Friday, April 22, 2011

Bon Appetit

It's been nearly a year since I started this blog. Admittedly, it hasn't turned out exactly as one might expect from the description beneath the title. Originally, I envisioned more discussion of the trials and rewards of trying to enjoy food when there's one strict vegetarian and one meat-loving omnivore in the family. There were even supposed to be some restaurant reviews but that hasn't happened.

With the arrival of the water buffalo, the blog quickly became a handy way to keep friends and family up to date on what's going on around the farm and in our kitchen. Since I never had any interest in trying to make a living at blogging, I've resisted the urge to try to monetize the site or pump up traffic. Still, I love looking at the stats and seeing how folks find the blog. That effort has revealed some of the unsavory side of blogging (e.g., traffic manipulation) but also some of the fun (e.g., getting to know people from other blogs).

One source of traffic to my blog surprised me: Bon Appetit. I subscribe to the paper edition of the magazine but wasn't sure why my blog kept getting hits routed from their website, so I followed the trail back and discovered this. Apparently, my version of their mushroom and lentil pot pie recipe got picked up in a column they run called "What People Are Cooking." Their people pick a recipe which had been featured in the magazine and then look around to see which blogs have featured the dish. A few of the best examples are featured in the column. It all feels vaguely incestuous but still I was flattered by the attention.

I may yet get around to talking about some of our favorite restaurants in Asheville and places we find when we're on the road but I think I'll leave the formal reviews to the pros. I really like enjoying my food when I'm eating it. If I had to remember the details accurately some hours or days later, I would have to take notes during my meal and that would just ruin it. As with a good book or movie, analyzing it--even after the fact--often takes something away from the emotional experience of it for me. Instead, I think I'll just put up some posts about our favorite places and why we love them. That is, unless I get distracted by some cute buffalo.....

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spring Ephemerals and Black Condoms

Time to catch up on posts that should have gone up before vacation. I was hunting for early mushrooms and, while I didn't find the morels I sought, I found some lovely flowers. The spring ephemerals are here and gone in the blink of an eye so it's always exciting to find them just as they're coming up. I think my favorite one has to be the trout lily.

I know I've identified this flower before but the name is escaping me at the moment, so we'll just call it pretty white flower.

Although I came across several common shelf fungi on tree branches, I didn't find anything coming up out of the ground.

I came back with an empty basket but resolved to make frequent forays over the next month to check out my favorite mushroom spots. The appearance of the ephemerals often coincides with morel season, so if the nighttime temps are warm enough and there's a decent amount of rain, the conditions would be conducive for morels. 

Back to more mundane chores, the next morning I was shoveling manure and straw out of the barn and onto our tower of poop when I stopped short of unleashing the first round of doots. I did a very cartoon-y double take as my brain tried desperately to process what appeared to be a bunch of small black condoms on the manure pile. A closer look revealed that they were some sort of mushroom. They just happened to look very much like little black condoms on a white stem (think something akin to a mung bean sprout). I came back a couple hours later to take some pictures but they were already gone. Talk about ephemerals.

The next day, I looked for them in the same spot and sure enough, there they were. Only this time, I was a little earlier and saw that they look quite different when they first come up--more of a grey parasol that hasn't opened fully. I took some back to the house immediately to grab some photos, lamenting the fact that this day's specimens weren't nearly as large, so they didn't look quite so condom-like. 

As the parasol opens, the cap flattens out and the edges curl up, creating the rolled up edge that caught my eye initially.

These little guys flopped over before I could get the picture (insert your own joke here).

