Stepping into the Ring

The first time you use an unfamiliar kitchen, and especially an unfamiliar oven, it can be quite a challenge. You don't know how that oven or stove is going to act...will it pull tricks on you? Burn everything you put in it? Have even heating? Become your nemesis? Pulling out my pots and pans for the first time in my new Hawaiian kitchen felt like stepping into a boxing ring, and I was not sure if I was ready to face my opponent...the new oven. To make matters worse, the first time I used it, I took on a real challenge: baking a tart for my 30th birthday. If it didn't come out, if I burned the crap out of it (or alternatively, if it ended up coming out looking like a sad, sorry, unevenly baked doughy little thing), I was sure going to be disappointed...

It's the main event, folks!

In this corner, wearing the blue and white apron and hailing from Eugene, Oregon, we have our first contender: Michelle "Hawaii 5-O." Weighing in at 100 lbs and 5'0" tall, Hawaii 5-O is new to the islands and is attempting to defend her title as the Lightweight Champion of the Kitchen against the undisputed Hawaiian champion, the heavyweight Kenmore "Smoothtop" Electric Oven. While fairly diminutive in height at a not-so-impressive 3'8", Smoothtop outweighs Hawaii-5-O by several hundred pounds. Smoothtop has reigned supreme in this here kitchen for many years now, and is not going to be easily unseated. This is the first meeting of these two fighters, and we're anxious to see who will prevail as the winner.

Now for a little background...Smoothtop, our resident champion, is known for a move Hawaii-5-O hasn't come up against in a quite a long time. It's called, "the broiler." In her last fight against the GE 5000, this little move was almost the end of Hawaii-5-O's love of baking! With nearly 100 degrees of extra heat under normal fight conditions, when the GE 5000 used "the broiler," it would short out the entire house, set off the fire alarms, burn the hell out of whatever was in the oven and end the fight. It took a fair amount of time before Hawaii-5-O figured out how to stop the GE 5000 from pulling that one on her, allowing her to finally take the lead and secure her Oregon title. Now that she's moved to the Islands though, she's got to win this fight or hang her head, give up the oven, and go back to the grill and the saute' pan if she lets Smoothtop best her.

And just what's at stake, you ask? Why nothing less than a year's worth of either burned or perfectly roasted meats and vegetables, and a whole lot of blackened or golden-brown baked goods, of course! The winner of this first round reigns supreme for the remainder of the time these two fighters are in the kitchen together, and there's no real second chance on this one. It's a fight to the "death" of a 30th birthday tart, and as you all know, you only get one 30th birthday. Beware folks - it may not be pretty. Parents should be advised that this fight could contain images of blackened crust, resulting in much cursing and language from one of our contenders (namely, Hawaii-5-O) that isn't appropriate for youngsters or maybe even the rest of the blogosphere.

But enough of this jabbering! Let's get this fight started! There's the bell -

Our fighters are facing off now...
Hawaii-5-O nimbly moves in towards Smoothtop,
tightening her apron as she goes...

She turns to the left,
quickly grabs the Cuisinart food processor and...
pulverizes a bunch of white nuts
(since this is Hawaii, they're probably macadamia nuts)!
This is obviously a move to unnerve Smoothtop
from his stoic stance on the far side of the kitchen.

But Smoothtop is still holding steady...

Hawaii-5-O turns and faces him, sneers...
She reaches up...

And she snaps Smoothtop's dial, turning it to a raging 350F!
That's pretty hot! These fighters aren't just playing around!
Smoothtop's face turns bright red with heat -
it looks like Hawaii-5-O has really pissed him off!

Hawaii-5-O returns to the far side of the kitchen,
even turning her back on Smoothtop
(she's pretty brave to do that).
Will he turn on "the broiler" while she's not looking?
Now she's pressing those nuts into a tart pan,
and turning back to face Smoothtop -
he just let out a little whelp...
She quickly runs up to him, opens his door
and faces that red heat without even blinking.
Before old Smoothtop can even do a thing,
she's thrown the tart in, and closed the door!
Now she's back at the counter,
mixing, beating and folding -
all the while watching Smoothtop out of the corner of her eye.
In just 12 minutes, Hawaii 5'0"turns back around to face our champion,
approaches him slowly, and whips the tart out of the oven.
Whew...golden edges.
It looks like the fight is over and we have our winner, folks:
Hawaii-5-O reigns supreme!
She's the champion of this Hawaiian kitchen and
it looks like we can be expecting to see a fair amount of
oven-cooked and oven-baked recipes coming from this blog then.

