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Posts Tagged ‘pasta’

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Another day, another popover.

There’s feeding them offstage, as in cookies or brownies, in which case they’re generally very easy to please. Onstage is a different matter. Often a script will call for actors eating (what we call practical food), and in my work as a prop master, it’s my job to procure it. Sometimes I buy it; other times that’s impossible or just plain inconvenient, and I have to make it for each performance. Below I offer a menu of my most unforgettable experiences in working with actor palates.

My Fair Lady

Calls for a tea service with strawberry tarts; I also added shortbread—a proper British cookie—and iced tea stood in for hot tea. The character Pickering is supposed to eat unabashedly throughout the scene, every night, and the actor who played him quite enjoyed himself. Pickering also consumes a great deal of port in every show. Since alcohol is not something that benefits actors performing just above an orchestra pit, I provided a decanter of cranberry juice instead. And I told the actor that if he happened to have a urinary tract infection, we were about to clear it right up.

Little Women

Calls for impractical ice cream and pastries, which I made of homemade play-dough, and practical popovers, which I baked fresh every night. The character Amy loves them, but not so much the young actress who played her. She’d leave the popover in the same place on the prop table every night with one bite missing, and I’d finish it.

Arms and the Man (or was it Chekov’s Three Sisters?)

Forgive me; this was college, in 1989. There is a party scene in one of these shows for which I set a few practical pastries on a little dish, and dozens more on a platter the size of a manhole cover. Then I told the actors that the ones on the giant platter were for the show and warned them not to eat them. They ignored me and tucked in every single day. I didn’t yell. I just got there earlier one day, hit the whole platter with spray polyurethane, and didn’t tell them.

Some say of all of life’s utterances, the most rewarding to hear is ‘I love you.’ I say it’s the 1.7 seconds after an actor spits a synthetic, combustible pastry into his hand and yells, ‘God-DAMMIT.’

Does this mean I’m not a romantic?

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

The script doesn’t actually call for practical food, but one director thought it would be fun to have the character Jacob munching on something during one scene. She settled on pasta. It got a laugh, and the Italian actor who played him was all in. Every night I brought him linguine tossed in olive oil, cracked black pepper, and Parmesan. He loved it.

Shrek

Shrek offers his crush, Fiona, a traditional ogre treat: a freshly killed beastie of some sort, plus odds and ends from the forest, in a sandwich. I used raffia, moss, bark, silk leaves, and my squirrel puppet. The script calls it a s’nother; personally, I called it an RLT (roadkill, lettuce, and tomato). Shrek and Fiona had to be able to munch on something from the sandwich, so I bought them gummy worms and tucked them into the edges. Fiona was impressed.

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Because anyone can send flowers.

And my favorite:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Top of Act 2, Jesus and the apostles are gathered for the Last Supper and are supposed to share and eat bread. I feel badly for the person who actually served the original 13 (whom I will forever picture as Mel Brooks), because it was a bear trying to get all of these guys to agree on what kind of bread they’d eat without complaint. I tried everything—matzoh, of course; Wonder bread; croissants (Mon Dieu! En Israel?); rolls. The actors all gave maudlin little coughs and said, ‘I can’t eat this; I can’t sing.’ Finally I got them all to agree on something. But I’m sure I’ve relinquished my place in heaven for serving Jesus and the disciples KFC biscuits.

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It’s entirely possible* I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who, but as I picked honeysuckle this morning I wondered whether a plant growing in a particular place becomes imbued with the spirit and motivations of the people who spend time there.

It’s a sly sideways view of terroir, the ancient notion that says what’s produced in a certain area is the result of a confluence of factors that include sun, rain, soil, and more. The product, whatever it is, absorbs the qualities inherent in that particular environment. This gives it a singular flavor, one that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Many, many examples support this. There are San Marzano tomatoes, first developed in Italy. They’re prized among chefs, who attribute their intense richness to the volcanic soil in which they were grown. Connossieurs in India scoff at American-grown basmati rice (‘Texmati’), saying fragrant, long-grained basmati rice is not the same if grown outside India. Grass-fed New Zealand lamb has unsurpassed flavor and texture. I could go on.

If this is true, if tomatoes and rice and lamb can carry within them tangible components from their environments, how far-fetched is it to imagine they can carry intangible ones as well?

My favorite small farm is a half hour south of me. The food they grow is lovely. But I drive out there just as much for the serenity that wraps around me with the wind in those fields, for the peace that’s cultivated along with the English garden peas. I go because I know the integrity of the farmer and his family and staff. That integrity means their produce is more than an itemized scale of nutrients. It’s food plus a great deal of heart. And yeah, it tastes like it. At least to me.

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A hot water and sugar treatment. It’s like Elizabeth Arden for flowers.

Another example. Native nations in the U.S. often wore animal skins, bone, and feathers—not to be decorative, but because they believed in doing so they would take on characteristics of those animals. And who couldn’t use extraordinary strength (buffalo), regenerative powers (bear), and shrewdness (coyote)?