I searched my mushroom field guides but couldn't find a match (I think because I was looking for them as they appear in the late stages of decay). My friend Jason had just given me an old Time-Life style book on mushrooms which he'd found in a thrift store. Although it didn't have a wide variety of mushrooms, it did have great pictures--including one very similar to what I had found. That helped me narrow it down. I still don't know the exact variety but these fungi seem to be part of a group of mushrooms known as inky caps. If you touch the cap, you'll know why. The caps dissolve completely into an ink-like liquid. It stains your skin and, from what I've read, does work as a good substitute for ink. If you're ever in need of ink and happen to be near these 'shrooms, have at it. And if these are the kind I think they are, don't eat them! Not that they look very appetizing anyway, but they are toxic. Some variety of inky caps have an interesting toxin which mimics Antabuse. If you consume alcohol within a few days of ingesting the mushroom, you will experience a host of unpleasant effects (vomiting, tachycardia, sweating, headache, etc.) similar to what would occur if you were taking the drug Antabuse. I don't recommend inky caps as a way to kick the alcohol habit. Or as a prophylactic for that matter.

OK, now I'm going to post this, sit back, and wait to see what kind of interesting traffic comes to this blog as people search for "black condoms."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Missed One

Had to leave you with one last photo from Kaua'i. This sign was on the door of an appliance store in Kapa'a:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Garden Isle--Part Deux

Negligent am I. Just because we have bananas nearly every day at home doesn't mean it's ok to skip them when talking about our wonderful fruit selection at the cottage on Kaua'i. And these little gems (tucked away on the far left side of the plate) are the lovely, if somewhat incongruously named, apple bananas. Small but sweet, they are the perfect size for snacking and they always make us think of lazy days on the Amazon.

Now, let's get out of the cottage. There were many sights to see just on the short drive from town to the cottage. Our daily drive(s) gave us a glimpse of Opaeka'a Falls:

And the Wailua River, Hawaii's only navigable river:

Nice commute. Practically in our backyard was the start of the trail to hike up Nounou Mountain a.k.a., the Sleeping Giant. Before beginning the 1000-foot ascent to the chin of the giant, we had to find the shortcut to the trail through a fence behind a shipping container (no secret handshake required).

Then there was a brief, cool walk through a stand of Norfolk pine trees before the steep, sweaty climb.

The reward for our efforts was a nice place to sit and enjoy the view out to the ocean.

If it weren't for his big head (the Giant's), we could have had 360-degree views. No matter. What we had was lovely.

There were a couple of picnic tables for those who were inclined to linger but on this day, as was the case every day, we needed coffee. In fact, this was the only day we did anything remotely energetic before seeking  out our coffee home away from home: Small Town Coffee.

A big part of the reason that we chose to stay in the Wailua-Kapa'a area is this place. We tried several java joints on previous visits but none matched the requisite quality and quirk factor of Small Town Coffee Co. From their propensity to dress up for holidays (or undress as was the case for April Fools' Day) to their charming way of listing what menu items were unavailable ("Returning soon: decaf") and a Stephen Colbert quote on the blackboard, we knew they were our kind of people. A little crazy but thoroughly enjoyable. And outstanding people watching--this is very much a locals place. Ask Alison to tell you about the ladies of power yoga some day....

And their food and bevvy options were perfect for us. Alison is partial to the Pig in an Apple Tree (cheddar cheese, bacon, granny smith apples, and cream cheese on a sesame bagel) though she desperately wanted to order the That'll Do Pig, That'll Do just to be able to say it. Jim opted for Fritha's Breakfast (hummus, tomato, cracked black pepper, avocado on a whole wheat bagel). Parents be warned: you may have to explain to the young'uns why one of the breakfast options is called We Found Nemo. Once we were fully caffeinated, we turned our attention to their locally-made kombucha and ginger brew--the latter being the most deliciously intense ginger drink I've ever had.

Too many column inches for a coffee shop? I don't think so. We really did spend the better part of every morning here. Then we would wander through the rest of Kapa'a town which is conveniently located about half an hour from everything else on the island, so it was a great jumping off point. On the first day, we just wandered up and down the east coast of Kaua'i, keeping an eye peeled for whales. We think we saw a bit of one or two but couldn't be sure. But we were sure about this guy:

Meet Noho, an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Only about 1000 survive in the world and 35-40 of them reside in the waters around Kaua'i. This not-quite-two-year-old male was resting on the rocks, well-protected from sharks out in the ocean and tourists on the cliffs above.