Having prevailed at my first attempt at baking in this new oven, I felt it was time to celebrate (not only the baking, but surviving my 3rd decade and coming out with only a few gray hairs and wrinkles too - hey! you take what you can get at this age, right?) and LB and I opened up a bottle of Moet and Chandon champagne, a Christmas present from my sister and brother-in-law, which we brought all the way from Colorado to Eugene to Hawaii for this very occasion (the birthday), and toasted to my successes. I can't think of any better way than to celebrate...except maybe heading for the most amazing sushi restaurant that I've ever been to, but that's for LB's 30th, in a little over a week (we decided to split up the indulgences - I got the champagne on mine, he gets the amazing dinner on his, and we both benefit from each), and I'll fill you in on that when the time comes.

This recipe is extremely versatile and delicious. It garnered rave reviews (as did the champagne) and stories about it have even been shared (always a good sign, no?). I got the original recipe from a friend, who had modified it, and I further modified it by changing the crust and the topping. Make it with whatever you have in your neck of the woods or whatever is seasonal right now. I used a locally made Mango and Peach curd with Rose Petals from Planted by the River (see source info below), and it's smooth, gently sweetened taste went perfect with the slight tang of the mascarpone and cream cheese mix. The rose petals added a whole extra dimension of complexity to the curd and it all worked together perfectly.

Were I still in Eugene (yep - still occasionally dreaming), I'd make the crust with hazelnuts and do some kind of a berry jam or curd on top it. How about a hazelnut crust with huckleberry jam? Maybe an almond crust and meyer lemon curd on top? Oh, or thin slices in early spring strawberries would be just amazing too. Even here in Hawaii, I could have used lilikoi (passionfruit) or guava curd or jam, which was my original intent but the store was out, or even overlapping slices of fresh mango slices or another fruit nestled together (whole raspberries?) would have been both delicious and beautiful. I would have loved to have garnished the top with a few mango slices this time too, but alas, no mangos in the house this week. Maybe next time!

Planted by the River
Mililani, HI

You can order these delicious curds online, or there are several local sources listed on the website. Some time in the future, I may try and contact the entrepreneurs, Randy and Donna Nakamoto, directly to see if they would let me come see them make their beautiful exotic curds. And these curds are some of the best I have ever tasted. When doing the search for their website, I found that even Heidi, from 101 Cookbooks, agrees.


Might as well have a cocktail.

After spending the first few weeks of my time here freaking out about how expensive everything is in Hawaii (I blame living on student wages for the last 10 years), I've finally come to my senses and accepted the fact that the high cost of food is partly due to the expense of getting the food to an island that is something like 3,000 miles away from the mainland coast (only partly, mind you, because there is some talk that some of the costs involved are only because people expect the prices to be unreasonably high and so, the grocery stores, always the capitalists, follow suite). As such, the carbon footprint for most of the food available here must be astronomical. Thus, ever the Eugene liberal tree-hugger (even if my environs have changed), it's even more important to eat locally and seasonally here.

For the most part, many of the items that can grow here can be grown all year long, but supposedly the longer you are here the more you can recognize the seasons, and I am excited to be able to add this keen skill to my repertoire someday in the future. Strangely enough, however, locally grown food is not necessarily cheaper than a tomato grown in Mexico and carried by boat or airplane to get here (and that looks a tad...um, ruffled after its journey), especially in the grocery stores. Ah, but here's where the farmer's markets come in and save the day...not exactly cheaper (though some things are), but way less travel, much higher quality, and actually more variety too (limes are oddly difficult to find here in grocery stores, and probably simply because they are hard to find I have been craving them like nobody's business). We're checking out the last of the markets this evening and I'll have a post up on that soon. Joyfully, many months before our actual arrival in Oahu, I also sought out - with my fingers and toes crossed - a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group and lo and behold there is one on Oahu and lucky for me, they happen to have a drop-off box in my neighborhood. Yay! And the cherry on top? It's even organic produce. Double yippy yay!! I'll keep you updated on when that begins too - just what does one get in a Hawaiian CSA box?

