Thursday, December 31, 2009

Our L.A. trip in a taco shell

Monday: Fish tacos at Tacos Baja Ensenada in East Los Angeles. My seafood taco was the best thing I ate on this entire trip, not to mention one of the best dishes I ate in 2009. I can't actually remember everything I ate in 2009, but these would be hard to top.

The secret is deep-frying the seafood so it is both crispy and luscious. In Northern California, trendy restaurants often fill tacos with healthful sauteed or baked fish, which is why I thought I didn't like fish tacos. Now I know better. 

Tuesday: We intercepted the famous Kogi truck in Encino

 and ate Korean tacos. 
They were more more exotic and almost as delicious as the fish tacos, but not quite.  

Then we couldn't find anything else to do in Encino. "I don't think we should make a habit of planning our days around food," said my husband. 

Yesterday: He and Owen went to Legoland and Isabel and I stayed in Los Angeles and stimulated the economy. We shopped like shopaholics, which we are not, then went to Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse, Cut, and dined like fat cats, which we are not. We didn't see any movie stars and it was even more pretentious and absurd and expensive than I had anticipated and the food was not amazing, but we had fun in our new party clothes. Isabel's cranberry juice cost as much as two fish tacos. The cheapest steak on the menu cost as much as 16 fish tacos. An order of french fries: 4 fish tacos. 

Now we are halfway home, about to dine at Harris Ranch off I-5 where I have always wanted to eat despite all the horrible reviews I just read on Yelp. Because it is there. 

Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 28, 2009

When is a jelly donut not a jelly donut?

When you buy it at the Big Sur Bakery. 

A thin vein of chopped apple bits and cinnamon is not jelly. Once I got over the initial disappointment, I loved this apple fritter very much.

We saw Fantastic Mr. Fox last night and once I got over the callous and wrong-headed portrayal of chickens, I loved this zany movie very much. 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

We had a fantastic dinner, but I'm glad the Moro cookbook won

We're in Big Sur, where it is drippy and rainy and we are sitting on the drippy and rainy patio of a dumpy but okay motel because the children are sleeping in the dumpy but okay motel room. I looked over and they were snuggled together in the bed and for an instant I enjoyed the illusion that they actually like each other. 

We're taking a few days off to drive down to Los Angeles and Legoland and made a detour to Big Sur strictly so I could eat at the Big Sur Bakery, which I read about last year in the New York Times Magazine and have wanted to visit ever since. I appreciate my husband's forbearance; he couldn't care less. Actually, the children care less. We sat down and Owen said, "Do they have hot dogs?"

It's a sweet, rustic, hand-crafted kind of restaurant, and our beautiful waitress wore pigtails and looked like a milkmaid, if milkmaids went to college. You know how there are women who seem born to be someone's Muse? She was like that. The restaurant's male clientele had either shaved their heads and were sporting precise, arty little goatees, or had lots of leonine hair and beards and talked and laughed really loudly and lustily. They looked like they were all heavy-drinking heterosexual oil painters, or trying to emulate heavy drinking heterosexual oil painters because heavy drinking heterosexual oil painters have more fun. I'm trying, probably unsuccessfully, to capture the ambiance of this place, which was fascinating. Needless to say, we did not fit in.

The food was straight-ahead Alice Waters-style, ingredient-driven, strenuously simple, "let the underlying favors speak," and so on. I like that. They ran out of bread, which was a bad thing for a bakery to do. The kids' pizzas had skinny, blistered crusts and were topped with non-stingy quantities of fresh mozzarella. The beet salad was nice. The wood-roasted cod was scrumptious. My husband didn't like the menu: "Whenever I order the risotto it means there's nothing I really want." I know what he means; there was nothing on there that I couldn't or wouldn't cook at home, but I don't ordinarily mind that.

The thing that struck me was the prices. A dish of olives was $6.50, which is a lot for something other restaurants present for free. I expected to pay in the $20s for entrees here, which we did and which seemed fair, but the salads -- plain, austere salads -- were all around $14. I'm not complaining, or maybe I just know better than to complain. I know that a restaurant like this is a labor of love and the love is definitely there and no one is getting rich and everything we ate was lovely and you have to shell out for properly produced, immaculately prepared food. I'm just noting, for the record, that I can make, and have made, an organic, local beet salad at home for, I don't know, $2? At prices like the Big Sur Bakery charges you just want a tiny bit more pizzazz from a beet salad. Or I do. If I didn't cook, maybe I'd feel differently.

