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Posts Tagged ‘anchovy’

Okay, I know I meant to write more about food writing* this week, but I’ve had so much fun with another idea that I want to talk about it first. It’s my dearest love of sloppy food.

There’s such pressure to be perfect these days. It’s not new; our great-grandmothers used to compete, silently, to see which woman on the block was first to hang her clean wash on the clothesline on Monday morning. Those days are over, mercifully. But new ones, and pressures, took their place. With the advent of movies, TV, and now social media, we’re holding ourselves up for comparison to endless others paraded in front of us, forgetting that what we see is not likely the whole enchilada. Very not likely. (Philip Galanes of The New York Times recently received a letter from a young woman asking why on earth her stepmother, who had always been cold to her and her sisters, would post kitten memes on Facebook that read, ‘I heart my stepdaughters!’ He replied, ‘Facebook is not the real world. It is not even adjacent to the real world.’)

One way to counteract the deluge of pretentious perfection is to go whole hog in the opposite direction, at least for a time. An excellent way to start is with eating.

I work my way down this list if the pressure mounts, or when my life gets too tidy, and would encourage you to do the same. Sandwiches feature prominently.

  1. Tomato-raw onion-Cotija sandwiches. The ingredients slide out in 17 different directions, and I slurp extra-virgin olive oil off the backs of my arms.
  2. Dark chocolate that I’ve melted for a recipe, and had extra at the bottom of the Pyrex bowl, so I put it in the refrigerator to firm up overnight. This is one of my favorite choices for chocolate day: wedging the tines of a fork into that bowl to chip out the chocolate in shiny shards, and eating just shy of a migraine. I take my joys where I can get them.An example of bloomed chocolate. Looks cool in the bowl. Not so much on candy.
  3. Italian subs. With everything on it, and lots and lots of oil and vinegar. A sopping roll is a blasphemy and an aberration to many; to me, it’s a requirement. I learned from a counter guy at a local sub shop that if you like your sandwich this way, you should say, ‘WET.’
  4. Tuna-anchovy sandwiches. It drips out the edges of the bread as you bite into it and you get to pick up all the fishy little bits with your fingers.
  5. S’mores. Homemade, baby.
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  6. Ice cream with leaky cones. I like to take the paper cone off the bottom and slurp.
    on the clock to take the shot before I wear this.
  7. Thanksgiving dinner. The ultimate. On the floor. I grew up eating a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, but it was far too straight-laced for the likes of me. So one year I spread out my best friend’s grandmother’s afghan on the floor and we had a picnic of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. We wore fleece and socks instead of dressy clothes, and we deliberately ate the whole thing with our fingers. It was one of the most liberating meals of my life.StuffingIn the early ’90s, I taught a camp group of Pre-Ks (four-year-olds). One rainy day when we were stuck inside, all of the Pre-K groups were given smocks, big sheets of glossy fingerpaint paper, and bowls of chocolate pudding. I plopped a blob of pudding onto each of their papers with a plastic spoon. For most of my kids, this was exceedingly well received. One little girl, though, Lucy, didn’t want to touch it. Her mom always had her dressed just so; I can still picture her, with tiny gold stud earrings and her long hair pulled back with a ribbon. Everything she did at camp she did with caution, and I would gently encourage her to try more, to do more.

    At first she agreed to put her pointer finger in the pudding and swirled it around a little. That went on too long. It was a rainy day, and this was all we had to do in the cramped gym for 45 minutes, so I kept cheering her on. ‘Come on, Lucy Luce! Get your hands in there!’ She put two fingers in and Mona-Lisa smiled. That was it. I looked away for a few minutes and came back to find her with both hands flat to the paper and pushing them up and down and laughing her little beribboned head off.
    There’s a place for excellence in our lives…not perfection. There’s a place for tidiness. But too much, and with the wrong expectations, and we stifle ourselves. Life is a rainy day in the gym. Every day is. Go messy for a while, laugh, lick your fingers, and fresh new ideas will start bumpity-bumping around in your head. Let yourself enjoy it, too. Be a Lucy.

*Sorry if I melted your brain there. Peace & love.

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I used to hate fresh tomatoes. Growing up in New Jersey, that was as heretical as blasting Conway Twitty music on the street outside the Pony.* I said it anyway, though. And to be fair, the supermarket tomatoes I grew up eating were hardly flavorful. Grown strictly to withstand shipping and handling, picked unripe and hit with ethylene gas**, they were pink, watery, and a bore on the taste buds.

