Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What I Ate in Hawaii, Part 2

If my previous post on poke led you to believe that all Hawaiian food is sunny and light, allow me to introduce you to plate lunch. If Hawaiian foods were Lord of the Rings characters, poke is an elf, plate lunch a cave troll.

Poke says "welcome to Hawaii!," places a lei around your neck and fans an ocean breeze in your direction. Plate lunch slaps you a little too hard on the shoulder so that you fall down in the sand and just take a nap instead of trying to stand back up.

I only ate plate lunch once, so I may not have the most accurate take on it, but as I understand it, a plate lunch is a heavy dose of meat, usually pork, a few scoops of white rice, and a seemingly misplaced side of macaroni salad.

It took three of us and one two year old to finish a plate lunch combo with both Kalua pig and lau lau at a place called Keneke's in Waimanalo. The amount of meat, especially for the price, was either astounding or disconcerting depending on whether you're thinking about your stomach or the rising temperature of the planet. Certainly no one needs that much meat in one sitting, but I certainly loved eating it.

The Kalua pig was a juicy mound of smoked, shredded pork. Exactly what the seasonings were I can't say, though salt figured prominently. The lau lau was pork wrapped in
lu'au leaves which where then wrapped in taro leaves and steamed. (Apparently lau lau often contains butterfish as well, and though I didn't see any in there, I will get to butterfish soon.) The pork was about as tender as could be, the lu'au leaves rich and deeply flavorful, like a cross between spinach, calaloo, and pure iron.

My understanding is that these dishes were traditionally cooked in an imu (underground oven) and are now more commonly prepared by steaming on the stove top. Again, refer to Rachel's book if you want to know for sure. All I know is that it was delicious.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What I Ate in Hawaii, Part 1

I really don't know where to start, so I'll just say this: Hawaii is a culinary wonderland, and I hope you get to go there.

I have lots of dewy observations about Hawaiian cuisine that have probably been made by countless others before me (why, it's East meets West!) so I'll spare you those. If you want the real deal, check out Rachel Laudan's The Food of Paradise. If you just want to know what I ate during my trip there last week, read on. I'll try not to use the words "lush," "exotic," and "better" too often.

I'll start by introducing you to the first Hawaiian food that I was introduced to. Reader, meet poke. Looks amazing, doesn't it?

It is! Poke, pronounced poh-kay, is a raw fish dish that consists of super-fresh seafood and ample seasoning. It's tempting to compare it to ceviche or sashimi, but poke is its own beast, it is absolutely scrumptious, and I miss it dearly. And I can't say that about too many beasts.

Depending on the variety, poke will also contain slivers of raw onion, seaweed, or even kimchi. Though poke is a traditional dish, like most Hawaiian foods its modern incarnation folds in elements that originated with other cultures. But some of my favorite "flavors" included Polynesian ingredients like the kukui nuts you see sprinkled on the ahi poke above.

Elise's favorite was, hands down, the smoked marlin, which in texture was close to jerky. Smoked marlin poke was sweet, salty, spicy, and of course smokey and marliny. It went very well with the baby soft white rice that we always ate with our poke, which usually came from the Tamura's in Honolulu. Not necessarily what you'd expect from a liquor store, but it was probably the best thing you could buy there.

With its high protein content, cool temperature and oceanic flavors, poke is the perfect post-beach food. I ate some after surfing, which I also tried for the first time. Hard to say which I liked better.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hi From HI

By the time you read this, I'll either be ear-deep in a papaya on the beaches of Honolulu or stuck in an extended, hellish layover at LAX, using my pants as a pillow and a marked-up airport gift shop copy of National Geographic as pants. Hopefully the former.

While in Hawaii I plan to take a technology fast, but I plan to take the opposite of the kind of fast where you don't eat food. That means I won't be blogging for a while but will be blogging my brains out about all of the great stuff I ate once I return on 4/27. See you then!

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Anna Lappé's Diet for a Hot Planet

I just finished Anna Lappé's new book, Diet for a Hot Planet. Perhaps the most interesting part comes toward the end, where the author acknowledges that much has changed about her subject during the course of her writing. Which led me to wonder: with so many many great minds and so many lightning fast new media outlets, why a book?

