Sunday, August 17, 2008

Eating Ka'a'awa

Doc Rhee and Christine start the day off with a beer.

The morning after our after party, I noticed something without getting out of bed: relative silence. When I shut my eyes last night after a long night of partying, the sound of revelry and madness thumped outside just beyond my walls. Sunlight streamed through the windows and all was quiet.

As I poked around the downstairs half of the house, passed out reminders of the previous evening were scattered everywhere. Neil's nephews from New Jersey, female cousins from who knows where, the best man passed out in a bed, even Neil himself had passed out somewhere but was departing in the early morning sun to take care of his after wedding duties.

Everyone must have passed out because they even left The Volcano on.

It had been a good party. Empty cans of beer and killed bottles of Jack Daniels were all over the place. The two large coolers were still full of beverages. Not too long from now, the revelers would start to awaken from their coma - some of them without a car and wondering how to get back to Honolulu from this remote place.

Upstairs, in the main part of the house, the crew was stirring. Sree and Joey were already up and so was Rhee and V. Christine and Gabriella would soon arrive and it was time to get things rolling - especially since it was already 11am. Soon, Nikki and Neil would be back, and so too would many of our friends from the wedding. Each of us had done some shopping and brought some food, but it wouldn't be enough to feed the army that would be descending upon our house along Jurassic Park.

North Shore Cattle strip steaks ready for the grill.

With a list of provisions, The Bob and I roared into Kane'ohe town for a trip to Safeway and there she was: my ex. Standing there loading her extremely large SUV with stuff for her daughter's birthday. I hadn't seen her in over ten years. I talked to her every now and then and knew her whole story: married not long after we had broken up, had two kids, lived in a bad marriage to a husband who wanted her to be the idiot housewife and never pursue the medical degree she had always sought.

Thinking about her always made me a little sad. So much potential. So much that could have been achieved had she not married some dickhead asshole who got her pregnant because he worried losing her to me. We talked every blue moon or so, she to relate how much she thought about divorce and me, to encourage her to go and live her dreams.

I just walked up and said: "Hey!"

Shock. Absolute shock. That's how she looked. I live six thousand miles away. I'm not supposed to be running into her at the local Safeway. It took her a few moments to compose herself. She looked just as the last time I saw her (she'll be 30 this year). We chatted for a little while. She gave me her new phone number. Her daughter's birthday cake was melting (it was an ice cream cake). And then we were off. She to her daughter's party. Me to the Safeway. For a moment, I thought about pulling in for a smooch but then remembered that this was her hometown. God knows who might see us, and I'm not interested in causing her life more drama in case some family member should happen to see us making out in the middle of the parking lot at Safeway.

May's - a Hawaii institution. In frozen boxes of 24.

Inside Safeway it was time to get busy. While I normally prefer local, natural and organic foodstuffs, our mission here was for mass feeding. We needed food in bulk. A coupe of boxes of frozen chicken thighs, some seasoning, a box of eggs, milk, extra greens and a box of May's Hawaii Teriyaki Burger Patties. I had never heard of May's but they're evidently a Hawaii institution. They're frozen beef patties infused with teriyaki sauce. No wonder I wasn't familiar with them. I've never been a fan of frozen burgers and terkiyaki anything is usually down on my list of must haves.

After making our way back to Ka'a'awa, it was time to get down to business.

Doc Rhee's marinated chicken thighs.

The thing about cooking on the road is that you must deal with whatever cards are dealt to you. Strange pans, strange ovens, strange equipment - you never know what you're going to have to work with. I started some of the prep the day before by marinating the beef ribs. I had intended for them to be done in a kalbi marinade but the cupboard was missing some ingredients, so I made do with a little soy sauce, black pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and red wine. Not exactly kalbi but hopefully something tasty.

I won't complain much because at least this rental house cupboard had some provisions. Stay at some other place and there's nothing in the cupboards. For the steak, I would follow my usual prescription: salt & pepper - keep it simple. Half the chicken I would marinade in commercial Huli-Huli sauce (a Hawaii staple) and the other half Doc Rhee would marinade in a shoyu pepper sauce. V. would make the rice and prep the vegetables and I would handle the grill cookery.

Frozen sweet Ewa watermelon

But before we got rolling, there was the little matter of the frozen Ewa sweet watermelon to handle. Yesterday, I had placed the watermelon in the freezer to get it cold. I forgot it in there and now it was icy cold - almost like a natural watermelon sorbet.

You know how sometimes you buy watermelon and it just isn't that sweet? This Ewa Sweet was amazingly sweet. Thick, rich, watermelon sweetness. It was how you dream watermelon should be. The interesting (but not surprising) thing about the frozen watermelon was that the freezing had broken the molecular structure of the watermelon meat. As semi-frozen slices, the watermelon was cold, icy and sweet. However, as it thawed and rose in temperature the damaged caused by freezing became evident. Slices of watermelon allowed to rise to room temperature were mealy and excreted lots of watermelon juice.