Let’s take it one step farther and throw people into the mix. I know I am the product of my many manufacturers. They include the food I ate, the sea-and-lake misty air I breathed, and the trees I played under as a kid. But they are also my parents, my teachers, my friends, the good and bad words, the wisdom and the idiocy. They all formed me as much as the pasta I ate. All were my terroir, and I’d wager so were yours.

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I’m mostly pasta, though.

Back to honeysuckle. It’s an invasive and grows almost everywhere there’s dirt and something to climb. But I still shopped around before I found my favorite place to pick the flowers. Didn’t want to pick too close to a parking lot, junkyard, high-traffic road, or residential yard. That’s about exhaust fume and pesticide pollution. But I’d equally dismiss flowers grown on perfect, organic public lands close to a contentious family, or near the home of someone who routinely chooses nastiness over kindness. It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town; information like this is easy to come by.

Tell me this isn’t the ideal spot: a fence maybe 12′ by 30′, and in between, a solid, opaque wall of flowers. If this honeysuckle hedge had eyes it would have within its view our little baseball field, train station, playground, and lake. Hundred-year-old trees shade it east and west, twice a day, and the rest of the time it’s blessed with full sun. All day long the flowers witness, and pick up the good vibes of, pick-up baseball games, kids on swings, canoers, dog-walkers, and families meeting tired commuters, the latter of whom always take a big breath when they step off the train.

It’s not all ice cream there, of course. Kids will get mad at other kids and yell, ‘No fair!’ Commuters have to go to work, as well as come home from it. There’s bad with the good. But that’s as it should be; and anyway, the good far outweighs. Even the honeysuckle flowers come in two different colors (orange and yellow), have two different flavors, and grow in pairs. A little of this and a little of that. Both are required for a well-rounded syrup.

It could all be in my head, this entire-environs theory of mine. But I don’t think so.

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On the below, which I dreamed up kind of out of nowhere: I liked the idea of pairing honeysuckle with almond, as they both share floral flavors. The chocolate garnish was inevitable.

1) I made the syrup.**.

2) Next came the custard. I used Martha’s vanilla pudding recipe. I left out the vanilla, and instead, once cool, I stirred in about 2/3 cup of syrup.

3) For the tart shells, I also used Martha’s pate brisee recipe, and substituted 1.5 cups of almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour called for. Baked it in cute little tart pans.

4) Then I piled up the custard into the shells, shaved some really good-quality bittersweet chocolate (Noi Sirius Pure Icelandic Chocolate, from Whole Foods) into the middles, toasted a few sliced almonds, and added those to the top, too. Made a heckuva good teatime treat today, along with the extra custard I ate out of the bowl with a rubber spatula.

(Did I say ice cream in a honeysuckle post? Honeysuckle…ice cream! Next on the hit parade. :))

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Honeysuckle Custard Tarts with Salted Almond Shells, Shaved Chocolate, and Toasted Almonds. Righteous ensemble.

*Let’s call it likely and move on.

**For more on the embarrassingly simple process, see last year’s post.

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Soft-shell crab season begins in spring on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Nearly the whole bugger can be eaten.

So here’s me snooping around on a restaurant’s About page, and I see this: ‘With locally sourced fresh ingredients. Our menu changes seasonally: we always serve what is in season.’ Heart so warmed. Then I saw out-of-season ingredients on the menu, and called the chef to ask when he’d be updating it.

That’s when he said the menu was current. And consequently that’s when the Warm in my heart turned to Grrrr.

I was polite, don’t worry. But I was ticked. It’s not right to tell customers how important seasonal ingredients are at your restaurant and then put butternut pasta and corn/watermelon salad on your spring menu. Which is what I told him.

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Asparagus, mid-spring.

He squirmed. I heard it over the phone.* Then he told me he would like to use spring vegetables, but his hands were tied, you see: ‘There just aren’t that many,’ he sighed mournfully.

First of all, yes, there are. Second of all, huh? You can’t go throw a rock at a farmers market right now without hitting snow peas, asparagus, tiny radishes.** He thought I’d roll over and agree?

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Cherries, early summer.

It’s true there are no spring fruits here until around Memorial Day (strawberries are first). But you better believe there are lots upon lots of spring vegetables. I cheerfully took his assertion as a cue to rattle off every single one I could think of. Maybe eight vegetables in as many seconds. He squirmed some more and soaked the back of his chef’s coat.***

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Potatoes, summer. They keep well, but they’re born in the summer.

I have three problems with chefs who lie about offering local and seasonal produce on their menus.

You’re Lying

Look, the people you lie to are operating under fakery, and eventually it goes all London Bridge on you. It does. That’s the impractical end of lying.