The jelly donuts are supposed to be mind-blowing, but I suspect they're all gone by now. 

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A post for my mother: A beautiful baby and a Christmas tree lane

Well, maybe not beautiful in this particular photo, but, in person, my sister's son Ben is a little Mark Ruffalo. There's no Hollywood star as chic and lovely as my grandmother.
As for the "Christmas tree lane". . .
How many glasses of sparkling citrus champagne punch had I imbibed when I tottered down that "Christmas tree lane?" Apparently so many that I couldn't keep my eyes open. The photographer must have had a few pops himself, given the blurriness of the shot. I like it! If someone would just take becomingly blurry photos of me looking merry I would probably post nothing but pictures of myself on this blog. 

My cousin Gardner lives on the so-called "Christmas tree lane," a.k.a. Eucalyptus Avenue in the town of San Carlos, California and it is a truly magical place, one of those streets where everyone seems to go simultaneously insane on December 1. When people buy houses here, the holiday thing is a required disclosure. Gardner and his wife, Jen, hosted us on Christmas Eve and produced this crazy good Emeril Lagasse sparkling citrus champagne punch made with limoncello, vodka, champagne and lemon juice, which we stood in the driveway drinking as people paraded past. I can't recommend this punch more ardently. They served other delicious things, like a blue cheese sauce that was poured over the beef tenderloin, proof that you really can successfully gild a lily.
In other news, this was the end result of our frenzied holiday baking:

Isabel and I had many thoughts on individual cookies that I wanted to share, but we were so busy baking that I couldn't get around to posting and now it is all a distant memory. 
Owen did not contribute. He  was invited to help, but instead lay on the floor by the heater reading monster books. We were all fine with that. 

Meanwhile, our savagely wounded hen survives, though she is by no means healed. I used a whole tube of Bacitracin on her yesterday and am going to buy another one today, as well as a raccoon trap. The humane kid. It's either a trap, or a Great Pyrenees livestock dog, which would be my preference, but I would also like to stay married. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Quince it is

It's curious that quince are creamy and pale, like pears, but Spanish quince paste is burgundy, like red wine. 

The Moro roast duck was duck as usual which is to say, it threw off epic quantities of fat while retaining a puny amount of grayish meat that clung tightly to the brittle bones. To make the quince sauce, you remove most of the fat from the pan drippings, add sherry and quince paste and cook until you have a sweet-tart gravy. By coincidence, I had also baked the Moro flatbreads (stellar!!) and when I composed a sandwich with the pillowy bread, crackly skin, meat, and jammy sauce, it tasted like Peking duck. Only missing were slivered green onions and chopsticks. 

My mother has just told me I can't post a macabre chicken story that unfolded last night: "People don't want to read about things like that. You've lost enough chickens, no one wants to know about how you lost this one. Write about a beautiful baby, or a Christmas tree lane." 

A Christmas tree lane? 

I don't know any stories about Christmas tree lanes, but she's right about withholding the chicken story, at least on Christmas Eve. Plus, we haven't actually lost this hen. I practiced some amateur veterinary medicine and if she pulls through, it will be a heartwarming tale of a brave little bird and a sadistic raccoon. If she dies, maybe I will save it for Halloween. 

I just had my mother proofread this post. She said, "What are you talking about that you don't know stories about a Christmas tree lane? We go to one every year and we're going tonight. The man who has 250,000 lights and brings in snow? The toboggans? The people who walk up and down the street and sit out in front of their houses and meet and greet? It's just charming!"

She seemed hurt that I didn't instantly jump on the Christmas tree lane story, but now I have and you know what? She's right. It's much nicer than the chicken story.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Moro mystery meal

Whatever could it be?  There appears to be a heel of bread on a chipped blue plate, and some mysterious matter contained in a bowl atop which float puddles of what could be oil and lumps and flecks and globules of what could be anything at all. 

