Tangerine Salsa, Two Ways

Wherever I am these days - whether it's Beijing, San Francisco, or Tampa - I am surrounded by tangerines and clementines. (The latter is possibly better known in California as Cuties®.) These in-season cousins of the orange make excellent snacks, especially when you're trying to fight off the seasonal cold. And they're CHEAP. At a Tampa-area supermarket I found a 10-tangerines-for-$1 deal, rivaling Chinese prices.

After eating about 200 tangerines this season, I decided to make tangerine salsa for Christmas Eve hors d'oeuvres. This salsa requires few ingredients and is equally tangy, salty, sweet, and hot. I made a lot yesterday, and can serve it straight out of the fridge tomorrow with a few chips, a precious time-saver considering I have other appetizer, sides, and a big ol' turkey to contend with. 

Another way to use this salsa is to bake fish with it. I bought some tilapia fillets, rubbed them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and covered them with tangerine salsa. If you have the salsa already prepared, dinner is merely 10 minutes away.


Tangerine Salsa

Makes about 4 cups of salsa; feel free to halve recipe

1 tablespoon olive oil 1/2 large red onion, or 1 small red onion, finely chopped 6 ripe roma tomatoes, chopped 4 to 5 tangerines, peeled, segmented, and chopped 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice 1/2 tablespoon hot sauce, plus more to taste 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Heat oil in a medium-sized pan over medium heat. Cook onions until just caramelized, then add tomatoes and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a large bowl, mix together cooked tomatoes and onions with tangerines. Stir in lime juice, 1/2 tablespoon hot sauce, and 1 teaspoon salt. Adjust flavorings to suit your taste. Serve immediately with chips, or refrigerate for up to 3 days.


Tilapia with Tangerine Salsa

Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds tilapia fillets 2 tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper 1 1/2 cups tangerine salsa (see above)

Cilantro sprigs for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°. Place tilapia fillets in a glass baking dish and rub with olive oil, salt and pepper. Cover fillets with salsa. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and serve immediately with rice or vegetables.

Pumpkin Hummus

When I lived in the US, I was addicted to hummus. I would go through a tub a week, eating it with pita, raw vegetables, and (secret's out!) even plain rice if the cupboards were empty. I would make long treks from West Harlem to Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn just for hummus and pita from Sahadi's. Not surprisingly, I went through major withdrawal while living in China. Not even the Western import stores had the mass-produced tubs I took for granted at Whole Foods or even Safeway. And since Beijing's Middle Eastern population is tiny, with the majority working at embassies, not opening restaurants, I could forget about any sort of mezze platters or shawarmas whenever the mood stuck.

So I was ecstatic to finally find tahini at Sanyuanli, the local market that rivals the import stores in diversity, without the exhorbitant prices. The guy who runs the stall sells fresh sesame oil and sesame paste, but unlike his rivals around town, was smart enough to realize realize, hey, the foreigners all want this thing called tahini. Thomas Friedman would be proud.

Since I found the tahini guy I have been making all sorts of hummus at home. Regular, extra lemon, carrot. And since pumpkin is everywhere right now and ridiculously cheap, I also whipped up a batch of pumpkin hummus. In addition to the regular hummus ingredients, I roasted small pieces of pumpkin, and at the same time roasted the pumpkin seeds, which would later be used as garnish instead of pine nuts.

Since imported pita chips cost at least $6 US here, I made my own with fresh Chinese pancakes (like scallion pancakes, without the scallions.) On my street there are at least two stands that sell a big pancake sheets for about 60 cents; quite economical! I just baked the pancakes for about 10 minutes per side, broke them up, and got the requisite "pita chips" for dipping.


Pumpkin Hummus

  • 1 cup chopped pumpkin
  • 1 small handful fresh pumpkin seeds
  • 16-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for drizzling
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  1. In a glass baking dish, roast the chopped pumpkin at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour, or until soft. You may also roast the pumpkin seeds at the same time, then set aside.
  2. In a food processor or blender, combine the roasted pumpkin, chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, water, and olive oil. Process until smooth, then add the sugar and salt. Adjust the flavor with more salt if needed
  3. Dish the hummus out into a serving bowl, drizzle with additional olive oil, and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds. Serve with pita chips or raw vegetables like baby carrots or cherry tomatoes.

French Toastettes with Foie Gras

The only highlight of being left at home while your significant other goes to Europe is receiving food gifts when he returns.

Jacob went to a conference in Hungary a few weeks ago and traipsed around Eastern Europe afterwards. I stayed in Beijing, fuming about the ridiculous cost of a Beijing-Budapest ticket in August (and finally escaping to Hong Kong in frustration.) I was, however, ecstatic when he brought home not only chocolate and liquor, but also goose liver foie gras and fresh Hungarian truffles. 

What to do with these, what to do, I mused, while bouncing around in giddiness. (You must understand, dear reader, that while I am blessed with abundant Chinese food here, I have also been seriously deprived of decent Western cuisine.) The truffles had to be used, pronto, before they lost their fragrance. I was reminded of one day in culinary school, when the stewarding department accidentally sent up a softball-sized chunk of black French truffles instead of a few ounces; when the chef-instructor shrugged and turned a blind eye, my classmates and I feverishly shaved the entire chunk and made the most decadent polenta I am likely to ever eat in my life. Likewise, this time I also had to liberally use truffles in whatever I made.

Unfortunately, Beijing is not Italy or even Fairway, so I couldn't find the porcini or chanterelle mushrooms I wanted for the risotto of my dreams. I finally made a brown-butter shell pasta with shaved parmesan and truffles, which tasted better than it photographed. Then I made french toast.