Then maybe eight years ago I had a fling with an heirloom tomato and became even more smug in my distaste of remotely grown fresh tomatoes. Heirlooms taste like the berries tomatoes are: tender and richly flavored.

Yesterday I walked into Asbury Park for lunch—well, for the makings of it. First I stopped by a local organic farm stand run by a woman in a floppy straw hat. When I picked up one of the two tomatoes on display, I asked if she had raised them herself. She said she had, and warned me that the tomato I held ‘wasn’t perfect.’ I gave it a little squeeze, and a tiny bit of juice oozed out. It was probably two hours off the vine, a youngster in a new town. I told her I don’t care about perfect, and bought it.

Then I went to the bread stand run by a gregarious Roman guy. As he talked to customers he sliced up narrow anchovy-provolone sandwiches, casually handing bits to passers-by.*** Sold me two rolls for a buck. ‘Thank you, sweet dahling!’

Then I walked home, stopping by the lake to pick some wild mint.

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The tomato sandwich with basil is a time-honored thing, and for good reason. I figured mint and basil are cousins, so I’d give that a whirl. Picked a bunch—some for my sandwich, more for my friend who loves to cook and wouldn’t look at me the way the anti-Conway-Twitty crowd would. It takes a rare person, Jerseyan or not, who will not look at me askance for eating plants I picked by a lake. She is one of them.****

I sliced up the roll and gutted it a bit—I don’t like too high a bread-to-filling ratio—and added a slice of Trader Joe’s addictive mozzarella, a little bit of mayonnaise, and kosher salt. The juice from the tomato mixes with the mayo and makes the bread a little soppy, but that’s a plus.

You can try to build a quicker, better, cobbled-together summer sandwich than this, but it won’t work. Okay, maybe if you use two slices of cheese. I’m reasonable.

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*That’s bad. Trust me on this one.

**You’re smacking your lips at that image, aren’t you? I shouldn’t tease so.

***Several turned up their noses; I almost bit his hand off.

***This just occurred to me: the friend I mention is one of three good friends who are first-generation kids (Filipino, Italian, and Japanese). I find in cases such as this there is a stronger connection to where food comes from, and less of a tendency to be afraid of it. Kind of fascinating.)

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This is a Buddha burger, from the very popular and much missed ‘grease trucks’ at Rutgers University. It’s a cheeseburger with pork roll, french fries, mayonnaise, and a bunch of other things I’m better off not remembering. I wouldn’t have done this until recently. Then I did, and life was so much prettier.

In one of my very favorite scenes in the new incarnation of the Doctor Who series, little Amelia Pond finds the ravenous Doctor in her backyard and tries to offer him something that will satisfy his hunger. Matt Smith’s charmingly loopy Doctor says he loves apples; she gives him one, he takes a huge bite and then spits it out, calling it disgusting. Same goes for beans, yogurt, bacon…(this goes on). Then he tries fish fingers dipped in custard and they have a winner. Obviously, I mean, who wouldn’t go for that?

Amelia doesn’t understand why he is changing his mind so much. But the well-versed* Doctor Who viewer does: the Doctor regenerates from time to time, and when he does, he is a spinning roulette wheel; every characteristic—physical, emotional, everything—is in flux. When he’s in this state, his food preferences are like that of others in flux—a pregnant woman, or a child, for example. ‘New mouth, new rules,’ he says.

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Asparagus, which I never liked until maybe 10 years ago. Roasted or bust!

I wasn’t ridiculously finicky as a kid—I know kids who will eat nothing but processed cheese slices and frozen waffles—but I decided to abhor certain things and stuck to it. My dad once handed me a morsel of something fried, said, ‘It’s a french fry,’  and watched. That was the tell: if it had in fact been a french fry, he wouldn’t be watching for my reaction. He knew I liked french fries. I handed it back to him. Turns out it was calamari.

No. No way. Not when I was eight.

Another time I asked if whatever he was making had mushrooms in it. He said it did but, ‘You can’t even taste them!’ My reply: ‘Then why did you put them in?’ This is a tough question to answer if you want to hang on to your original statement.

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Pizza with ricotta, caramelized onions and figs. The second two were no-go’s as a kid.