Much more common, but still thrilling to me, were the little geckos which appeared around our door each night. No doubt attracted to the porch lights which in turn attracted insects, these little guys were only a few inches long but gave me a huge amount of pleasure. Although they were silent as far as we could tell, the geckos reminded us of our time in Bali, where the geckos would loudly proclaim their name.

The bulk of our active hours on Kaua'i were spent snorkeling. An easy 30-minute drive took us to our favorite beach, Lawa'i. There really isn't much beach to this beach; just a tiny strip of sand between the road and the water. Since we're not the kind of folks who enjoy lying on the beach, having just enough sand on which to leave our towels and sunscreen is not a problem. Much larger beaches are close by, so Lawa'i tends to appeal to the surfers and snorkelers and keeps the loungers at bay.

Located on the south coast, just west of the resort hotels and condos of Po'ipu, Lawa'i offers the best winter snorkeling we've found. Unlike any other beach on this island, we've never had trouble finding parking nearby and the fish are always plentiful. We always say that snorkeling in Hawaii is like swimming in a tropical aquarium. There are so many colorful and exotic fish to look at, including our favorite: humuhumunuknukuapua'a a.k.a., the clown triggerfish. This time, more than any other, we found the fish surrounding us as though we were part of their schools. Sometimes, we just floated, not wanting to scare them off, as they swam around us only inches away. Lawa'i also has the most colorful coral we've seen on this island as well as a huge number of sea cucumbers and sea anemone. The hardest thing is remembering that time passes quickly when you're in the ocean and more than once, we stayed in so long that our sunscreen wore off. It was worth it.

The north shore is great in summer--Ke'e Beach was spectacular the one time we went in summer--but typically the surf is much too rough in winter for safe snorkeling. We did have a couple of unusually summer-like days and managed to try out a couple of north shore beaches that were new to us: Anini Beach and Tunnels Beach. The former had ridiculously strong currents which gave us quite a workout and the latter, while sporting some fascinating coral formations, didn't have enough fish around to keep us from having to compete with the spear fisherman for some good looks.  The beaches are beautiful. Think South Pacific as the north coast is where they filmed the famous "I'm gonna wash that man right outta my hair" scene and the shots of Bali Hai. For a more current reference, Tunnels Beach is where Bethany Hamilton, subject of the current film Soul Surfer, lost her arm to a shark when she was 13. The only large creature we saw around there was another monk seal lounging on the sand.

On the plus side, we discovered a really good Mediterranean restaurant not far from Tunnels Beach. Usually, we have to go all the way back to Hanalei to find good grub. It's a nice little town and is home to our favorite pesci-vegetarian restaurant, Postcards Cafe (we always budget for one splash-out dinner here) but the road on that part of the island is narrow with a series of one-lane bridges that require waiting for the near-constant stream of traffic to give way. After a long morning of snorkeling, our rumbly tummies were happy not to have to wait long for lunch. When we saw the tiny sign for the Mediterranean Gourmet Restaurant we thought it might be a small grab-and-go falafel stand with delusions of grandeur. Instead, it's a very nice sit-down restaurant with a gorgeous ocean view and some of the most nicely-spiced Lebanese food we've had in ages. And they let us in wearing our swimsuits, so we didn't have to find a place to change first.

After snorkeling nearly every day of our vacation, we hadn't seen any honu (sea turtles). We love snorkeling with these gentle creatures and every other time we've been to Hawaii, we've had at least a couple of encounters. We had to check out of our cottage Friday morning and debated whether to try one last time. The downside, of course, would be making the long trip home with wet gear and the lack of a proper shower. We decided against it but reserved the option to change our minds since we would have all our luggage with us for the rest of the day. When we had some time to kill that afternoon, we returned to Lawa'i with the idea of hanging out on the neatly manicured lawn of the nearby resort and watching the surfers.