Thoughts of more experimentation with freezing watermelon and vacuum sealing watermelon came to mind, but I just wanted another frozen slice to chill my teeth and we still had more prep and cooking to be done.

V. prepares the most important dish: rice.

Again, the vagaries of working with unfamiliar equipment worried me. We were going to cook most of the food on the propane grill on the back lanai. God knows I really dislike most home gas grills, they usually lack the raw power that I prefer. For my own purposes at home, I prefer using charcoal but I was ready to adapt.

Rhee fired up the grill and that baby roared to life - and when I say it roared to life, I mean it ROARED. That sucker was hot. It was blazing. It was an inferno whose heat rivaled the commercial MagiCater grill we used to use at the Ono Grill. This wasn't your typical wimpy home gas grill, this baby was angry. Hardcore, mother F'n angry.

Roasting Waimanalo Sweet Corn

It was so angry that I decided the best way to approach this would be to sear the chickens on the grill and then finish them in the oven. I dropped them in batches and worked my way through the twenty pounds of chicken we had marinated. Just drop them on the blazing grill, sear them, try to burn in the hash marks from the grill grate, turn, burn slightly, flip, color and then pull from the fire. Drop them in a roasting pan and into a 350F oven for ten minutes and done.

Some of our new friends from the wedding asked me how I knew when the chickens were done. The truth is that I really don't know when they're done, I just feel it - and use some simple math.

Short ribs on the grill

I've based my entire approach to cooking chicken on the method I use for making fried chicken. In 375F oil, dark chicken pieces will cook in about twenty minutes. White meat will cook in fifteen. It's this disparity in cooking times that usually mucks up the process, causing the white meat to almost always be dry and overcooked.

At fifteen minutes, white chicken meat is thoroughly cooked and so very moist and juicy. Take it to twenty minutes and it's starting to dry. Twenty-five minutes and you've screwed that chicken royally. Dark meat chicken is difficult to dry out - unless you're going over half an hour to forty-five minutes. But a few extra minutes won't hurt.

With all that in mind, I figure that I'm searing the chicken for at least ten minutes total on the grill. It's gotta be at least 400F, probably more. From there, I guesstimate that the chicken still needs ten to fifteen minutes in a 350F oven to finish correctly. Remember, I'm only using thigh meat here that's rich in fat. That's going to keep the chicken moist and will take a bit of abuse if my calculations are off. Working with dark meat is much more forgiving.

Kalbi-esque short ribs and new york strip steak from North Shore Cattle.

Ideally, one would use thermometers to measure the temperature of the chicken to determine when it's just right. But since we're cooking in foreign territory, we have to make do with what's at hand.

The ribs took a bit of a different approach. Since the meat is tougher, it needs more time to cook. First, a searing on the grill and then indirect cooking on the higher rack for the duration of the cooking. It's not the best way to cook the ribs, but it will have to suffice in these less-than-ideal conditions. If I were at home, I'd drop them in the smoker and slow cook them at 250F for five hours, that would be ideal.

Grilled Asparagus from Nalo Farms

When it comes to corn, I'm the kind of guy who prefers it roasted over a fire. Charcoal is better, but the heat from this grill will suffice. I just drop the corn onto the grill, with the husk still on, and let the grill work its' magic. Char the husk and then place on the upper grill to keep heating. Once the corn has developed nice color, it's ready. Add some butter, salt and you're good to go.

For the steaks, I took a simple approach. Just sear and burn in the hash marks, flip over, sear and done. With thin steaks, a sear on both sides means you've got a nice medium rare steak that's just right.

May's teri burgers on the grill.

Using a roasting pan, I did a quick saute with the asparagus and then finished them directly on the grill for color and flavor. I like to maintain the crisp snap so everything happens very quickly. Saute to soften slightly and then the grill for just a few seconds. Once the color develops: done.

The May's Teri Burgers were the easiest. Just plop them on the grill, burn in the hash marks and done. Pile them up and let everyone dig in.

A recovered Roy jams the guitar.

It was about this time that Roy finally arose from his coma. The best man had been worked. Celebrating his brothers' nuptuals, this guy had partied hard. He had spent weeks helping prepare for the wedding and let it all out last night. He didn't really recover until about 4pm or so.

But I gotta say, all that hard work was worth it and Roy gave the best Best Man Speech I have ever heard at a wedding. Just the right mix of love and humor. WIth Neil standing on stage adding commentary, these two were like a stand up comedy act. The guy deserved to sleep until 5pm.

Petting horses in the back yard.

By this time, a group of friends old and new had gathered at the house. Everyone eating and drinking and then drinking some more. Nikki and Neil had made their way to the house and since our rental was ending in an hour, they were planning the move to the house Duncan and Hana had left for us to use up the road a mile. The party would continue.

And as I pulled the sheets off my bed to leave in the laundry room for the Brazilian girls to clean, I could hear the familiar whine of The Volcano starting up for another session...

Sunset over Jurassic Park