And so, to celebrate, I figured I might as well run out and get some local produce and make myself a cocktail with it. Breakfast/brunch cocktail that is (although I do see many fruity, tropical - and let's not forget alcoholic - drinks in my future here too). You see, it's time again for another installment of that happy, heart-healthy event that I'm lucky enough to help my friends Ilva and Joanna host every month: Heart of the Matter, or HotM. I missed the party last month with the big move in full swing, so I wasn't about to miss this month, where Joanne is hosting a round-up of Brunch recipes (check her blog, or the HotM blog, for the round-up sometime after the 27th).

I love brunch. I especially love brunch with lots of food, lots of friends, and lots of champagne or cocktails. I also think that brunch should occasionally be enjoyed in pajamas, and so to honor this thought, I ate these nice little breakfast "cocktails" in my PJs and am writing this up sitting in them (ah, yes, there are sometimes great things about not being officially employed). So, I present to you my entry for this month's HotM: Lemony Fruit and Yogurt Cocktails. Now, these little numbers could probably be considered more of a "parfait" than a cocktail, but since I am sitting here, in my PJs, thinking of real fruity (alcoholic) cocktails, and because I served it in a fruity cocktail drink glass (otherwise known as a "big freakin' margarita glass"), I think I'll call them just that. Besides, I enjoyed it out on the lanai (porch) too - where all fruity cocktails, drinkable or otherwise, should be enjoyed.

I've long had dreams of incorporating quinoa into breakfast (don't ask me why), but here I went with whole wheat couscous for the texture. These are hearty enough to be breakfast (easy enough too) or you could put them in small, little cocktail glasses (martini anyone?) and they would be a perfect addition to brunch. It's very healthy, low in fat, and filling. I used non-fat yogurt and cooked the couscous in soy milk to keep the cholesterol down and give it a little sweetness. We used fruit that we had available, and that grows here (pineapple and 2 different kinds of papaya - see the picture above, and more on those later), but depending on where you are and the season, this would be great with any berries or citrus. If I'd had limes, I'd have put lime juice and zest in the yogurt instead of lemon to go with the tropical fruit, but maybe stick with the lemon for berries? Garnish with mint too, if you've got it!

Lemony Fruit and Yogurt Cocktails
serves 2 for breakfast, 4 for brunch with other brunch-able goodies, and obviously could easily be scaled up for more

3/4 cup soymilk (you could even use low-fat)
1/2 cup whole wheat couscous
1 cup nonfat vanilla yogurt, drained overnight in cheesecloth
1 lemon, zested and juiced
sliced fresh fruit - at least 2 different kinds
mint, for garnish (optional)

Bring the soymilk almost to a boil over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Add the couscous, stir, cover the pot and remove it from the heat, letting it sit while you prepare the rest of the parfait ingredients (This could easily be made ahead and chilled, and I recommend it actually, because I had to make these twice - and let the couscous sit and cool - to get a pretty picture because the glasses kept steaming up. I might bring it to room temp before serving though).

In a small bowl, combine the drained yogurt ("yogurt cheese") with the lemon juice and lemon zest. Next, pick out your favorite cocktail glass, and fill the bottom with a large spoonful (or two, depending on your glass and how many you're feeding) of couscous. Layer one type of fruit atop the couscous, then add a layer of yogurt. Layer another type or two of fruit on top of the yogurt, garnish with mint (if you've got it - we didn't), and serve.


Welcome to the Islands

Ginger, flowering in our front yard

Aloha! Well, we've arrived in our new home on the island of Oahu and are finally beginning to settle in. It's been nearly two weeks of continually running the various errands that are required when you move to a new place and have nothing but the two bags you checked and the two you carried with you on the airplane (and, thankfully, your two dogs...who were so enormous and heavy that they were required to be "air cargo" - making them the most expensive part of your move - and that, to your dismay, have already have caught Hawaiian fleas even though you treated them for Oregon fleas just 10 days ago as part of the quarantine requirements for your new home state - arg!).

