3.27.12 Best Lei'd Plans

Vegetables 790 xxx
photos by gluttonforlife & george billard
I was hell-bent on eating poi during my Hawaiian vacation. You know me, always determined to have that authentic experience. Guess what? No luck. The restaurant scene on the Big Island is kind of bleak. The place voted the island's best was resoundingly mediocre. Lilikoi (that's passionfruit) is ubiquitous, except it wasn't in season and overly-sweetened concentrate was being used for everything from cocktails to custards. Just not the same. And why not serve the amazing guavas, mangoes and strawberries that were colossally fresh and delicious? Well, because many Hawaiians, like their fellow mainlanders, have let go of much of their traditional, locally grown food and now rely on processed crap. Poi, a starchy paste made from fermented taro (or sometimes breadfruit), and traditionally eaten with fish was not on any restaurant menu. I didn't see it at any of the markets we visited, either. Foiled! We ended up cooking at home quite a bit since our rentals were equipped with pretty good kitchens and we ate well, mostly thanks to the beautiful farmers market in Hilo.
Pepperberries 790 xxx
schinus terebinthifolius, or pink peppercorns
I did a little foraging. I found these pink peppercorns growing on the hike down to Pololu Valley. They are actually not pepper at all, but from a species of flowering plant in the cashew family. Their slightly sweet, piney flavor is quite lovely, and I crushed some with salt and chopped fresh herbs and rolled a log of local goat cheese in this mixture. Try this with any combination of fresh or dried herbs and spices.
Nuts 790 xxx
go nuts
Hanging from various tree were different types of dark wrinkly pods, all of them containing rows of mysterious brown seeds. These, on the left, turned out to be carob. The round nuts on the right are macadamias, and are delicious straight from the shell. They can also be ground into a very rich butter.
Almonds 790 xxx
almond joy
In the lush basin of the valley, we came across the wild almond trees (Terminalia catappa) that I had read about in this fabulous book. A fibrous husk encases a very hard shell and within lies a slim, somewhat juicy nut that tastes faintly of almond and coconut. If we'd had several lazy hours to do nothing but crack these open, I might have made any number of tasty confections, but it just wasn't that kind of vacation.
Flowers 790 xxx
to market, to market
The outdoor market in Hilo was full of everything I missed seeing in the restaurants: local honey (pale gold and sweetly floral), fresh coconut water and milk, various kinds of avocado, eggplant, bitter melon, Maui onions, breadfruit, taro, local goat cheese, exotic flowers, homemade passion fruit curd, candied coconut, ginger juice...
Pipinola 790 xxx
eat shoots and leaves
...and some greens I'd never seen, like these pipinola shoots that turned out to be from the chayote plant. This is a green vegetable something like a squash, that is originally from Mexico but is now eaten all over the world. The greens tasted a bit like spinach (the vegetable equivalent of "tastes like chicken").
Rambutan 790 xxx
furry fruits
G was delighted to come across his favorite rambutans, a sweet and watery tropical fruit related to the lychee.
Rice bundles 790 xxx
nice package
Banana leaves are used for steaming and wrapping various foods; these were stuffed with a combination of sticky rice, coconut milk, mashed taro and banana. Sort of like a riff on tamales...
Rice bundles2 790 xxx
all bundled up
This slim version was just sticky rice steamed with coconut milk.
Ferns2 790 xxx
plant food
Also new to me were these vibrant green shoots that unfurl from the coiled ho'i'o fernhead. They have a subtle flavor and somewhat slippery texture that is compared to both okra and asparagus.
Ferns 790 xxx
ferns unfurling
I cooked them together with the pipinola shoots, some garlic and diced sweet Maui onion in a big skillet slicked with virgin coconut oil.
Cooking greens 790 xxx
melting pot
The pipinola shoots were a bit stringy, but the ferns were incredible—silky and delicious. I made another batch on a different night, sauteed with some gingery black bean paste, and liked them even more on their own.
Oyster mushrooms 790 xxx
oyster mushrooms
A big bag of these oyster mushrooms (enough to feed 6) cost $10 and cooked to a meaty perfection in a combination of butter and olive oil, sprinkled generously with the local black salt. They were a great accompaniment to our tasty steaks, from the local cattle we saw grazing everywhere on the island's gorgeous green grass.
