BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Wish I Was There

Whipping bitterly cold gusts of air against my exposed skin, the wind howled mercilessly, landing a barrage of freezing punches from all directions. Inescapable, unrelenting, this assault makes each step outside feel like a mile away. Winter in New England can be a challenge to cope with on the best of days, and through the eyes of a SAD-sufferer, no day is a good day. Days blur, sloppily, slowly, into one ugly mess of endless slush, ice, and darkness.

Lighting the way through these murky moments is the promise of imminent escape. Having the foresight to book a ticket back to Hawaii while airfare was still reasonable was the smartest impulse buy (not to mention the most expensive) I made all year. Memories of warmth, sun, and genuine happiness fuel a stubborn persistence to keep hanging on just a little while longer. White-knuckling it through the stress of final exams and bleakness of winter’s descent, the day of departure simply can’t come soon enough.

In the meantime, the tastes of Hawaii provide some small comfort, a tiny tropical oasis in the midst of less favorable conditions. Turning back to those incredible macadamia nuts that I had been saving for a rainy day, stashed way back in the depths of the freezer for safe keeping, savory inspiration pulled me away from my standard palate of sweet ingredients.

Seeking something light and bright to contrast with all of the other, heavier comfort foods keeping me afloat, quinoa proved an ideal canvas to paint the colors of Honolulu upon. That concept turned out quite literally, as dried hibiscus blossoms (the official state flower) and red beet juice stained the white grains a dainty shade of dusty rose. Buttery macadamias and a generous splash of coconut milk lend richness to the otherwise lean pilaf, balancing the opposing desires for clean flavors and soothing touches of decadence. Flavored simply with a backdrop of garlic and scallions, the floral infusion is what sets the dish apart. Each bite brings back visions of brilliant blooms, stretching upwards to kiss the cloudless blue sky.

Although it won’t stop me from counting the days until my Hawaiian adventures begin anew, a heaping helping of warm quinoa does help time pass at least a little bit more easily- And certainly much more deliciously.

Mahalo Macadamia Quinoa Pilaf

2 1/3 Cups Water
6 Dried Whole Hibiscus Blossoms, or 6 Bags Hibiscus Tea
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cups) Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/4 Cup Red Beet Juice or Puree (Optional, for Color)
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Raw Quinoa
1 Cup Macadamia Nuts, Coarsely Chopped
1 Tablespoon Coconut Oil
1 Large Sweet Onion, Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Large Scallion, Thinly Sliced

Place the water and hibiscus blossoms or tea bags in a large saucepan over medium heat, and bring the water to a boil. Cover, remove the pot from the stove, and allow the tea to steep for about 30 minutes.

Squeeze out and discard the spent blossoms or tea bags. Return the pot to the stove and introduce the coconut milk, beet juice or puree, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the liquids to a full boil before adding in the quinoa. Cover and turn down the heat to low, keeping the contents of the pot at a gentle simmer. Cook for 16 – 20 minutes, until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the quinoa is tender. Turn off the heat but keep covered for 10 minutes to steam and finish cooking.

Meanwhile, toss the macadamia nuts into a dry skillet over medium heat, and stir constantly until they’re lightly toasted and smelling irresistibly nutty. Quickly transfer to the pot of quinoa to prevent them from burning and lightly wipe out the skillet.

Melt the oil to the skillet before adding in the onion and garlic. Saute, stirring periodically, until golden brown all over. Transfer to the pot of quinoa, along with the pepper and scallion. Mix thoroughly to combine and distribute the nuts and onions evenly throughout the quinoa. Stir in additional salt to taste, if desired.

Serve immediately while still warm, or chill for at least four hours for a refreshing cold salad.

Makes 6 – 8 Side Dish Servings

Printable Recipe


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Pop it Like it’s Hot

Upon arrival in Hawaii, there were only a few foods I knew were must-eats, and Hurricane Popcorn was near the top. A simple concept that has won fiercely loyal fans, boxes are said to be smuggled back the mainland by those in the know, craving the distinctive island snack food. Found in both popped and unpopped formats, the microwave bags are the only way to go for the true Hurricane Popcorn experience.

Broken down into separate packets containing popcorn kernels, dry toppings, and buttery flavor, it became immediately obvious that a homemade equivalent would be just about as complex to assemble. Salty, rich, and packed with umami, its appeal is easy to understand, but the ingredients themselves are rather unsavory. In the same vein as “slimy yet satisfying,” those glistening, crispy kernels made a lasting impression as “good but greasy.” Certainly, we can all do better… So after returning home, that’s just what I did.