I'm continuing to try to choose dishes from Moro that are challenging or expensive or exotic and therefore exciting to cook. Since exotic and expensive are unsustainable, I've recently made two dinners that involved poached eggs, as there is still a small challenge/thrill attached. (Until recently, I'd never poached an egg.)

The first poached egg dish was Moro's garlic soup, which was rudimentary but outstanding. You separate four heads of garlic into cloves, cook in olive oil until soft, squeeze the velvety garlic out of the skins and puree with chicken stock and paprika. Just before serving, poach eggs in the soup, one for each eater. Thick and rich and a big success.

Yesterday I made the meal above: poached eggs with yogurt, sage, and paprika. You pound garlic with salt and mix with some homemade (or Greek) yogurt. Put a dollop of yogurt in each person's bowl. Brown some butter, fry a little bit of sage, poach an egg. Put egg on top of the yogurt, put sage and butter on top of egg, sprinkle paprika over all and serve with toast. It sounds weird, possibly even icky, but the yogurt is substantial and super-garlicky, like one of those pungent Greek dips you scoop up with pita bread, and the whole ensemble is craveworthy. You should have seen Owen gobbling it up. 

Tonight: roast duck with membrillo and some crazy "wind-dried" tuna I had to mail order. Definitely expensive, I'm hoping for exotic, and perhaps, if I'm lucky, not too challenging.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baking is calming

I don't want to be a person who tweets grave news or posts it on her food blog, but now that the episode has ended happily, I can write here that my mother was in the hospital for a few days. I understood she was very sick when a nurse said to me, "She's very sick." She's home now, and almost back to her loquacious and vibrant and pleasingly bossy self. Fluids, blood transfusions and
Dilaudid were. . . . just what the doctor ordered.

It was clear she was in sorry shape when she wouldn't touch the homemade chocolate croissants I brought to the hospital, as my mother is ordinarily one of the world's most enthusiastic and appreciative eaters.  My new goal is to become proficient at truly intimidating baking endeavors like croissants, danish pastries and napoleons and feed them to her. It's magical thinking -- bake it and she will eat! -- but what's wrong with that? The first project went fine, at least the baking part of it. The pains au chocolat were handsome
but full of hidden flaws. The dough was damp and leathery where the butter in the dough melted in clumps, and I used too much chocolate.  It's tempting to pile up the chocolate, but you really need to be sparing, especially if you don't like chocolate. Further experiments will include replacing dark chocolate with milk chocolate, chestnut cream, coconut, and the pineapple jam from Hawaii.

To use up aging bananas, I also baked the easy cocoa-nana bread from Dorie Greenspan's Baking
I like baking things with chocolate because my children enjoy eating them, but I am not tempted.

I am also not tempted to eat scones, more than 20 minutes after they come from the oven. These are Dorie Greenspan's nutmeg scones
Yummy scones, but not more than an hour out of the oven.

And finally, here is the coconut layer cake I baked for Isabel's third 13th birthday party, the party that really matters, the one with her friends, the one she has been planning since July that began with manicures followed by a meal at the Cheesecake Factory, then screaming laughter, loud music, and banging sounds (dancing? jumping on bed? hard to tell with girls this age) from her bedroom. 
The young ladies are sleeping off the candy and Lady Gaga marathon as I type.  Though they wear skinny jeans, Abercrombie shirts, and long hair that looks like it was ironed, they all have decorous old-fashioned literary names. My peers were Kim and Lisa and Hilary and Lindsay.  Isabel's are Camille and Kate and Grace and Juliet, names you might find in an Edwardian novel. Just like Isabel. Name trends are fascinating. 
I asked my husband how the cake was. 

Husband: "Not very good."

Tipsy: "You're kidding." 

Husband: "No."

Tipsy: "That wasn't a very nice thing to say."

Husband: "It was dry. Do you want me to lie?"

Silence. Yes?