The surfing wasn't great that day but we got to see something even better:

Yes, honu! Right along the seawall, this beautiful honu was feeding on the algae on the rocks. We were able to sit on the wall and watch it just a few feet below us. While it's not the same experience as floating next to or above a sea turtle, it was marvelous nonetheless. Best of all, it afforded us a great vantage point for pictures. The surf was a little rough that day, so the poor turtle was struggling to stay in one place. It got washed back and forth quite a few times but managed to get a flipper up on the rocks to steady itself every once in awhile. I think we watched for half an hour before the turtle swam off--much longer than we've seen a turtle stay in one place before. All the more amazing for the number of tourists above it madly taking photos.

Now our vacation was complete. We headed off to the art walk in Hanapepe, had dinner at the taco trucks (Monster Taco for Jim, Silver Elephant Thai for Alison), and made our way to the airport. Content with our short week on the island, we dropped off our rental car, hopped on the Hertz shuttle and joined our fellow US Airways passengers in a good April Fool's Day laugh when the shuttle driver said, "I think your flight has been cancelled." Oops. Turned out he wasn't joking. We got to the counter to find that our flight's crew had timed out and thus, they'd cancelled the flight. Next flight out was the following evening.

Normally, we'd have been unhappy at this turn of events, but if you're going to get cancelled, do it in Hawaii. The airline put us up in a resort near the airport, so we got an extra day of vacation in a place far fancier than we would have chosen for ourselves. We were a little worried about finding food for Jim at a chain hotel but  the Marriott had good vegetarian options for all meals (even a tofu scramble for breakfast), we think due to the large number of Japanese tourists who come to Hawaii. Thanks to our trusty and flexible farmsitter, we were able to enjoy the extra day without a care. Since we had spent the week patting ourselves on the back for spurning hotels and cooking our own food, we did a 180 and played like the other half. We swam in the pool, lounged by the beach, drank foofie drinks with parasols and pineapple slices, fell asleep in a hammock, bought souvenirs, and ate all three meals in our swimwear. Hawaii does strange things to a person. Most of them good. We'll be back. Oh yes. Despite the long flights (our next attempt to get home was successful if a bit chaotic--seat assignments were seemingly put through a randomizer overnight), we will happily return to Kaua'i again and again.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Garden Isle

Last week, we escaped to Hawaii for vacation. When you live around Asheville, it takes something pretty spectacular to make you want to leave home and, much to our surprise, we find that Hawaii has become our preferred getaway. We never thought we would be those people. The ones who jet off to Hawaii. But it got to us. More specifically, Kaua'i won us over.

This tiny island (somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 square miles) has everything we need: friendly people, great food with plenty of good vegetarian options, gorgeous scenery, varied topography, and an uncanny ability to get us to relax fully and immediately.

We knew that we hadn't erred in making our third trip to Kaua'i when mere hours after getting off the plane, we spotted a sign for roller derby.

To our delight and amazement, the Garden Island Renegade Rollerz had started a league in the 18 months since our last visit and they kindly scheduled a bout for our first night there. Not only did it help keep us awake until bedtime, it was a blast. Held at an outdoor hockey rink in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd, we watched two young teams battle it out. I imagine this is what our Blue Ridge Roller Girls looked like when they were just getting started. The jams were slower than what we're accustomed to but it made it easier to see what was going on. The half-time show performed by a group of local beat boys was truly spectacular. Best $5 we've ever spent on vacation.

One of the things we love about Kaua'i is that you never have to drive far to get where you're going. For example, the bout in Kapaa was just 10 minutes from our cottage in Wailua. And what a cottage! The lovely folks at Rosewood have a number of rentals but this one is on the property where they live. Not only did we get to stay in a perfectly lovely and well-appointed cottage, we were able to enjoy the fruits (literally) of the owners' labor.