But the insidious end is this: it implies contempt. At this restaurant and others of its ilk, with every bite of that butternut pasta in April comes a glaring lack of respect. It’s no way to eat. Then they want $24 for it.****

Some of Us Know Better, See ‘Ticked’ Above

Not everyone is a food writer who knows when produce comes into season, granted. Others are restauranteurs themselves. Or farmers, in this, the Garden State. Or ag students. Or home gardeners, or bio teachers, or hey wait COOKS.

Honestly? I don’t know this stuff because I’m a food writer. I know it because I cook. And I may be the first person who calls you on this lie, but I promise you with fairy dust and butterfly kisses that I won’t be the last.

It’s Your Job To Teach

People may disagree with me on this one, but I stand by it.

You, Sir Chef, chose to work with and present food to the public. With that choice comes the responsibility to go by it, and your customers, ethically. But there’s more.

Yes, there are lots of us who know corn isn’t in season in May. But there are far more who don’t; most people, sadly, have become detached from the earth and what and when it produces. You’re supposed to be enamored enough with what the earth produces that you chose it as your life’s work. Right? And thus…you are in the unique position of educating people and sharing that passion.

So educate us. Share it. Saute baby artichokes in fresh lemon juice and olive oil until they’re so tender they’ll halfway dissolve on our tongues. Slice up some Chioggia beets paper thin, and let your youngest customers giggle at the candy cane stripes and sweet taste.

This problem—it’s easily fixed. You just have to care.

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Melons, mid- to late summer.

Please note: I’m not saying every restaurant needs to serve local and seasonal produce. I mean it would be great, but I know it’s not the case. I go to places all the time that serve good meals with produce from all over the calendar. But they dont claim to be local and seasonal. My beef is with those who do, those who want to get on the trendy-phrase bandwagon and make some fat money off calling themselves local and seasonal…and it’s actually a total head fake.

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Figs, late summer into early fall. I picked these off the trees an hour before I shot this, then promptly ate them for lunch.

I called the above chef because I had hoped to feature his restaurant in an article. And who knows—his food, such as it is, might be good. But without integrity? Like at the very heart of the place, like at the very heart of the chef himself? No. If his heart’s not in it, he can’t expect mine to be.

Just checked their site again and was genuinely hoping to see a change, either with new copy that doesn’t tout how seasonal they are, or with an actual spring menu.

Psht.

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Persimmons, late fall.

*Yes, you can.

**Don’t throw rocks at farmers markets. It’s a bad idea. Same with caution to the wind.

***Didn’t have to be in the room. He did. And may I say, good.

****I swear to you this is what they’re charging. For a dish featuring squash picked seven months ago.

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So I have this reader who might be the most enthusiastic guy ever, owing at least partially to the fact that his company makes really good hot sauce for a living. I’m sure this factors in. It would for me.

Johnnie Walker’s company is Two Mile Creek (twomilecreekspecialtyfoods.com), out of Colorado. They crank out some of the more creative jellies and jams that I’ve tasted, and moreover don’t have anything weird in them. When I wrote about a gluten-free sourdough recently and thought to smush TMC’s habanero jelly and fresh goat cheese between it, I posted a pretty pic. I ate this sandwich last winter on a day when my heat was flaking out, and it warmed me from the toes up.

The below recipe was gifted to me by Johnnie for my cooking project this year. It features the habanero jelly (properly called ‘Habanero Hot Pepper Jelly made with whiskey-infused apricots’, like you needed any extra incentive to try it), and makes a very simple and satisfying weeknight dinner.

What I did differently:

-Used plain yogurt instead of whipping cream (Have to watch my cholesterol. Boo and bummer, but it was great just the same).

-Used some of the tomato sauce I made from last summer’s crop.

-Left out the wine and served it straight up with no pasta/rice/polenta, but I am sure it would be lovely to add any or all.

-Added twice the amount of hot jelly 😉 Wildly yummy.

TMC Chicken POMOrado with Habanero

4  boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 Tbsp olive oil

1-2 Tbsp TMC habanero jelly

1  onion, finely chopped

3  cloves of garlic, minced

1  tsp dried oregano

1  14.5 oz. can of diced tomatoes

1/3 c heavy whipping cream

¼ c chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp Italian seasoning

2  big dashes of your favorite white wine like Pinot Grigio (optional)

4  servings of your favorite pasta or rice or polenta

Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel and season with the salt and pepper. Heat one tbsp of the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Cook the chicken until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.

Heat the remaining oil in the pan and when it shimmers, add in the onion. Cook until the onion is soft and clear. Add the jelly and the garlic and oregano. Cook until the aromatics are in the air and in your nose, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes and the cream. Add three dashes of salt and bring to a boil. Return the chicken to the skillet and add any juices that have accumulated. Simmer this covered until chicken is firm to the touch and cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a plate and cover with foil. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Add the basil or the Italian seasoning and the white wine. Simmer for 2-3 more minutes. Season with more salt if needed. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve over the carb of your choice.

Yield: 4 servings

Thanks, Johnnie!

 

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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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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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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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