My grandmother is staying with my mother as she recovers, and to escape teen shrieking, last night Owen and I went over to her house and the four of us watched Under the Same Moon. It was sweet. Not the movie, the whole experience, although the movie -- about a 9-year-old boy who travels by himself from Mexico to find his mother in East L.A. and encounters drug addicts, mariachi bands, America Ferrera, and unbelievably good luck along the road -- was sweet, too. If you want to please a 97-year-old Hispanophone, a sentimental convalescent mother, and a 9-year-old boy, this movie is pretty much the perfect choice. Maybe the only choice.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Maybe you really do have to pay to play

Yesterday's New York Times food section pre-empts regular programming. You have to read this  article about Alabama layer cakes -- from which I swiped the beautiful photo above of Martha Meadows and her "little layer cake." Kim Severson writes at length about Southern holiday cake-baking traditions, which are, apparently, venerable and highly localized. (Scott Peacock, who collaborated on a cookbook with Edna Lewis, is collecting oral histories of the women "in their 80s, 90s, and 100s" who bake these cakes, which sounds like possibly the best job in the world.) The story includes two recipes, including one for that mighty tower of a "little" cake in the picture. It looks delicious. It looks very, very hard. It looks a little bit like a Dobos torte.

The whole food section was phenomenal yesterday. Not sure what to make of the square watermelon, but want to bake stollen and peanut butter blossoms and taste some Moser Truffel

Back to Moro & me.

I tested the theory about being crabbier when I cook a routine, practical dinner. Monday -- night of roast chicken and cauliflower -- I was glum and snippy. Tuesday night, made Moro's pea soup with jamon serrano and just opening the little packet of jamon gave me a buzz. Felt fancy. You chop up the jamon and cook it with frozen peas, mint, chicken stock and some other stuff, puree it, and there's dinner. As closure to a rainy day of working, carpooling, arguing over long division, feeding chickens, and cleaning up cat pee, a few slices of jamon struck me as cash well spent on mental health.
Also, cash well spent on soup. Outstanding soup.
Last night, we had a hot chorizo and bean salad for which I bought the specified imported judion beans. Moro describes these as "plump and luxuriously creamy." 
And they were! Which is nice because they cost fourteen times more than what I usually pay for beans. Literally, fourteen times. I won't buy them ever again, but they were huge and buttery and unlike any other bean I've cooked before, and I'm not sorry I bought them once. The recipe calls for briefly marinating the beans with thinly sliced onion, halved cherry tomatoes, and a vinaigrette, then over all of this you toss hot fried chorizo. It was the most delicious dinner I've cooked out of Moro yet, made possible by going to a special store (Spanish Table) and spending extra money.
There's a lesson in this, and it's kind of depressing.
But let's talk about depressing. Later, about to go to bed, I heard a feral scream from the backyard, ran outside with a flashlight and saw a raccoon had peeled back the chicken wire from one of the gaps in the hen house. I've been waiting for the clever, hateful raccoons to weigh in on our poultry project, and this was my lucky night. With his fidgety little paws, this one had unhooked wire from nails and rolled it away from the side of the house and was about to slither in. His pointy face was framed by the inside of the "window" and we stood there staring at each other for about 45 seconds, me, in my pajamas shining a flashlight in his eyes; him, frozen, hoping I would depart so he could begin killing and eating his dinner. My husband came down with a stick and we chased off the raccoon, who then crouched in the street and insolently observed us for a while.  We spent 20 minutes patching every tiny hole in the chicken house from the inside, with a hammer and scrap wood, while all around us the hens purred and clucked. We must really love these chickens because eggs really aren't worth the trouble.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An almost horror story

Two nights ago, Owen and I could not find Rhoda, one of our favorite chicks. She's perky, smart, and rust-colored.  We searched the yard with a flashlight, then hoped she'd turn up in the morning. She didn't.

We mourned the loss, Owen especially. Even Isabel, who finds our poultry operation eccentric and embarrassing, was sad. Rhoda is an unusually sweet pullet.
Another night passed.

This morning my husband was straightening up the chicken run and picked up an overturned litter box that had been used for food at some point. Underneath, was Rhoda, alive, 2 feet from the coop.