Our hosts, Norbert and Rosemary, have a gorgeous garden and small nursery which we were able to wander through and pick up stray grapefruit, oranges, and lemons. There were many more fruiting trees and shrubs than we could identify but Norbert was very willing to answer our many questions and offer us samples when there was ripe fruit to be had as with the Suriname cherries which were new to us. We were too early for the pineapples but it was fun to see them in their infancy.

After our first foray out to visit their chickens (Rhode Island Reds and Araucanas), we returned to find a dozen eggs waiting for us. Between the welcome basket of goodies (granola, fruit bread, and a variety of other local treats), the fruit, and eggs, we were nearly set for breakfast for the week.

A quick trip to the Safeway netted us the necessary butter and yogurt as well as locally-made Aloha Tofu, fresh soba noodles, and local honey. We were delighted to discover in the same shopping center Papaya's Natural Foods which had a great selection of healthy veggie foods, including most of what we buy at home. We stocked up on quinoa pasta, refried black beans, and found some locally-made sweet potato tamales. They also have a great hot bar which served us well when we needed to grab a quick bite before Roller Derby.

One of the main reasons we chose a self-catering property this time (aside from the fact that the hotel where we stayed on points last time had changed ownership), was to have control over our diet. Even though Kaua'i is one of the most vegetarian-friendly destinations, there isn't always a good option nearby for every meal and we often weary of having to eat more food and pay more it than we want to--especially when we're trying to adjust to a six-hour time difference. Plus, we wanted pie. Lots of pie.

During our last visit, we discovered the pie lady. We went to the Hanapepe art walk on our last night in town. Every Friday, the sleepy town of Hanapepe comes to life with artists, musicians, and street food vendors.

We found the pie lady, braving the windy and rainy evening to bring real butter-crust pie in a spectacular range of varieties to tourists and artists alike. It was love at first bite. Sadly, we had to get on the plane that evening and only had time and tummy for one slice. We vowed to find her upon our return. Turns out she's doing spectacularly well. She makes appearances at most of the island's farmers' markets and is looking for a permanent location. Operating under the moniker, "The Right Slice," she has developed a big and well-deserved following. We made a point of hitting the sunshine markets early in the week so we could stock up.

This is Jim with our four slices: Coconut Blueberry, Macadamia Nut, Chocolate Macaroon, and Lemon. That doesn't count the two slices we got at the art walk which were consumed at the airport after we dropped off our rental car: PB/Banana/Chocolate and Blueberry/Ginger.

Although it was early in the season, the sunshine markets had enough fun things to make it worth a stop whenever we found one. The whole approach to the markets is fun in itself. Everyone lines up at the entrance and when the appointed time comes for the start of the market, someone honks a car horn or blows a loud whistle and it's game on. A mad scramble ensues as everyone tries to jockey for position to get the best of the fruit and flowers before they run out. Even if you aren't staying in a place where you can cook your own food, go just to see fruit you normally don't see at home and to buy the ridiculously cheap tropical flowers. Here's what $5 got us (a close second in value to the roller derby tickets):

As for food, we snagged some lettuces, radishes, avocado, papaya, rambutan, and something called a cream apple. Here's our haul:

I'd had rambutan before but never fresh ones. Similar to lychees or longan, the flesh of the fruit (hidden beneath the spiky red exterior) is a bit like a firm grape but it does have a large seed in the center that is inedible. Chilled, they make a wonderful dessert after a spicy meal and are readily available in canned form in any decent Asian market.

Then there was the cream apple. We saw several variations on this fruit (some green, some called star apple) and really didn't know what to make of it. We grabbed one to try at home. It is a beautiful deep purple with a  creamy white interior. Unfortunately, it didn't have much flavor. I suspect we need to do some research and find out how the locals use this fruit. Here it is with a delicious orange we found under one of Norbert's trees:

We were clearly not hurting for fiber or vitamin C on this trip! Well, that's probably enough for now on self-catering on Kaua'i. Up next, getting out and enjoying the island.