Environment also plays a factor. We all know kids who wouldn’t even sit at the same table as pasta fra diavolo at home, but if somewhere else, will gobble it blissfully.

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Pasta made with the black ink of a squid and fresh garlic. A horror, both, until maybe five years ago.

But more interesting to me than environment is how time and experience alter our food preferences. We’ll pick the raisins out of everything we see at 11, but at 31 we’ll double them in our cookie recipe.

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Sandwich with tuna and anchovy. First fish, fine. Second, forget it—until I was in my twenties. Now I think almost anything can benefit from anchovy except maybe strawberry shortcake.

For all of the foods I didn’t like as a kid, there are a few I liked then that I’m not crazy over now. Milk chocolate is one. Unless it’s great quality—smooth, not gritty tasting like Hershey’s—I stick to dark. And I hated dark as a kid.

In my wild, misspent youth I also ate chem lab projects like Pixie Stix and those freaky little candies attached to long strips of paper. Do you remember those? The paper stayed attached to the backs after you ripped them off the roll. Fiber and artificial flavors—quelle deal!

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Horseradish, another no-man’s land until maybe my 30s. Fresh grated and kept in vinegar, it’s surprisingly sweet and works in dozens of ways.

My food tastes changed toward the spicy after I had an ulcer. Wrote about it. That esophogeal burden prohibited me from eating citrus, chocolate, and more, but especially from eating anything with so much as a fleck of caliente. When the ulcer was gone, I hit the hot pepper full force—much more than I did before the ulcer.

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The sausage sandwich, that favorite of my Italian family, and its spiciness made it out of the question for me until I was well into adulthood.

New mouth, new rules.

How have your food tastes changed? What did you used to scorn but now love, and the other way around?

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Mushrooms plain grossed me out as a kid. I didn’t eat them until I was in my mid-twenties, when my friend ordered them on a pizza and I was too hungry to pull them off. Now I can’t get enough of any variety.

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When I was a kid, tomatoes always tasted like sodden gym socks to me. I suspect many still do. Then I tried heirlooms. Home run.

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The only nut I’d eat as a kid was peanut butter. Not peanuts, mind you—but peanut butter. Now I love them all. This is a cupcake with my homemade gianduja (Nutella) in the batter and on top.

*Euphemism. Obsessed is closer to accurate.

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For a change, here’s a tale of redemption preceded by really breathtaking incompetence. I had one All-Clad pan, a quart of olive oil, and a dream. And the result was I chased a good 97% of the oxygen out of my house. Man, I wish I were kidding.

I’ve never written about deep-frying because I’ve never done it before Wednesday night, when I made fried zucchini blossoms. I’ve always wanted to try them, and I was so excited when one of my readers submitted her recipe for my cooking project. When a native Roman offers you a recipe for this, you take it. Here it is, lightly edited.

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Mozzarella and Anchovy

3 or 4 squash flowers per person, very fresh and without the pistils. Flowers are extremely delicate so open them carefully and stuff with a little cube of mozzarella cheese and a piece of anchovy. Then prepare a thick batter with flour, sparkly cold water (or beer). Dip the stuffed flower into the batter and fry in lots of oil, very hot. Remove them when light-brown colored and dry the excess oil with a paper towel. It comes out like a cloud, with inside….the surprise!

Daniela Cassoni

Rome, Italy

gourmetaly.com

First I went to my favorite organic farm to pick some flowers, male ones. Males are just flowers; they won’t have a little tiny zucchini on the stem, or a little tiny pumpkin*. They’re both in the same Curcubit family and so the flowers look very similar. Either will work. Took a peek to make sure there weren’t any bugs inside the flowers, taking a breather from the heat. There were. Shook them out.

Then I went home and got started on this very simple recipe. Daniela doesn’t give amounts, so I winged it, and it still worked fine. That part, anyway. I pulled apart fresh mozzarella into pieces about the size of a grape, but I could have made them bigger. For the batter, I combined 1/2 cup all-purpose flour with 1/2 cup cold filtered water** and stirred it with a fork. The batter wasn’t as thick as she suggested it should be, but this worked for me. I lined a plate with a napkin so the flowers could drain on it as I took them out of the oil.

Don’t I sound so on-the-ball so far? What a superhero!