New data on climate change (which we should really be calling climate change for the worse) streams in constantly, as does info about the specific realm of how the way we eat heats up the planet. And I have to say, after reading countless blogs about the subject, it was a nice change of pace to sink my teeth into 336 pages sans hyperlinks.

Lappé has clearly spent more time thinking about how our forks poke holes in the ozone than bloggers such as myself who simply write about delicious meals we make and then slap a "sustainability" label onto the post as an afterthought. Lappé's quest takes her to multiple continents, to a gathering of Via Campesina and to meat industry conventions, and she combs through endless studies on precisely how much methane comes out of an organic cow vs a CAFO cow's butt.

While I'm glad for the publication of any book that looks at how our diets affect climate change, if you've read Pollan, Bittman or Kingsolver -- and you probably have -- you'll find much of Diet for a Hot Planet redundant. Then again, if you're not familiar with basic notions of how food production influences the (rising) temperature of the planet, this is an excellent resource for you. Though you'll still find some parts redundant, but then again, apparently this is an issue we need to be beat over the head with in order to fully grasp its severity. And like those who have come before, Lappé's central conclusion is this: eat less meat.

What the book does best is to debunk those studies and articles which seek to debunk those studies and articles that sought to debunk those studies and articles saying that industrially produced food is hunky-dory. In other words, industrial food came along, was championed, attacked, and then those who questioned its merits were in turn attacked.

Think of articles like Wired magazine's "Surprise! Conventional Agriculture Can be Easier on the Planet!" It's people like that article's author that Lappé now makes look stupid. She does an excellent job of revealing the biases of those critics of sustainable farming, be it funding from agribusiness giants or... well, it's pretty much always funding from agribusiness giants.

Her formula is familiar, which isn't to say that it's not effective, and most similar to the Omnivore's Dilemma: Pollan calls the ideal food producer a "good farm," she calls it a "cool farm." For an appetizer, she serves us depressing facts about the state of modern food production. For the entree, a glimpse at one of those magical, sustainable farms run by a quirky agricultural genius who just so happens to speak in one-liners, saying that the organisms in soil are "breathing, pooping, and peeing."

And for dessert, an empowering glimpse of the world that could be, topped with a list of urls for organizations dedicated to cooling the planet by popularizing cooler foods.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Elise's pizza is so good that there's never any to spare. But sometimes she makes a little extra dough for later use which allows us to experience the splendor all over again.

If you're going to go through the trouble of making pizza dough (which really isn't any harder than watching Hulu), you'd might as well make extra. It keeps for a while in the fridge, for even longer in the freezer, and will last forever in your memory of what a delightful experience it was.

Having pizza from leftover dough is like getting one more visit from someone who you love but who is dead. In fact it's even better since you can eat the pizza and can't eat the ghost, unless of course you're Pac-Man.

There was the time Elise made those delightful little rolls, and more recently we had flatbread with za'atar (aka zaatar, za'tar, zatar, zatr, zahatar, zaktar and satar but not satyr) for breakfast. With the dough already made, all we had to do was heat up the oven and slide it in while we went about our morning routine. In about as much time as it takes to make oatmeal, we had a fresh, hot, steamy, crusty, za'atary breakfast.

Make pizza dough on the weekend. Make flatbread for breakfast during the week. Die happy. Then come back and visit someone who you really loved and teach them to do the same. Then get eaten by Pac-Man.

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

My Post on the Amateur Gourmet

See here for my post on the Amateur Gourmet's new Community Blog. It's about lobster. Enjoy!

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Old Friends

I recently peered into my neglected raised garden bed to find a delightful surprise. Despite the fact that I'm such a terrible gardener, the perennials still felt obliged to return.

There amidst the depleted soil, skeletons of plants from last year and incidental mulching from fall leaves were sorrel, anise hyssop, and strawberry vines. Though I don't deserve them, there they were.