Two reactions:

1. deep gratitude that Owen did not pick up that litter box three days from now

2. I need to keep a tidier chicken run

That's Alberta Einstein after a few minutes in the rain. You should see her after a few hours -- the fluffy head of feathers turns stringy and muddy and droops around her face like a greasy pageboy haircut. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

The kitchen bitch vs. bitchy in the kitchen

Owen has claimed Isabel's Snuggie as his own, a practice we called "Indian giving" back in the day. They don't use that term around the schoolyard anymore, which is probably for the best. The Snuggie makes him look a little like Max in the Wild Things book, and I sometimes even think he acts more demanding and imperious when he's wearing his cape.

One quirk of our picky family is that everyone loves salad, so the other night we had feta salad with pita crisps out of Moro. It was fine; I was trying to diet. See wooden salad bowl in foreground. Didn't get around to setting a gracious table that night.

Yesterday, I roasted chicken with harissa and made the cauliflower with pinenuts, saffron and raisins, also from Moro recipes. I was feeling very disspirited and bored and cooking dinner seemed like a monumental drag and I decided it's because I've been picking the most boring, frugal, and easy dishes out of the book. There's little excitement in a conscientious work- and child-centered day if you eliminate even the cheap thrill of grilling a quail, or frying an imported chorizo. I am much less crabby when I try something new or fancy or challenging or exotic. 

This is why I took Dan Duane's side in Eizabeth Weil's New York Times Magazine story that all my friends were talking about a week ago. Let the guy go wild in the kitchen, I thought. Especially if you won't French kiss! (You have to read the story.) A pig's head and some squab are cheaper than a divorce.

But I had more sympathy for Weil after reading Hanna Rosin's Doublex piece today about culinary turf wars and the rise of the male "kitchen bitch." You can read it here. I know these men, the ones who have you over for big, showy dinners with pricey cuts of meat and Tuscan wines while the little brown wren of a wife quietly clears away the dirty glasses. 

I don't know what I would call my husband's kitchen persona, but this is not it. When I came back from Hawaii, the refrigerator was full of Oscar Mayer products, the super-cheap milk from Walgreens, and half-eaten jars of spaghetti sauce. Frustrating in its own way, but at least there are no power struggles over who's making Christmas dinner.

I started to wonder if I'm guilty of what Rosin and Weil complain about, of forcing my spouse to do the childcare while I pour my energy into time-consuming, show-offy cooking feats. On occasion, yes. But after some soul-searching, I acquitted myself. Almost all my cooking, ambitious or otherwise, occurs between 5 and 7:15 p.m. when I'm alone in the house with the children, helping with long division homework and listening to them fight. Cooking just keeps my hands busy; I'm available, but not idle. What else would I do? 

In other news, I just read a dark little book (physically little, not little in any other way) called American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell. If I had my own 2009 top ten list, this would be on it.  Campbell's stories are scary, precise and exquisitely written; the characters are meth addicts, salvage yard operators, and struggling Michigan farmers, so-called "ordinary" people but they're not given the usual, solemn "ordinary" treatment. It's funny and wicked and brilliant. Highly recommend -- but not for everyone. Definitely not for my mother, for instance. If you don't like dark, disturbing books, I would instead recommend Mennonite in a Little Back Dress by Rhoda Janzen, which I also loved, and is sweet, witty and altogether delightful.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

She's no mall rat

I need to correct an error from a previous post. Isabel wanted to go to the mall strictly to buy Secret Santa presents; she and her friend had no other agenda. I was wrong to poke fun and will be more sensitive in the future.

We had a second "family" birthday party for her the other night, this one with my father and sister. Divorce may be hell on the kids, but it's a bonanza for the grandkids. Isabel didn't get to choose the whole menu, just the dessert.

We started with two easy appetizers out of Moro.

The paprika roasted almonds are billed as a "delicious accompaniment to a glass of chilled fino sherry." I'm sure they are.  I went to the Spanish Table today and looked at all the sherries and was impressed and fascinated by both the variety and the prices, but while I'm eager to learn more about sherry, I need to do more research before investing. 

