Saturday, April 16, 2011

Yesterday, Hawaii chefs, farmers, diners and concerned members of Hawaii’s food community gathered to talk about sustainability and the state of the local food supply at the Hawaii Food Forum. You can read one summary of it at KITV News. I knew that this was coming and wished that I could have been there to hear what was discussed. Following the panel last night, I read quite a bit of commentary online, hopeful about what might have taken place, but became disappointed as I read about the challenges voiced that I was already aware of. My thoughts are reeling as I see the conversation go on, and I hope that this inspires movement and change, but the question really is how. And who is going to take charge to lead a statewide intitative to further food independence?

I moved to Portland because I was frustrated in Hawaii. I was working in my mom’s grocery store, learning her 20 year-old business and watching her feed a neighborhood as gas costs rose and prices climbed. When I last worked there in 2006, I kept turning over organic products (almost all shipped in) and saw that many were made in Oregon. Granted, staple ingredients are much cheaper on the mainland, but the great chefs in Portland are committed to using as much local product as they can. Local can be limiting, but I believe it is the way to go. So I moved here, frustrated by the apathy that I saw in Hawaii at the time, to see how farm-to-table can work in a city.

Five years later, much has changed on Kauai (this is where I’m from, and what I know, not Maui or Oahu). Waipa Foundation fosters sustainability through farming and educational initiatives targeted at the surrounding Hawaiian community, farmers markets have increased in number and popularity, and there is more awareness about growing your own food when possible. Experiments have begun with restaurants growing their own vegetables such as 22 North, utilizing local product as they do at Oasis on the Beach and Hukilau Lanai, and farms opening restaurants in the case of the Common Ground non-profit. I go into Living Foods Market and am so excited to see that they are roasting their own coffee! Baking their own bread! Selling local cheese and honey! But the store and cafĂ© are not crowded. And, well, it’s expensive.

High-end chefs have always championed the good stuff – Merriman, Roy, Alan Wong. I’m not going to pretend to know everything about the history of Hawaii Regional Cuisine as I went to college and became a diner on the mainland, not in Hawaii. After the Hawaii Food Forum yesterday, I read on Twitter that the one chef one farmer paradigm is over. I agree, that no, that’s not enough, but lets admit that Ed Kenney and Ma’o Farms together have made great strides to raise awareness of the flavor of locally grown produce and how that can elevate local restaurant cuisine. Not to mention the incredible example set forth for education and stewardship of the land in the case of Ma'o Farms. The importance of a chef to expose people to the beauty of the product growing in their own backyard (I had never eaten pepeiau mushrooms before having it in a pasta at Town), cannot be overstated.

But Hawaii does not have as widespread of a dining culture as metropolitan cities. Many people cook at home. So what’s the solution there? Buying mainland-grown staples will always be costly. Wheat will always be shipped in, and probably rice, unless Hawaii starts growing it in quantity again. Maybe then it’s supplementing what must be purchased with home gardens for vegetables and fruit. Akamai Backyard is an inspiring example. I’ve seen friends starting similar yard farms in Hawaii. But lets’ face it, not everyone has a green thumb or the time and skill to be a farmer (though I wish they taught that as an elective in public school). Is there a service like Your Backyard Farmer in Hawaii, where someone will come in and set up a food-producing garden for you that you only have to maintain? If not, I hope to see this someday. Just writing that is evidence of another challenge; I use the name “Hawaii” generally to talk about the entire state, but really each island is a distinct community unto itself with its own set of unique resources and obstacles.

There is no singular solution, this change has to come from a number of different directions. People need to appreciate local food, and know how to prepare it deliciously. Farmers need to be valued, agriculture, REAL agriculture, the kind of farms where people are growing FOOD for the community, need to be financially supported and protected by the state). And there are additional challenges posed by the presence, and business of multinational genetic engineering operations farming in the islands.