Or toastettes, if you will, since the sliced bread I bought seemed too thin to be used whole. I mixed the foie gras with shaved truffles and added some salt and pepper. At first I slathered the mixture on the bread before cooking. Then I realized there was no need to add fat on top of fat when the liver itself was beyond indulgent. In the end I just cooked the bread and left the foie gras untouched, with the exception of a few seared bits for texture contrast. More shaved truffles, of course, were sprinkled over the finished product.

Friends who live in China should go to Hungary more often. And bring me along.



French Toastettes with Foie Gras

Mix 1/2 tin of foie gras with shaved truffles and a few pinches of sea salt and ground pepper. Set aside.

Pan-fry a few bits of the foie gras-truffle mixture.

Slice sandwich bread slices into quarters. Dip in egg wash, then cook in a nonstick skillet with butter until golden brown on each side.  Slather the foie gras mixture on top, then add seared paté. Sprinkle additional truffle shavings on top, then serve. 

Goji Oatmeal-Almond Cookies

In the past few years, goji berries, or 枸杞 (gouqi) in Mandarin, have become one of those new "it" foods highly touted in the media. Everyone from health gurus to fashion magazine editors raved about how gojis were rich in antioxidents, good for your eyesight, and so on. As a kid I had eaten them in herbal soups my mother made, but as a 20-something New Yorker my disinterest was purely economical: they cost upwards of $10 or $12 a bag, even on sale.

Of course, here in China you can get the exact same goji berries for 6 or 7 renminbi a bag, if you don't mind the less fancy packaging. (Which makes me wonder why I'm not stocking up to sell for a killer profit back home.) Also called wolfberries, gojis are said to have Tibetan and Himilayan origin, but most sold nowadays come from other parts of China.

Gojis taste like a cross between a raisin and a date. I don't like to eat them on their own, since they are a bit dry. But I do like a spoonful in green or black tea with honey. (Note: Whenever you consume goji berries you should first rinse them in water to rid them of any chemicals they may have.) They're also great to bake with; the berries' natural sweetness makes them great for muffins, scones, and especially cookies.

Today I made oatmeal cookies using goji berries in place of raisins for a twist. I also added some coarsely ground almonds. It's a rare cookie that can be at once deliciously crunchy, sweet, and somewhat healthy.

Goji Oatmeal-Almond Cookies

Makes 30 to 40 cookies

  • 1 cup goji berries, rinsed
  • 1 3/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup almonds, coarsely ground
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C.) Lightly grease the baking sheets. In a bowl, stir together the oats, almonds, flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a separate bowl, beat together the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar with an electric mixer until light and airy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well. Add the oat mixture and goji berries and mix until well-combined.
  2. Drop the dough by spoonfuls 2 inches apart onto the baking sheets. Bake the cookies in upper and lower thirds of the oven, switching position of sheets halfway. Bake until golden, about 12 minutes total. Transfer to racks to cool.


Recipe: Water Chestnut Cake with Ginger

Along with lucky red envelopes, I received a gift for Lunar New Year that I could use immediately in the kitchen: a package of water chestnut flour.

Water chestnut cake (ma tei gow in Cantonese) is another snack, along with turnip cake, that is eaten all year round but especially during Chinese New Year. It's also much easier to make. While the main ingredient, water chestnut flour, may not be a staple on Western grocery store shelves, it is readily available in large Chinatown markets. When I lived in Boston we had a few varieties to choose from. The best kind has a coarse pebbly texture, as opposed to finer dust.

I love how the translucency makes the cake look like marble. I also love tasting the crunchy chestnuts with the jelly texture of the steamed cake.

The recipe also allows for numerous variations. The one below adds a bit of fresh ginger juice to the traditional version, but you can always leave ginger out. I also made a variation using the same amount of almond milk instead of water. My mother used to be even more inventive, substituting with coconut milk, orange juice, or adding black sesame paste. Thinking of variations is half the fun.

Water Chestnut Cake with Ginger

250 g water chestnut flour
1000 mL water, room temperature
500 g dark brown sugar
2 to 3 whole water chestnuts, roughly chopped (or 1 can of water chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped)
1- to 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and grated

Squeeze the grated ginger through a sieve to strain out juice; set aside.

In a large bowl, mix 300 mL of water into chestnut flour, working in a little at a time. Make sure all the flour at the bottom of the bowl dissolves into the water.

In a large pot, bring the remaining 700 mL water to boil. Pour in brown sugar, and mix until dissolved. Remove from heat, and mix in about 1/4 of the chestnut flour liquid. (Don't pour all the flour liquid in at once, because too much heat will cook the flour on the spot.) Set the pot in a basin of cold water to cool, then remove and mix in ginger juice and the rest of the chestnut flour liquid. The mixture should have a thick and pasty texture.

Pour the mixture into a 10-inch round cake pan. (No need to grease the pan, since the cake will pop out easily after it cooks.) To steam: Place pan in a large steamer or wok. Bring 8 cups water to boil, cover, and steam for 20 to 25 minutes.

Check for doneness by sticking a toothpick in the cake; if the toothpick comes out clean, you can remove the cake from the heat. Place on a cooling rack or in a basin of cold water to allow the cake to set. When cooled (about 15 to 20 minutes), you can slice and serve immediately.

This cake can be stored in tupperware at room temp, in the fridge, or frozen. (Obviously the colder the storage temp the longer it keeps.)

To reheat, you can either pan-fry the same way as with turnip cake, or steam for 5 to 10 minutes to get the jellylike texture again.