Now for the smoke part…

1) I should have washed the flowers and removed the pistils before heating up the oil. I’ll rephrase: The oil got way overheated and started puffing smoke. So when I put the flowers in they cooked within three seconds and in the fourth turned black, emitting several uncomfortable-looking bits of charred flour or cheese or anchovy for all I know. Unless oil can solidify and burn? Lord knows it was hot enough, so this is entirely possible.

2) I set the oil on high. Newsflash, Maris: oil will get as hot as Daniela says it needs to be if you have it on medium or medium-low and wait a little. Then it won’t, you know, smoke up the place so much that you expect Bela Lugosi to pop by.

Result: It smoked up the place, Bela Lugosi summarily ran for his life, the fire alarm in my hallway went off, I grabbed a chair to stand on, yanked the contraption apart with one hand and held a battered, cheesed, anchovied flower in the other. Then I opened every single window and my back door.

But I kept going. So the oil sort of shone in a lurid way! So the house was thick as pea soup! I had flowers to fry. One by one I dropped them in, and after every other breath (read: cough) I took them out.

I didn’t expect them to taste good—look at the picture below, they’re not exactly the picture of health—but I was knocked out.  It sounded a lot like this: ‘COUGHCOUGHCOUGHCOUGHcrunchoooooohnotbad! Pretty freaking amazing, actually. Crunch. Oh my…God. WOW!’

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Exhausted.

I ate every single one within 30 seconds and while standing at my counter. It was impossible to stop.

When you make these—and I hope you will, because they are RIDICULOUSLY delicious—do as I say and not as I do: do your prep work in advance, have the oil on medium or medium-low heat and make sure it doesn’t smoke. It will get hot enough soon enough. Olive oil has a high smoke point, too. Use canola for a better shot. Then work quickly and serve immediately.

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Daniela, thank you for the recipe. Next time I’ll do right by it.

And as has become the custom when I foul up, I’m entertaining suggestions on how to remove the burnt oil from the sides of the pan. No, really.

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Pouting.

*I’m sure there’s a more scientific or at the very least educated way of describing this. It will not be found on this blog.

**Didn’t use sparkling because I don’t like it as a drink, and didn’t want to waste it. Same goes for beer. If any of you make the recipe Daniela’s way, please write in and let me know how it tastes. I’m curious.

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Gonna be even purtier when they’re tipsy.

The first thing I want to say is WOW, and the second thing I want to say is grazie. You sent recipes from as close by as across the lake and as far away as South Africa. I selected 25 of them. Stoked doesn’t come close!

I chose the recipes for this project after having exhaustively researched the origins and ingredients for each, creating a map across my studio wall with pins stuck in various countries, burning up Google, and whipping up a spreadsheet outlining…okay, no, that never happened, it’s more like I was just mouth-open intrigued by every one. That’s pretty much all of the rhyme and reason involved here. Some recipes are ones I’ve never tried before and have always wanted to, some are ones I’ve never heard of, and some are classics. And I’ve never made any before, which was a major selling point. Some of you sent more than one recipe. That’s cool. I’m a game kind of girl.

As I make each recipe I’ll be documenting the whys, wherefores, and holy-craps here. Along those lines, come on and cook one recipe or all with me. When you do, write in and tell me how it went. I think one of the best ways to get under the skin of a country and its people is to taste its native cuisine. Food and the stories that accompany it can be transporting. They can carry us to another time and place as well as or even better than an airplane can—or in some cases, a time machine.* Your kitchen is your cockpit. This will be an education for all of us.

I’m still waiting on an official go from some of you, and some I’m not sure I can swing,** but here are my choices.

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Soft-Boiled Eggs with Dippy Soldiers