My first adult garden (and by "adult" I mean "not done by a child" rather than "sexy") was deceptively productive. I planted a few tomatoes, basically went away from the summer, and returned to find a jungle of plants over six feet tall drooping with gorgeous, heirloom fruits. I thought gardening was a cinch and I expected that it would be even easier when I moved out of the city to somewhere with more space.

I was wrong. That one tiny, urban tomato lot has yielded more than two seasons have in the raised beds I built and lovingly filled with manure and loam. The yard is huge, but the trees around it are even more huge, and there just isn't great sun. We spent $50 bucks on supplies last spring and only had a handful of cucumbers to show for it. So I gave up.

But the perennials didn't. What better symbol for this season of renewal than a juicy herb poking its leaves through the frost-bitten soil? Though I turned my back on them, they didn't turn their back on me. Wait, do plants have backs?

As payment for the loyalty of these faithful old friends, I will cut off pieces of them and eat them.

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Monday, April 5, 2010


I have a confession to make, and I'm not proud of it. Here it is: though I believe it's key to our survival as a species, I admit that I don't exclusively eat sustainable food.

I'm trying -- I really am! -- to eat food that I consider to be sustainable. That means many things. For one it means not a lot of meat: not no meat, just not a lot of it, and what meat I do eat I try to buy from local farms whose practices I can trust and whose products don't require additional fossil fuels to get to me.

In the growing season, which we're thankfully re-entering, I get just about all of my produce from farmers markets or other vendors with direct relationships to area farms that don't spray their crops with poison or take more out of the soil than they put back in. For the rest of the year, I eat out of my root "cellar" (hallway) and eat the occasional frozen, dried or canned local produce. Heck, I even forage a little here and there.

But I'm going to honest with you. I still go to restaurants and I still buy bananas in winter. Granted the 'naners are organic, but they're Big Organic, which plenty of people would say is not really organic. Sure Big Organic is technically organic by the rules set forth by the USDA, but it's no more in the spirit of true organic farming than the Monkees' "psychedelic" material was in the spirit of the 60's.

So that accounts for meat and veggies, but I don't mostly eat meat and veggies. Like everyone I mostly eat starches, like bread, rice, other grains and legumes. Unfortunately, starch is the hardest thing to find in my particular foodshed. So besides the rare bag of locally milled cornmeal, the bulk of my diet is being shipped from far, far away. And that means that people far, far away are directly suffering as a result of my actions.

The fossil fuels that are being pumped into the atmosphere so that I can eat pancakes are widening the holes in the ozone over places like Australia, where skin cancer rates may be higher than anywhere else in the world. Sorry, Australians.

The fact of the matter is that I just don't have the time or resources to eat in a completely sustainable manner. None of us do, unless you're rich or live in the Bay Area. But the important thing is to own that fact and to try to do something about it. Alternatively, you could shop at Whole Foods.

With stores like Whole Foods that sell some sustainable products and lots more non-sustainable products placed next to and packaged exactly like the sustainable products, you have to be careful. In the same way that a car with good gas mileage is still terrible for the environment, food that is only sustainable-ish (i.e. grown by Big Organics) but is not wholly sustainable is still a net drain. Remember, if something isn't sustainable, it means we can't keep doing it.

Is shopping at Whole Foods better than shopping at a "normal" grocery store? Depends. A pound of lentils at Stop n' Shop is probably better for everyone than a pound of New Zealand lamb from Whole Foods. Does Whole Foods do some things, like carrying local produce, right? Yes. But does shopping at Whole Foods lull you into a sense of complacency induced by their bounteous displays of produce and soothing, rounded, fonts? No doubt.

To be optimistic, let's think of Whole Foods as step on our path but by no means the destination. What we really need are more sustainable farms growing more kinds of food, more sustainable processors turning that corn into cornmeal, and more people turning it into sustainable hush puppies.

We are an extremely creative and capable species. Just look at how good we are at producing the cheapest goods possible without regard to the well being of the work force or health of the planet. I have no doubt that we can shift our priorities and solve the intertwined global food crisis and climate crisis.

May we then have a sustainable chicken in every sustainable pot and a bicycle in every garage, and vegetables growing on the roof of that garage.

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