Even without a glass of chilled fino, it's hard to pass up a roasted nut.
I also assembled some Manchego with membrillo (quince paste), one of the genius food pairings of all time.
I have enthused about Manchego and membrillo before and while it's not exactly a recipe, Moro finally taught me how to serve it properly -- in triangles cut to 1/8 the circumference of the cheese. Almost worth the price of the book. It would be interesting and thrifty to learn to make membrillo should our quince tree ever fruit.
For the main course: Moro's pork loin braised in milk, which is similar to the incredible Marcella Hazan version. If you are unfamiliar with Hazan's dish, you should to try it immediately -- recipe is reprinted here.  I prefer Macella's to the Moro version as she permits the use of pork butt while Moro is very specific about pork loin, a cut that, as always, I found pallid and dry. Justine says she's coming around on pork loin, that when she eats pork butt she feels sick afterwards. I wonder if this is because it's fattier or because it's so much better that she eats more.

Dessert was a fat-free angel food cake that used up a jar of egg whites.

Isabel did not approve of this frumpy, unadorned cake and requested I make some rocky road ice cream to go with. Which I did (David Lebovitz recipe, awesome), because she's a lovely daughter and a girl only has three thirteenth birthday parties. 

While I was napping

That's a clone of a Mars Munch Bar that my husband and Owen  made out of Todd Wilbur's Top Secret Recipes Unlocked yesterday afternoon. You have no idea how rare it is that either of them does anything in the kitchen more complicated than pouring a bowl of Cheerios or opening a carton of yogurt. Owen wanted to buy a Snickers, Husband said no, but that they could go home and make a candy bar. So they did. 

I was shocked and impressed. I ate so much of this candy that I have a stomachache. It's like peanut brittle that doesn't stint on the peanuts or stick in your teeth. The chocolate wasn't called for in the recipe, but works.

Tipsy: Doesn't it make you want to try more stuff in the kitchen?

Husband: No, it just makes me want to make this over and over again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

There is a teenager in the house

Isabel turned 13 yesterday. She received a hair dryer, a curling iron, nail polish, a GAP hoodie, and a Lady Gaga CD, all of which she wanted. She didn't request a Snuggie, which was Owen's gift. He was very proud of his gift; she was uncharacteristically gentle and diplomatic. 

She and I also had this first-ever exchange.

Isabel: Mom, are we doing anything on Saturday night?

Tipsy: No, why?

Isabel: Because Juliet and I want to go wander around the mall.


Tipsy: What mall?

Isabel: Oh, I don't know. Just a mall.

Her dinner of choice: hibiscus cooler from the Mexican phase of this blog, calzones, and an Oreo bundt cake from Maida Heatter's cake book. It looked like a giant chocolate donut.

You make a rich sour cream batter into which are folded fifteen chopped Oreos; bake; top with thick chocolate glaze. Not a bad cake, but you can't taste the Oreos at all, so there is really no point. 

After cake, after my mother went home, we watched The Office. Fought over the Snuggie.

It seemed unappealing to lead this post with lentil soup, but I did start cooking from Moro the other night and the lentil soup is vegan and yummy. It's also ugly and sludgy brown, so no picture. To go with, I made Moroccan flatbreads
that contained fennel seed and were perhaps a tiny bit overcooked hence cardboardy. Tasty, though.

Here are some Moro dishes I want to make: chestnut and chorizo soup; pheasant with cloves, cinnamon and chestnuts; grilled quail with rose petals; Malaga raisin ice cream.

Here are some Moro dishes I don't want to make: pickled turnips, turnips with vinegar, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, kidneys with sherry.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Gourmet Today: earnest summation

If you have it, keep it. If you don't, it's nothing you can't live without. That's my assessment of the fat and shiny new book from the producers of the late magazine. I wish I loved this book, but unlike the mighty 2004 Gourmet cookbook, it felt like brand extension. I heard Ruth Reichl on Forum a while back trying to explain -- and she is very persuasive -- that the book embraces all the nifty new ingredients available in our supermarkets, things like pomegranate molasses and smoked paprika and while that sounded terrific, as an organizing principle, it simply doesn't work. Or she and her crew don't make it work. This isn't an everyday cookbook like Joy, because it won't tell you how to make chocolate chip cookies, but then it includes basic, soporific recipes for pancake and custard, which struck me as lazy filler. And a lot of the supposedly kicky new dishes aren't all that kicky, they just require a bottle of spendy pomegranate liqueur, or that you send away for a sack of Canadian maple sugar. Most of the recipes were solid, few inspired.