Curry-baked Chicken with Vegetable Curry and Green Pea Rice

Jenny Davies

jennyeatwellsrhubarbginger.blogspot.co.uk

*

Melon Jam

Peach Jam with Ginger

Octopus with Pasta

Katerina Papaspiliopoulou

Athens, Greece

*

Sauerbraten

Kay Coppola

West Long Branch, NJ

USA

*

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Mozzarella and Anchovy

Daniela Cassoni

Rome, Italy

*

Eggs Daffodil

Louis Rousseau

Santa Cruz, CA

USA

*

Toad of Toad Hole

Cheese Marmite Muffins

Mike Batho

Manchester, England

*

Applesauce Cake

Plum Pudding sauce

Kim Raynor

Wanamassa, NJ

USA

*

One-Gallon Daviess County Kentucky Burgoo

Mary B. Goetz

Owensboro, KY

USA

*

Oatmeal Cardamom Chocolate Cookies

Anita Burns

Corona, CA

USA

*

Homemade Maraschino Cherries

Linda Lavalle

New York, NY

USA

*

Rose Liqueur

Ladyfingers

Letizia Mattiacci

Umbria, Italy

*

Turkish-Inspired Leek Meatballs

Liz Reuven

kosherlikeme.com

*

Cornbread with Warm Buttermilk and Honey

Constance Moylan

USA

*

TMC Chicken POMOrado with Habanero

TMC Baked Rabbit with Mustard and Habanero Glaze

Johnnie Walker

Logan County, CO

USA

*

Grilled Pimiento Cheese

Sarah Lansky

Sarasota, FL

USA

*

Malva Pudding

Sauce

Richard Key

Ocean Basket N1 City Mall

South Africa

*

Hoppin’ John

Weena Perry

Keyport, NJ

USA

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Oh, and…

If you or any home cooks you know have authentic recipes from Asia, Australia, South America or other parts of Europe or North America, please hit me up at mcproco@gmail.com. The thought of cooking myself around the world gets me really jazzed. And I think we established long ago that I’m just a mite cracked in the head, so I might as well give in to it.***

*It’s true, but it’s also a gratuitous Doctor Who reference. So you know.

**Whether I will make the rose liqueur, for example, depends on whether I can find a sweet-tasting, unsprayed bush. And it has to be on public property, because making the recipe after having avoided a felony charge will only make it that much more enjoyable. I’ve tasted petals from about six different wild bushes that range from neutral tasting to bitter. Cross them fingers for me.

Cropped beach rose

Lettucey. Bummer.

***Two concussions strong!

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I know it’s almost Valentine’s Day and I know that’s not a picture of heart-shaped Scharffen Berger chocolate and Bordeaux up there. I’m dispensing with tradition again and deliberately not talking about candy and wine in the interest of…well…I don’t want to be trite, especially not this week. I don’t even want to get into the gooey romantic language, if I can help it. Hope you’re good with that.

Instead we’ll salivate over other combinations I adore,* stuff that’s not typical, starting with sandwiches. The first one, above and at the very bottom, makes an incredible lunch.

-Sweet** onion (like a Vidalia), caramelized in olive oil or butter

-Chicken, roasted (or grilled, or whatever), shredded and added to the onion

-Apple (pick anything that’s not a McIntosh because those’ll just dissolve on you), sliced, don’t bother to peel it, thrown into the pan with the onions and chicken and cooked until golden brown

-Fontina (a European, kinda nutty, kinda pungent, eminently oozeable cheese that any supermarket has)

-Ground allspice, a few shakes into the onion/chicken/apple pan

-Black pepper, coarsely ground  (I like a lot in this) into the pan as well

Now. Butter and toast your bread under the broiler (I used a Cuban roll because it was all the bakery downtown had left but it was awesome), melt your cheese, then pile your stuff on top.

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When I shot this I accidentally had the camera set on video like a dope. So right now I have valuable footage of a sardine sandwich in its natural habitat, on a plate, on my dining room table. It’s fascinating. They’re very docile, much quieter than you’d imagine.

The next sandwich, above, makes an incredible breakfast if you’re my mom. I grew up in a house that relished the combination of sardines and raw onion on a sandwich. The above is normal to me and wildly addictive, too, actually. I hope I don’t lose subscribers over this.

-Sardines (skinless and boneless, packed in either water or olive oil)

-Mayo

-Red*** onion, thinly sliced

-Bread of some sort (I used a whole wheat roll from Trader Joe’s)

-Salt to taste

Add mayo to bread. Add the rest. Wipe exertion from brow.

Since many of you are already appalled, another delirious combination is tuna packed in oil into which you’ve mixed in a good amount of anchovy paste. Keep the sliced raw onion, hold the mayo, and sandwich-ify.

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Other yummy food combinations:

-Almond extract, just a teaspoon or so, baked into anything that features peaches, nectarines, cherries or apricots. Almonds and all of these fruits are botanical cousins. Ever notice that the pit of a peach looks a lot like an unshelled almond? Yep. And they are lovely together.****

-Mushrooms cooked with a few splashes of chicken broth. Not cousins, to be sure, but for some reason they bring out the best in each other, like Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. Okay, mellower than the two of them, but the point stands.