I write this from the perspective of a concerned child of Kaua’i, whose parents opened a store in the 70s in order to have a place to retail local produce on the island, who grew up on a working banana and papaya farm, whose grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins farmed and were involved in the Kauai County Farm Bureau and local ag for decades, and who now lives on the mainland, visits Hawaii only a couple of times a year and stays connected by following chefs on Twitter, reading Edible Hawaiian Islands (a beautiful publication that showcases local food, the people growing and cooking it, and how to prepare it yourself) and Hana Hou magazines. I don't claim to be a current part of Hawaii's food community, but with my family and friends there, I will always care about it.

Last time I visited Oahu this past January, I was with a friend - a Portland chef who specializes in Thai food. We went to Maunakea Market in Chinatown and were both impressed by the supply, vibrancy and freshness of the vegetables, seafood and meat sold by the vendors, most of which was locally grown and raised. This is the quality of produce he covets on the mainland and often has to buy from elsewhere. We really HAVE something in Hawaii, but it’s a matter of how to make people value it, crave it, grow more of it, pay for it, and afford it. I think that sustainability, self-sufficiency and fantastic flavor, is worth it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Eggs and Greens

Nettles are one of the first signs of spring on menus in Portland, and I'm fond of scouting out the ways in which different chefs use them. Today, I think that the Best Use of Nettles Award should go to Beaker and Flask for the nettle and mushroom galette: seasoned greens and sauteed mushrooms folded into a buttery, crisp and flaky crust, topped with a gooey fried egg and microgreens.

To me, both eggs and greens epitomize this culinary season, when the rain keeps falling and the sky stays grey, only creating a perfect backdrop for the vibrancy of sprouting leaves. On the plate at this time of year that color is just as alive, especially accompanied by eggs that naturally represent rebirth and the yearned for yellow sun.

The contrast between crisp greens with a bit of lemon or vinaigrette and the richness of egg yolk is one of my favorite combinations. Asparagus topped with a fried egg and parmigiano reggiano, and sauteed spinach added to a great eggs benedict are some of the best things I have tasted. In the photo above, at lunch at Clyde Common, they do it twice: a salad of broccoli rabe with lemon, pistachio, egg vinaigrette and a poached egg, and then whole grain flatbread spread with goat cheese and those wild greens tossed in a slightly sweet but tart vinaigrette.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Magic Little Pink Peppercorns

Spicy desserts, herbal cocktails, and floral notes in savory dishes always enchant me. These combinations are seemingly paradoxical, but so deliciously complex when perfected. Lavender shortbread, aromatic gin (like Aviation or Ransom’s Old Tom), fiery sauces filled with Szechuan pepper… My roommate just told me about an olive oil chocolate bar that Xocolatl de David is making while I was typing this; that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

My current passion is for pink peppercorns. If their scent were bottled, I’d wear it as perfume. I first had this revelation when I tried the Pink Pepper cocktail at Yakuza, which, coincidently is made with Aviation Gin. That’s shaken with fresh grapefruit juice, bitters, lime, and pink peppercorns that float on top, perfuming your nostrils with every lively sip. It’s fantastic.

At Aviary, a new restaurant on Alberta Street where three chefs collaborate every night to turn out an inventive and thoughtful menu, smoked pork ribs are served with a tamarind glaze, green papaya slaw, and a dusting of pink peppercorns that brighten the entire dish.

A friend recently pulled me into Sizzle Pie on East Burnside to try their pizza, but I was completely enthralled by the salad. The Word Salad as it’s called, is a simple combination of good local red leaf lettuce (the silky yet crunchy texture is critical), pepperoncinis, red onions, and pepitas. But it’s the dressing, this super-light, magic dressing that I cannot stop thinking about and would probably put on every vegetable that came across my kitchen counter if I had the recipe, is what really makes it. They call it their Vegan Pink Peppercorn White Wine Vinaigrette, I call it amazing, and I can’t wait to figure out how to make a version of it myself.

I’ll leave you with a heavenly photo by blogger Aran Goyaga from her gorgeous website, Canelle et Vanille, of raspberry macarons with pink peppercorn buttercream. Here. See what I mean?