I made 46 recipes from Gourmet Today.

Worth the Price of the book -- 0
Great: 9
Good: 23
So-so: 11
Flat-out bad: 3

What did we love? We loved the mussels ravigote and the sun-dried tomato dip and the pot roast and I'd make all of them again, but they're not worth the price of the book. There's probably a recipe that is -- I never made the pork belly buns and just typing those succulent words makes my mouth water -- but time to move on to Moro

Shelf essential: no. 

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Didn't buy a muumuu but maybe should have

Nothing against Maui, but Kauai has stolen my heart. 

I will spare you purple accounts of beaches, farms, botanical gardens, lighthouses, and orchids -- saving them for article --  and stick to the food, which has been excellent and exotic.

To start with, I knew I was wrong to dismiss poi a few posts ago. I just knew I was going to have to eat my words. A local couple I met and conversed with for several hours yesterday told me that there is poi and there is poi, just like there are potato buds and your grandmother's mashed potatoes with butter and cream. What you get at hotel luaus and plate lunch dives, they patiently explained, is no basis on which to judge poi.

This should not have come as a surprise.

It so happened that last night there was a fundraising luau for a community kitchen and poi mill, and this couple assured me that the poi served to a bunch of taro farmers would be spectacular. They were going, and urged me to go. So I went.

It was a lovely event, a local gathering where everyone knew everyone and I knew no one but still got a wholesome contact high from the community esprit. There was live Hawaiian music, a silent auction, a crafts sale, a bake sale, little kids running everywhere. It was like an idealized midwestern picnic, but it was early December, everyone was wearing shorts, and the food was wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a smoldering pit.

That's a horrible picture, but it was some smashing food.
I loved all of it, from the smoky kalua pig to the kale salad, stewed taro leaves, rice pudding, and breadfruit. But what stopped me in my tracks, as promised, was the poi. See liverlike blob at bottom right It was firm, dense, sticky, and intensely, if subtly flavorful. I ate it slowly, savoring it more with each gummy bite. Craveworthy. Now I can go back to California and helplessly crave it.
Speaking of gummy foods, I also bought something called kulolo at the bakesale. 
It resembles brownies, but is made from grated taro mixed with coconut and brown sugar and, according to the weary bakesale lady, steamed for 15 hours in the imu, or underground oven. I prefer kulolo to brownies, but wouldn't expect anyone to agree. It's moist and glutinous and tastes like both gingerbread and carob. Delicious.

I am devastated to report that the taro smoothie stand was never open when I drove by, which was only several dozen times.

A few other interesting foodstuffs tasted on Kauai:

-chico. See photo at top.  Is this the same as sapote, about which my Guatemalan grandmother has often reminisced? Not sure. Tried this at the Hanalei farmers' market and the guy selling it said the tree takes 15 years before it fruits. Long-awaited chico tasted like a persimmon crossed with a banana and had the texture of a kiwi.

-deep-fried mochi. Bought these lumpish dumplings at a plate lunch place in Hanalei.
They're balls of mochi that have been skewered, dipped in brown sugar (or something similarly sweet and brown) and fried until they acquire a delectable, shale-like crust. Chewy and enjoyable, if not an instant addiction. 

- banana-pineapple frosty. Mahalo to Anonymous who recommended Banana Joe's
The luscious frosty was made by running frozen bananas and pineapple through a Champion juicer and it was, as some skinny people might say, ice cream without the guilt.
Wishing Well shave ice was inexplicably closed, and I don't think I'll have time to visit any other spots, shave ice or other, this trip. I'm sorry about that. On the other hand, one week is long enough to be the stranger eating alone in restaurants, kayaking solo down the Hanalei River, lurking silently on the fringes of other peoples' luaus. Home to the menagerie tomorrow. 

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Not home yet, just looks like it

On/in Kauai now, which is less about shave ice and more about taro smoothies. Haven't had one yet. Will today. 