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*Sorry. Crap. That was quick.

*Totally not my fault. Vidalias are sweet!

***It’s a color, not a holiday.

****%&#%*!!!

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January’s been typecast as cold, gloomy and bleak as a dungeon. Well, it earns every adjective. Time for an imagination vacation.

In 2008, after several years of being almost totally debilitated from stress, images of Bora Bora kept popping into my head. To put an even finer point on it, I was dreaming of the color I imagined the water to be—turquoise blue, impossibly beautiful. This color became a nearly all-encompassing obsession; I didn’t just need to see it, I needed to rub it into my skin like lotion, I needed to let its essence sink into and saturate my very bones. Lucky for me, at the time I was married to Michael, a guy who was game for anything. We figured we were exhausted already—me from being sick and him from taking care of me—and in need a change of scenery, so why not travel halfway across the world?

We packed two small rolling suitcases, a backpack full of food for the trip out, and a camera. Then we walked to the train station a couple of blocks away in our little beach town and ended up in an archipelago in the South Seas. Six and change hours from Newark Airport to LAX, then nearly 8.5 hours to Papeete, in Tahiti. From there, we would puddle jump to Mo’orea, then to Raiatea and Taha’a, then end on Bora Bora. We decided to see the other islands when we learned they offered black pearl farms, vanilla plantations, jungles and astonishing beauty. If we were going to take the trip, we wanted to see it all. Two weeks, five islands, and nearly 48 hours of that time crossing a continent and the huge bucket of water called the Pacific.

Why would anyone do this, especially in the shape I was in at the time? I can’t explain it better than this: I was desperately hungry for that blue. I still don’t really know why. I knew the whole idea sounded crazy. (Our arrival at the airport in Papeete did a lot to confirm this: We were greeted at 5a by two mildly hysterical guys playing tiny guitars.) But we did it anyway.

Very happy to report that I did find my blue; and as is so often the case, I found a lot more on the way. You know me well enough to know where I’m going with this, right? (Vague hint: Boy howdy, did I eat well.)

First…Mo’orea.

View of Moorea from plane

View from the window of the six-seat plane, a ten-minute flight from Tahiti.

The thing about culture shock is sometimes it’s a good thing. Both Tahitian men and women go about their daily lives with a little flower like the one below tucked behind one ear. No one thinks of it as a female thing. No one questions the men’s sexual orientation. It occurred to me on the first day in French Polynesia that any meaning people assign to flowers, or colors, or clothes, or anything else is subjective and arbitrary. And it also occurred to me that when offered the chance to cast off the assignations we happen to have been taught, it’s quite liberating.

Tahitian gardenia, Raiatea

Tahitian gardenia–delicate, fragrant, and tasty, too. Stay tuned.

The natives there move slowly, laugh heartily, and don’t seem to worry about anything. They also have a charming way of speaking. They don’t just say ‘Iaorana’ (ya-RAH-na, with a little roll on that r) as a hello or ‘Mauruuru’ (ma-RU-ru, same little r roll) as a thank-you. They singsong it: ‘Iao-RA-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…mau-RU-ruuuuuuuuuuuuuu.’  It takes a long time for them to finish talking but it’s a lot of fun to listen to. And it forces you to slow down.

We stayed at Club Bali Ha’i, near Cook’s Bay. Our bungalow had the coolest 2×2 foot window in the floor so you could see fish swimming underneath. It even had a light so you could watch at night! But the camera didn’t get the full effect. Bummer.

No TV, or clock, or phone in the rooms. If you needed something from the desk, you walked there. But you had to do it before something like 10 at night because Georgina at the front desk went home.

This was the view from our deck, late one afternoon.

Late afternoon, Moorea

The little hotel restaurant, the Blue Pineapple, served fruit platters made with local bananas, pineapple, papaya and watermelon along with wonderful grilled tuna (what they call ‘lagoon fish’). But one evening we took a half mile walk along the road that encircles the island and found a little roadside place that served pizza so good that we went back every day. Yeah, I know, the idea of any pizza, let alone good pizza, in French Polynesia is a nutty idea. And let me further impress upon you that it was a shack, just a counter—no bigger than the french fry deals on the NJ boardwalk. But what a shack.