Of course, never satisfied to go the basic route, I tried to one-up the original by making my own savory, soy sauce-infused mochi pieces, more true to the description than the dry rice crackers included in a plastic baggie. Though it’s not technically mochi, the sticky pounded rice cakes typically enjoyed for desserts, arare do fit the bill better for this unique snack application. Simpler is truly better, so don’t be fooled by the above photo; to best satisfy the next Hawaiian-inspired snack attack, do as I say, not as I do.

Homemade Hurricane Popcorn

2 Tablespoons Coconut Oil
1/2 Cup Unpopped Popcorn Kernels
3 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine
3 – 4 Tablespoons Ao Nori
2 Tablespoons Toasted Sesame Seeds (White, Black, or a Blend)
1 Cup Hana Arare (Flower-Shaped Rice Crackers)
Flaky Sea Salt, to Taste

In a large stock pot with high sides, heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat. Place 3 – 4 popcorn kernels in the pot, cover, and once one pops, that will mean your oil has come up to the right temperature to really get popping. Add the remaining unpopped popcorn into the pan and cover the pan once more.

Gently shake the pan over the heat, still covered, to pop the kernels evenly and prevent already popped corn from burning. When the pace of popping slows to one pop every 3 – 5 seconds, remove the pan from the heat. Keep the pot covered while the final kernels pop; about 3 minutes. Carefully lift the lid away from you, as there will be a good deal of very hot steam looking to escape.

Meanwhile, melt the margarine in a microwave-safe dish, heating for 30 – 60 seconds. Transfer the popped corn to your desired serving bowl, leaving any unpopped kernels in the bottom of the pot. Drizzle the melted margarine all over, tossing to coat. Sprinkle in the nori flakes, sesame seeds, and salt, to taste. Finally add the arare right on top, and stir gently to incorporate. Enjoy right away!

Makes Approximately 4 Quarts (About 4 Servings)

Printable Recipe


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Hello, Hilo

By contrast to the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, Hilo is a sleepy little town tucked into the lush countryside. Compared to the rest of the country though, it’s still a lively and fully urbanized city. Condensing the majority of its shops and eateries into just about a dozen square blocks, almost everything is immediately accessible without hopping in a car, despite the lack of a comprehensive public transit system. For those seeking a tropical “escape” that still has all the amenities of home, Hilo should be at the top of your list. Pick your arrival time wisely, however, and don’t do as I did by landing on Sunday. Just a whisper above a ghost town, most of Hilo either takes Sunday off completely or closes up shop early, leaving those seeking shopping or structured entertainment to fend for themselves. Bear in mind that the listed hours for businesses here are generally more of a rough estimate than a precise time to set a watch by on any day, so always call in advance to confirm that the hits on your list are actually open when you drop by. Luckily, there are still a handful of eateries putting out their best dishes well into the evening. It was the small farmer’s market that shocked me, generously pointed out by an effusive shuttle driver on my way out of the airport.

The Hilo Farmer’s Market website states Wednesday and Saturday, 6:00 AM to 4:00 PM in no unclear terms, and yet there it was, gently humming away into the midday heat of Sunday afternoon. Though more modest in size and selection than the “big” days, this was no ramshackle assortment of venders here. Hidden on the corner just behind the KTA grocery store, skip the shopping cart to find more locally produced items just a few steps away. Piles of fresh produce overflowed out of baskets, fresh flowers sat in carefully arranged bouquets, and a good handful of homemade jams and syrups were available for tasting, to boot. Better than the selection that I’d find at my own local markets in the height of summer, this was a true boon to discover. Now that I had a full kitchen back at my hotel, I shamelessly stocked up on fruits and vegetables, stuffing the fridge as much as one can for such a brief stay.

Little did I know what hidden treasures lay barely a foot outside my hotel room door. For the first time using the descriptor of “homey” as a positive thing, I would recommend the Dolphin Bay Hotel to absolutely anyone. Walking into my comfortably furnished studio apartment, it really did feel like my own, happily lived in space. Offering bottomless cups of coffee in the morning far better than the average bitter brew, that generosity is only topped by the readily available papayas and finger bananas 24/7. Sitting right out in the hall, everyone is encouraged to eat as many as they can, and I did indulge quite a bit. Best of all, however, is their impossibly fruitful backyard. A quick stroll outside brought to light more edible delights than I could count, including but not limited to starfruit, oranges, ginger, bread fruit, mountain apples, and yes, avocados. It simply boggled my mind that all of this could be grown in the comfort of one’s home.