Because there are no predators, chickens run wild on Kauai. I photographed that rooster a minute ago on the patio of my neighbor's hotel room. It simultaneously makes me feel terribly homesick and right at home. 

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Should have never left Portland

If you think you're having a bad day, someone in Lahaina has it worse. 

I'm not having a bad day. Was going to take a surfing lesson, but the waves were so rough that the shop called the whole thing off, which was, frankly, a relief, as I'm not the surfing type and would have made a fool of myself. I went parasailing instead. I'm not the parasailing type either, but it's harder to make a fool of yourself 1200 feet in the air. No, tragedy is the downside of parasailing. I was thrilled to try it once and relieved when it was over.

After that: lunch at Aloha Mixed Plate, a shacky place by the beach where I would be happy to eat every day.
 This delicious and rib-sticking meal cost less than $9 and included a mountain of kalua pork, which tastes like a cross between carnitas and South Carolina barbecue; 2 scoops of rice; a scoop of macaroni salad; smoked salmon and tomato salad (no salmon discernible); and haupia, a gelatinous coconut pudding that was hard to resist.

There was also poi, but it's easy to resist poi. Doesn't it look like plum baby food?
In any case, I had to save room for shave ice.

After some internet research and asking around, I discovered that two West Maui shave ice shops come highly recommended: Ululani's and Annie's, which are a few blocks away from each other in Lahaina. After lunch, my intention was to try both. 

First: Ululani's, which is so hidden back behind a cluster of shops on Front Street that I almost couldn't find it. Working the counter was David, an Oahu native who is married to Ululani.
 That's his arm. I should have taken a picture of his face and done a proper interview about shave ice -- like, how exactly do you make it? who invented it? are you aiming for grainy or velvety? what goes into the syrups? -- but I was bashful in the moment. Maybe I'll call. Instead, we just chatted. He rued the cost of food here on Maui, that an 18-count box of eggs costs almost $5. I told him he should get chickens. He didn't seem to believe me, which means he is smart. He told me I wouldn't like the salty plum shave ice. I thought I would. He gave me free cream on top of my shave ice and said to come back later and try more flavors
I wish I could. This shave ice is hands-down the best I've had in my life, which is to say, in the last 36 hours. The texture was like powder snow, the flavors, bright and pure.  I couldn't stop eating Ululani's shave ice and by the time it was all gone I was too full for Annie's.

I did 
drive by Annie's and though it looks very cute
 I have to leave tomorrow and won't be able to try it. 

I did go swimming, but shave ice is more interesting

Couldn't get off the wait list for the luau last night, so I had a second shave ice. This time, per my instructions, I ordered the shave ice (coconut) on top of a scoop of ice cream (coconut). Unsurprisingly, now I never want shave ice any other way.
But I'm confused, because this second shave ice really did resemble ground glass, as in a sno-cone. The one I'd had earlier in the day (from a stand on the street) was soft, like velvet. Which is the real shave ice?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Shave ice & finally confronting the swimsuit

I thought shave ice was going to taste just like a sno-cone, the most disappointing frozen "treat" ever invented, but it doesn't. It's fantastic! I'm sure everyone has had Hawaiian shave ice except me so I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but wow. The satiny texture of that ice is almost like ice cream. Eating a sno-cone, at least in memory, is more like sucking artificially-flavored syrup through broken glass.
I'm in Maui on a writing assignment. Sometimes it's okay to be me, though I wish I enjoyed running around in a swimsuit a bit more. The eggnog pie did not help. In roughly 48 hours I've taken a ukelele lesson, observed a pineapple carving demo, ridden a sugar cane train, eaten a plate lunch, visited a farmers' market, toured several history museums, read 2.5 books, and purchased local honey, but have not yet managed to find time to get in a swimsuit the water.

This is the small but pleasant farmers' market, which is attached to a health food store that sells hemp bread. 
They had big, lumpy local avocados, passion fruit, and tiny, delicious "apple" bananas, as well as fresh pineapple bagels, which I didn't try because I'm saving up calories for tonight's luau. The shave ice was lunch.

Now: ocean.