Sweet potato peeled 790 xxx
purple sweet potatoes aka okinawa yam
These purple sweet potatoes are closer to garnet yams than Peruvian purple potatoes. Though pale on the outside, they are a deep antioxidant-rich shade inside, and perhaps the sweetest starchiest potato ever.
Purple potatoes 790 xxx
simply smashing
We ate ours mashed with copious amounts of butter and lots of lime juice, which made light pink swirls in the mix.
Mashed potatoes 790 xxx
purple reigns
As a coarse finishing salt, we used the local black lava salt, a subtly smoky blend of sea salt and purified volcanic charcoal. The salt evaporates in above-ground pools that form naturally from lava flows and activated charcoal, a proven anti-toxin and digestive-tract palliative, is added for color as well as its detoxifying effects.
Black salt1 790 xxx
salt of the earth
We drank cocktails of coconut rum with coconut water and lime and, for dessert, treated ourselves to tapioca pudding made with coconut milk and raw cane sugar, served with chunks of lime-and-ginger-drenched pineapple. Maybe we should open a restaurant there...


Laura, what a heavenly vacation. I love a rental with a kitchen and access to a farmer's market. Friends ask why I would want to cook on vacation - why not? when all these new-to-us foods are available. I think you should open a restaurant - there or here or somewhere, for heaven's sake. Cheers, Cathy, the mango-pusher
Cathy on March 27, 2012 at 5:33 am —
Cathy, I couldn't agree more. Btw, mangoes were not in season in Hawaii, but we did have great pineapple and papaya...
laura on March 27, 2012 at 5:39 am —
Welcome home, we missed your posts but what amazing photos and that market looks to die for! I guess it was actually a good thing that you were "forced" to cook. Interesting about the schinus terebinthifolius, I'm using schinus molle essential oil in my perfume blends and the scent is very similar to black pepper. I wish the oil was pink!
Suzinn on March 27, 2012 at 9:23 am —
Suzinn, yes, I think the two are closely related. Love the idea of peppery oil!
laura on March 27, 2012 at 9:38 am —
This food looks amazing - no wonder you look so beautiful! You're filled to the gills with exquisite antioxidants and look so radiant! Bravo.
Louise on March 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm —
Aww, you are too, too kind, Louise!! xo
laura on March 28, 2012 at 3:58 am —
It sounds like the restaurants are trying to appeal to what they think vacationers want to eat, and the farmer's markets are catering to what the locals are eating. I love renting places with kitchens on vacation, so I can do just what you did, and really take advantage of all the wonderful local in-season food. The food looks so beautiful and interesting!
The Wimpy Vegetarian on March 31, 2012 at 10:05 am —
It was so fun to discover new things. And fortunately, there is something of a movement afoot there (like here) to get back to more traditional ways of eating.
laura on March 31, 2012 at 10:47 am —
That's good to hear. And yes, I love to find new foods I've never worked with before!
the Wimpy Vegetarian on March 31, 2012 at 11:31 am —
When I was a poor grad student on assignment at the Bishop Museum I used to eat a lot of BBQ chicken wings and moko loko - Don't remember any veg at all! Aloha Laura...
Michael Duffy on July 24, 2012 at 10:44 pm —
Laura, Poi is available at any large grocery store on the Big Island. Additionally, I can attest to the fact that much of what is served in the touristy restaurants is frankly disappointing. There are fantastic 'mom and pop' establishments that cater to 'local' tastes which are unfortunately unknown to most tourists. It's really wonderful to see the Farmer's Market grow over the years. I grew up in Hilo and the variety of goods is really very impressive now. I'm glad that you enjoyed Hawaii.
tmc on December 13, 2012 at 8:05 pm —
In fact, I LOVED Hawaii and will find poi on my next visit, for sure!
laura on December 13, 2012 at 8:17 pm —
If only you had known--the Pac and save and KTA both sell "OK" poi--but the best is said to come from the Waipio valley...and usually there are people selling it at the farmers market--you just have to ask around to see who brought it today! Ah well--thanks for the info on the pipinola and the fact I may want to cook the stems a bit longer than the leaves!--Maryruth from Hilo
Maryruth on June 13, 2014 at 6:41 am —
Thanks for the tip, Maryruth! Next time I'll be more bold...
laura on June 13, 2014 at 6:59 am —