Though I now had plenty of food to survive through my single full day stay, there were a few enticing gustatory leads worth investigating nonetheless. All of my original points of interest were unavailable, but I struck solid gold after glancing into Le Magic Pan‘s open door. One of the rare establishments open until 9:00 PM everyday, they’re your best bet for a memorable vegan meal. Admittedly, options are slim, with your only real choice being the chickpea flour or buckwheat Vegan Crepe, but the mere existence of vegan crepes should be enough to encourage a taste. Go for the “half salad, half crepe” option, as portions are generous and the salad is far better than mere iceberg shreds with a token cherry tomato on top. Wildly varied and colorful throughout, the seemingly disparate ingredients came together to create a delightful little starter to whet one’s appetite.

Crispier than the average pancake, my chickpea-based crepe reminded me more of dosa than any French fare, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment one bit. Tucking artichoke hearts, creamy avocado chunks, and the salty pops of kalamata olives into that blanket of batter, the whole thing is topped off with an artful drizzle of “magic sauce,” which was appropriately surprisingly and mysteriously delicious. A must-try for any vegan in Hilo, budget travelers can play their cards wisely to get the best deal: The very same dish is on offer for breakfast, but at $2 cheaper.

Though I did have grand plans to visit a sushi joint offering up some creative vegetarian rolls, alas, bad timing thwarted my attempts. A full day tour kept me away from the downtown area until most places had closed up shop for the day, and then little was open the following morning of my departure. My greatest regret is missing out on trying shave ice… But I guess that’s just one more reason I’ll need to return, and soon.

Photos are still being uploaded to my Flickr set everyday, so keep clicking by to see the full scope of my trip. Coming soon: waterfalls and craters and vog, oh my!


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Broke Da Mout

Hawaiians simply have a way with words. Direct but gentle, and often spoken with a good dose of humor, every statement seems to come with a built-in smile at the end. Said in Pidgin with island inflection, “broke da mout” (“break the mouth”) is in fact a compliment to the chef. Not nearly as painful as it may let on, the phrase suggests that you’ve eaten something so unfathomably delicious, or eaten such vast quantities of it, that you simply couldn’t stand to take another bite. Ergo, your palate has been thoroughly spoiled, in the most satisfying way. I can report without hesitation that I thoroughly broke my own mouth to the fullest extent of the definition while in Honolulu.

Lured out by the familiar urge to discover new ono grindz (good eats), every step of my two mile walk to reach Greens & Vines was worth the effort. Born of the 100% raw vegan catering company Licious Dishes, this dine-in outpost is only a few months old, still glistening with that new restaurant shine. Glowing like a beacon on a dark night, the neon sign out front is quite arresting, especially for the unprepared. Already on my hit list, it was a sight I was unprepared for as I gazed blankly out the bus window.

“Oh, that’s the restaurant right there!” I exclaimed in spite of myself, to no one in particular. It would clearly require a more thorough exploration at a later time, especially without those lovely people sharing public transit who were now convinced of my mental instability.

After miscalculating the distance from my hotel rather drastically, it ended up being a later meal than anticipated, but gave me plenty of time to work up an appetite. Good thing too, since just one plateful of Kaffir Miso Pad Thai, composed of kelp noodles and topped off with a generous handful of crunchy cashews, left me feeling quite stuffed. Taking my time to luxuriate in every slippery strand, the effusively friendly staff made me feel more than welcome to linger, as opposed to so many other establishments that saw the single vegan diner as a burden. One gets a real sense of community here, proof positive that veganism is alive and thriving in all pockets of the world.

Although I already broke da mout on my main dish, the temptation of the dessert menu was too much to bear. Wrapping up a petite wedge of Tangerine Cheesecake to go, it became a most decadent midnight snack just a few hours later. Flawlessly smooth, creamy, and sparkling with citrus zest, its small size belied immense flavor. More than enough to satisfy even my voracious sweet tooth, what initially seemed like a scant portion turned out to be just right.

The raw movement may still be in its infancy in Honolulu, but endless other clean, green options can be readily found hidden in amongst the puka dog and saimin stands. Peace Cafe serves up well-balanced meals with a macrobiotic sort of slant, featuring otherwise obscure flavors like matcha and kinako to create vegan treats found no where else.

Speaking of which, the Iced Matcha Latte is an absolute must for any hot day, which is pretty much every day on the island. Lightly sweetened just to cut the bitter edge of the powdered green tea, soy milk lends body to the beverage, making it both refreshing and wholly satisfying. If only I had ventured out to this part of town sooner, I’m certain I would have found many excuses to return for a second and third refill.