We've figured out how to get to the grocery store and the beach (the two most important places of course), gotten ourselves a contingent of simple food to get us through the first few weeks, learned to make our way to the big city of Honolulu (about 25 minutes away, when there is no traffic), bought ourselves a car, opened new bank accounts (who knew there were no "mainland" banks on the Islands?), met our lovely neighbors and learned to pronounce the name of the street we live on and a few of the highways (for instance, the Likelike Highway is not pronounced "like - like," but "lee-kay-lee-kay," unless of course you want to be immediately identified as a haole ("how-lee"), the not so endearing term for one who lives here but is not from here. But then again, one shouldn't worry too much about mispronouncing something, if one has pasty-white Eugene, Oregon winter skin that going to give you away anyway!).

Over-all, the move went very smoothly and we are now in the process of trying to find some sort of a semi-normal routine. The dogs and all of the items we shipped arrived safely and unharmed (including my KitchenAid mixer and my computer - one reason why it took me two weeks to begin blogging again). LB began his job on Monday and he thinks he's really going to love it, and I've decided to take the month off and prepare for the freshman biology course I'll be teaching at a small private university here beginning in the middle of May (and indulge in the time off to get organized and blog and...whatever else my heart desires). The house is great and our landlord is great, and just to give you a teaser, this is where we can eat breakfast or dinner now (although don't be too jealous - wait until I tell you how much breakfast and dinner groceries cost!):

The Lanai

Ah yes, the groceries. My worst nightmare - groceries are ridiculously expensive. I knew they would be more expensive than Eugene, I just didn't know by how much. On our first trip to the Safeway chain store that is a few blocks away, we discovered that a dozen eggs cost nearly $7, milk was $4.99+ for a half-gallon (and that's with the "Safeway club card" savings), a jar of peanut butter was $8, and a small bottle of lotion was nearly $10...and that's not the foofy organic stuff we're used to eating, either (ha ha, not including the lotion). We have since run the gamut of grocery stores here and found a local, vegetarian, natural foods store called Down to Earth (and they even carry some organic and local produce and products!), which is fairly close and surprisingly, has far better prices than Safeway (and the sale prices are even better!). The farmer's markets (yes, I've already sought all of them out on the entire island) have pretty good prices and produce that is far more enticing than any of the grocery stores (most of them have very sad looking produce - poor lettuce, I want to cry for them too), and Costco is a lifesaver, where prices for 6 cans of beans in bulk nearly equals the sale price of 2 at any of the grocery stores (we signed up, and stocked up, this last weekend).

I called my mom and told her to "send lotion, send food!" and while LB was aghast when I unpacked the spices I had brought and the jar of Dagoba cocoa powder that I'd sneaked into the boxes, I'm certainly happy I have them now and don't have to pay to replace them (damn, why didn't I bring the bay leaves? And about 50 cans of beans??!)! It's definitely going to change the way I cook, because there will be no more looking for inspiration and going to get the groceries I want... something more along the lines of finding a sale and going forward from there: 3 day old bread loaf for $0.99? When a loaf of flimsy, sliced bread is normally $5.50? It's hard as a rock, but once the knives get here I could cut the crusts off...grab some free basil from the yard and tomatoes at the farmer's market for almost half-price? Panzanella! We'll just have to live without the parmesan on it until that goes on sale too. Maybe we could call it poor man's panzanella - panzanella missing all the ingredients that cost too much that week? ;)

Truly, it's beautiful here and there are many things to love (the beach is nice - and we're going snorkeling on Thursday). The weather has been rainy, actually - almost like home in Eugene. Especially this week, but apparently, we are on the rainy side of the island and it's a warm rain, which is a welcome respite from the chilly rain of Oregon (which is something I don't miss). I miss my friends, I miss the places I knew I would, but I know that this will begin to feel more and more like home as time goes on. Now, on to unpack those kitchen boxes...it's time to get cooking!