 guindilla pepper, sliced into a few large pieces
  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika (pimentón dulce)
  • 1 teaspoons regular paprika (pimentón picante)
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup sherry wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
  • Parsley to garnish

Toss the cubed daikon in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with some sea salt and roast at 450 degrees for 35 minutes or until tender, flipping the daikon pieces over with a spatula every 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile you can start making the bravas sauce by heating the 1/4 cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot, garlic, and guindilla pepper and sauté for 4-5 minutes or until the shallot is softened and the garlic is light golden. Stir in the two types of paprika and sauté 1 more minute. Add the tomato paste, water, salt and sherry wine and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly. Finally, puree the mixture in a blender until nice and smooth.

When the daikon is done roasting, serve with the bravas sauce drizzled on top and garnish with chopped parsley.