Mochi brownies displayed alluringly on the counter did look like an awfully attractive lunch option, but the savory dishes are worth holding out for. Before ever setting foot in the shop, I already knew that I wanted the Heart and Seoul entree: Inspired by Korean bibimbap, a power plate of greens, both raw and cooked, beansprouts, shredded carrots, and either fresh tofu or TVP over a bed of brown rice. Ever indecisive, I stood there hemming and hawing at the counter, until the cashier helpfully broke my strained silence. “I could get you a little bit of both, too- How about that?” she asked sweetly. Yes, please; I felt like I really could have it all in that moment. Both were utterly delightful, but being the tofu-lover that I am, I would spring for a full portion of only that silky-soft bean curd next time. Topped off with a healthy dollop of very mild gochujang to mix and mash at will, the diner has the freedom to mix in as much of that salty paste as their heart desires. Naturally, I devoured every last smudge.

What’s most telling about how vegan-friendly a city is, however, is not the number of specialty shops or isolated outposts. Rather, it’s what one can scavenge in the everyday eateries, even the mundane or most unpromising locations. While the Ala Moana Mall is no average shopping center, boasting hundreds of stores spread out for what seems like miles, the above platter is still an incredible testament to how open and accessible Honolulu is to the compassionate visitor or resident. Grylt Ala Moana, located in the Makai Food Court, is one of three locations within Honolulu. In true cafeteria style, you’re encouraged to build your own plate, picking between proteins, sides, and sauces. Grilled Tofu is the way to go to avoid animal protein, and incredibly, you can actually choose Olive Oil Mashed Cauliflower over plain white rice, if desired. For just 50 cents more, it’s more than worth the upgrade. Grilled Veggies are already so expertly seasoned with balsamic vinegar and black pepper, it seems a shame to cover them with any additional sauce, despite how bright and vivacious the Citrus Herb Oil was. Request it on the side to dip the tofu in, and you’ll have the perfect complement to all components.

Next, we’re jetting off to another island… The Big Island, in fact, for a stop in Hilo. Still more photos are being uploaded everyday, so please keep checking in to see all of my adventures!


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Biting into the Big Pineapple

Though its nickname evokes images of a more tropical rendition of New York City, Honolulu is truly beyond compare. A big city with the heartbeat of a small town, everyone seems to know each other, or at least treat strangers like family if they don’t. Shy and introverted by nature, it took a huge step outside of myself to embark on my first solo trip, and I can say with conviction that there was no better destination than this string of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Reaching out into the void, I was shocked by the genuine kindness that was placed in my outstretched palms. Hearing horror stories about Hawaii’s rocky past, including some lingering (and often justified) resentment against haoles, it seemed a sure thing that my sheet-white face was just asking for trouble. Never have I been so happy to be wrong.

Simple interactions, no matter how shallow, just felt warmer, friendlier than anything I had previously encountered. Smiles came easily, instantly, to every gentle face, and accidental eye contact no longer felt like a potential threat. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the mundane act of waiting for the bus in China Town. Midday sun blazing away, cooling trade winds no where to be found, it was a warmth that was impossible to comprehend for a January afternoon. Wholly unprepared for the heat, I rolled up my sleeves and sweated it out, checking and double-checking the schedule to make sure I had picked the right bus line. Out of the blue, a petite woman sitting on the bench struck up a conversation, noticing my discomfort.

“Yeah, I sure wish I had an umbrella like you,” I mentioned dreamily, nodding to her black-paneled parasol. “I’ve only thought of them for rainy days, but that’s such a good idea!”

Without missing a beat, she immediately offered to share her shade. “Come sit by me then! There’s plenty of room,” she indicated her vast abundance of space, patting the empty seat. And so there I sat, nearly 5,000 miles from home, cheek-to-cheek with a complete stranger, having rarely felt safer in the comfort of my own house.

It’s such a simple gesture, such a forgettable instance, but I’m still bowled over by that effortless generosity. It’s just not something I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

The people are what truly makes Hawaii so special, but the food naturally ranks second on my list of reasons to visit. Shockingly, vegan options abound in Honolulu, with hardly a menu lacking one ready-to-eat option. Tofu reigns supreme here, thanks to the influence of many Asian cultures, thus making it the norm rather than the “alternative.” Not every morsel was the height of fine cuisine, but I had a handful of memorable meals that would be worth returning to the island for.

An unassuming little hole in the wall, Ruffage Natural Foods is located just a few short blocks away from Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. After a long day of sun and surf, the short menu of simple, wholesome entrees draws both travelers and locals alike. The Tofu Avocado Spring Salad was exactly what I craved, fulfilling my desperate need for fresh greens and a punch of protein. Despite the heat, I still couldn’t resist pairing that with a soul-satisfying cup of miso soup, filled with seaweed and tofu as well. For a no-frills healthy meal, I can’t think of a better place to drop by.