The place was called Allo Pizza, the French-speaking kid who worked there was maybe 19, they had no real refrigeration and by all rights we should have died from ingesting some evil microscopic, Pacific Island, singsonging, flower-wearing organism, but their pizza was so incredible that it nearly made me weep. I should have taken a picture—forgive me—but I’ll tell you my favorite was Le Marseillaise, topped with fresh tuna, chopped capers, tomato sauce, garlic, herbes de Provence, Parmesan and anchovy.

Incidentally, when I say fresh tuna, I don’t just mean it was local. I mean the Allo Pizza shack was across the narrow street from the beach, where fishermen would hang their catch from a makeshift rack and wait. Over the course of the day, people would drive by, choose one of their enormous fish, pay and drive off. The Allo kid did this too. The distance was about the same as you going out your front door and down the driveway. Fresh tuna. Fresh fresh.

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Waiting for a buyer.

One night we tried Allo’s homemade chocolate mousse. Who would eat chocolate mousse served on a dusty road from a pizza shack on a sandy dot in the middle of the Pacific? Us. They don’t call it French Polynesia for nothing. It was perfect.

Cats have a rep for sleeping most of the day no matter where they live. But on these islands they go for the gold. The kitty below, who hung around our deck, is not dead. He is doing what he was born to do: beg for leftover bits of anchovy from my pizza, and summarily pass out for the rest of the day.

Cat, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One of the selling points of Mo’orea was their swimming-with-sharks expeditions. (This is a part of the crazy that I didn’t tell you earlier. We read that you go out for the day on a small boat and jump out–as into the water—to see reef sharks and other fish. The sharks have no history of attacking anyone. Of course no one ever asked a shark to sign an affadavit swearing he had never attacked anyone, but we took the people offering the trip at their word and signed up. The organizers have such confidence that no one will die at the viselike jaws of a shark that they don’t even call it a swimming-with-sharks expedition. They call it a ‘motu picnic’, a motu being an uninhabited island, and one on which we’d eat when we were through.)

The itinerary read, ‘it includes visit of our 2 bays, fish, shark & ray feeding, snorkelling, barbecue on one of our nicest islet of Moorea…rice & pasta salad, fish, chicken, fruits, bread, rhum maitai, beer, juice, water and a coconut show with a lot of time for snorkelling and relaxing!’ So apparently no one dies. Look at all the food you get when you’re done hyperventilating!

Actually, for some reason I was not worried at all. I was stoked, beyond excited. Saw the first dorsal fin and yelled ‘shark!’, cueing Bruno, grinning host, to open his cooler full of lagoon fish and start hacking off pieces to throw to the hungries. He threw it at a distance, while we were to jump, snorkels and cameras at the ready, maybe 10 feet away.

They suggest jumping in as soon as possible ‘before you lose your nerve,’ they said (or if you didn’t leave logic back at the hotel). Michael ducked underwater, came back up and I asked him what it was like. He said, ‘Absolutely f***ing amazing!’

It was.

Reef sharks, Moorea

Zillions of kinds of colored fish, maybe a dozen sharks—it was like being inside an aquarium. I was never afraid. Don’t know why. Sometimes a shark would swim my way, face first, and come within maybe five feet of me. Then it was a little unnerving, but that’s all. They always turned around to eat the cut-up fish.

By the way, that set of legs and fins in the photo belongs to a kid who actually swam among the frenzy, shooting the video which you could buy later. Mhm.

Next we sailed to a shallower area and jumped out to wait for the rays. Before we left we were assured that the type we’d meet were not the type that killed naturalist Steve Irwin, that these did not have stingers. (Similarly, it’s not as if they had a list of rays that had registered to stop by, but we believed them. And they were right.)

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He looks menacing, but they were very friendly—too friendly sometimes, like a yellow lab that’s just rolled in something gross and can’t wait to tell you all about it. You fed them bits of fish from your fist, but you had to be sure to tuck your thumb inside your fist or they’d try to slurp up your thumb. Enormous, some of them, several feet across.

Here I am in ray water, only about four feet deep, and clear as glass. In the travel journal I wrote, ‘It was a huge feeling of blueness.’

I found it.

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This is the view right over my head of the sky and a Pacific tern enjoying his day….

Pacific tern, Moorea

…and the view from the beautiful motu where we had our picnic.