Out in China Town, at the very bus stop where my most cherished conversation took place, the Downbeat Diner is also serving up some awesome meatless eats. Boasting a menu of comfort foods and classic diner favorites, they readily accept the challenge of veganizing each and every option should it not be naturally free of animal ingredients already. Since I came in a little bit early for lunch, the brunch options were most appealing, and they pulled out a solid Tofu Scramble indeed.

Squeezing in those greens again, this platter typically comes with potatoes, but can be swapped for a salad upon request. Mushrooms and onions added a savory complexity to the yellow-hued, seasoned bean curds, I cleaned my plate in mere minutes and would have licked it if not in public.

You won’t want to bypass the drink menu while you’re at it. My admittedly unusual request for a virgin Bloody Mary was met without any snark, and hit the spot perfectly. Lightly spicy, nice and salty, and packed with tomato flavor, I wish I could have ordered about a gallon of the stuff to take with me.

By complete accident or a crazy stroke of luck, however you’d like to consider it, I ended up staying at the very hotel where my top restaurant destination was situated. I had to compare the addresses at least five times before I believed it, but indeed, they were the same. Yuzu, crafting exquisite Japanese food in the ground floor of the Ala Moana Hotel, is not a vegan restaurant. Amazingly, they produce some of the most realistic-looking vegetable nigiri I have ever come across, and many other vegetable options are equally delightful.

You owe it to yourself to try the Vegetable Nigiri Sampler at least once in your life time. The height of edible art, though it may be a dead-ringer for fish at first glance, there’s not a scrap of animal protein to be found on this plate. The “tuna” slices are in fact peeled tomatoes, gently poached in vinegar to impart a uniquely bright, uncharacteristically oceanic flavor. Yuba fills one gunkan while a rich carrot mousse is piped into another. Lotus root is fried and covered with eel sauce, so cleverly hidden within its crispy shell that I would have never been able to identify it unaided. Mushrooms top of the remained of the pieces for incredible umami bites. Eggplant is typically included into the melange as well, but the chef so graciously provided a second tomato piece for me instead, accommodating for my sad eggplant intolerance.

Don’t leave the table without trying their hand-cut Veggie Medley Udon Noodles while you’re at it. Sliced fresh to order and lavished with all variety of garnishes on the side, they’re almost as much fun to eat as they are delicious. Slippery, chewy strands of wheat that twist effortlessly around the chopsticks, the noodles are a world apart from anything dried or store-bought. Each bite is a little bit different too, depending on how you load them up with scallions, sesame seeds, ginger, mushrooms, or crunchy tenkasu. A final splash into the soy-based dipping sauce, and the whole assembly goes down easily. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to return and try another dish or eight at Yuzu.

There’s still much more food to come, but in the meantime, keep checking my Flickr set for more photos!


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Aloha from Hawaii

Eyelids weighted down by a marathon 29-hour day in transit, it hardly seemed worth fighting their slow descent. Nodding off for 15-minute stretches at a time while waiting, waiting, waiting endlessly to stop hurtling through the clouds, I eventually succumbed to exhaustion. Next time I came to, I was in paradise.

I don’t care if it’s horribly cliched- It’s completely true. Honolulu, Hawaii is like no other place I’ve ever been, and I couldn’t have dreamed up a place more perfect if I truly had died and gone to heaven. Stepping off the gangway into the cozy embrace of 80-degree air, the afternoon sun sparkling overhead, I wasn’t quite sure I had actually woken up yet.

Though my hotel room wasn’t ocean-front or even ocean-facing, the view was still unparalleled in its grandeur. Each sunrise and sunset was a sight to behold. On my last morning in the city, I rose while the sky was still dark, dragging a chair in front of the window for a front seat to the show. In those wee AM hours, nursing a large cup of hot Kona coffee, I watched as the streets slowly began to glow and come alive and the sky danced with a changeable rainbow of colors.

Readjusting to 12-degree days and 5:00pm nightfall has been challenging, to say the least, so I’m not yet fully back up to speed. Consider these landscapes just a small taste of what’s to come, and keep checking my Flickr set for additional photos and descriptions, some of which won’t be featured on the blog. Though all my photos are full of treasured memories, too beautiful to keep to myself, I don’t want to bog down anyone’s loading time further. Consider it a somewhat hidden bonus for the truly curious. Next up, a handful of island food finds simply too incredible to limit to mere images. Stay tuned!

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