Motu, Moorea

Here are the guys who were asked to try to crack open a coconut Polynesian style. Not too successful, but they had a good time. (Eventually Bruno got the coconuts open, shredded some of it, tossed it in the air and yelled, ‘Tahitian snow!’)

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Bali Ha’i, shot from the boat on the way back…the real deal.

Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One day we drove the circumference of the island, marvelling at the spectacular mountain peaks, turquoise and cobalt striped water, and palm trees grouped as densely as forests…

Coconut palms, Moorea

…and eating. Les Antipodes (Restaurant Creperie) served savory and sweet crepes. ‘La Chicken’ was outstanding, chicken in a white wine/bechamel sauce, as was a crepe with hot pineapple and caramel. Polynesian + French influences coming together, and it was inspired.

Carameline’s, a little bakery you’d miss if you sneezed, served banana and pineapple pastries with a buttery, buttery, tender crumb.

We passed a lot of the enlongated mailbox-looking units below and asked a passerby what they were. Can you imagine?….They’re baguette boxes. Baguette eating is such a way of life on these islands now, a ritual picked up from the French newcomers, that many have it delivered daily the way we have mail, and the way we used to have milk, delivered.

Baguette box, Haapiti, Moorea

One afternoon we hiked in the jungle at the center of Mo’orea and saw moss-covered rocks, marae (places of ancient worship), sinewy tree trunks…and chickens. I’ve noticed wild chickens love the tropics. We trekked deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle before turning around. Here I got nervous. This wasn’t a Monmouth County, NJ park near a major highway; it was about as remote a place as you can possibly get. And the deeper you went, the darker it got. Before we left I took this shot of a leaf in a shaft of sunlight.

Leaf in sunlight, Marae site, Moorea

On our way back, we stopped at the Lycée Agricole (Farming School) where the students there make the most delicious things from what they grow, using nothing artificial. Went delirious over their homemade pineapple/soursop (cherimoya) juice and very kicky citron sorbet. Another day we went back and had (below) three scoops of the most exquisite ice cream I have ever tasted: vanilla, gardenia (yes) and banana…all from local fruits and flowers.

I’ll talk more about vanilla when I post about Raiatea and Taha’a, but in my journal I called the banana (there it is on top) ‘an avalanche of banana!’ And the gardenia is hard to describe—lovely, floral (of course), and very strange, but in a good way. What can I say. Gardenia ice cream.

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Back at Club Bali Ha’i they kept us entertained. At 5:30 almost every night one of the owners, Jay, a thin, wiry, extremely friendly guy, came out for the very casual Happy Hour. Originally from from Long Island, he and his partner Muk Mc Cullum—‘The Bali Ha’i Boys’—came here in the 1950s with plans to become vanilla plantation owners. They became hoteliers instead, inventing the over-the-water bungalows and having a really, really good time. He drank two little bottles of tequila and told us about the early days, when he and Muk spent much of their time here ‘H & H’ (hammered and happy). At 77, I asked if he had any regrets. He said, ‘Regrets? Yeah, I have a few. I regret that I didn’t come out here a decade sooner.’

On Monday nights, if no one shows up to the crab races in the lobby by 6, one of the employees walks around the grounds with an empty crab bucket and bangs on it and yells, ‘Crab race-eeeees! Crab race-eeeees!’

Crab races, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

It’s raucous and silly but really fun, even though we lost every race—300 francs, about $4. The crab bucket guy goes and finds crabs for the races, which is easy because on Mo’orea they are everywhere, the way squirrels are for us—on the beach, yes, but on the grass, along the sides of the roads, everywhere. He writes numbers on their backs in chalk and people place their bets. If we spent too much time hemming and hawing, he’d call out ‘hava-TEEEEEE! hava-TEEEEEE!’ (‘hurry up!’).

I learned the way to pick up a crab and not get pinched: You put your fingers on their backs between their pincers and their back claws. They can’t turn their pincers around, so you’re set. (Full disclosure: the guy asked me to pick one up but I refused. What a chicken. I’ll swim with sharks but I won’t bloody pick up a crab? That’s it. I’m going back to do it. 🙂 )

I saw these hibiscus on a windy evening, and had to chase them to shoot them. They were really beautiful.

Fallen hibiscus, Moorea

Puddle jumper to Raiatea and Taha’a next week.

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