What's This Blog About?

Pacific Grove is nearly an island - it is in the minds of people who live here - "surrounded" on two sides by the blue cold ocean. In a town that's half water and half land, we're in a specific groove where we love nature but also love to leave and see what the rest of the world is doing. Welcome along!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Morning With Frittata

I have a small pink onion in my hand, smaller than the brown onions still in the refrigerator drawer, and I think about the swiss chard lying on the cutting board. It's the right size, has a good weight in my hand. Five cloves of garlic join the onion. These are always the first, the beginning step of this preparation of frittata.

I rummage around in the next drawer of the fridge, and my fingers find some remnant chunks of pecorino romano cheese and some aged goat and cow's milk cheddar from a local dairy. I picked it out a month or two ago at the farmer's market. I size it up, feel its heft, know it's right for the recipe. There's a small head of Italian swiss chard from a farm in Watsonville, another product of the farmer's market. Chard is a hardy plant that grows with a kind of resolve and firmness that resides within its leaves even after cut. It is not a delicate plant, and I like that about it.

A carton of milk, another of eggs, a memory of cooking quiches and frittatas years ago for people I love. It's as if just touching the food products clicks a projector on in my mind's eye. Sounds, words, fragrances and admonitions by an older woman who taught me to cook emerge in my presence as if they had been sensed only seconds before. As I was told, I keep the heat "low, low, low" and use only the merest amount of olive oil in my heated skillet. Minced garlic becomes golden as it cooks. I salt it and grind in some pepper. The little pink onion is minced also and hisses as it meets the hot pan. "You heat it too much? It's bitter. It's no good." Once the onion is wilted and has released its sugars, the heat is turned off. The savory mixture rests and cools for a bit while I take the knife to the chard and cut its leaves down to even squares.

Four eggs and some milk look golden in my big yellow bowl. The fork clicks against the sides as I beat the mixture rapidly. I chose to use a fork on purpose, not a whisk, although a whisk is fine to use, believe me. But, my grandma did not use a whisk; she used a fork. She used a fork, so I use a fork.

The memory of my grandma beating eggs with a fork, its tines clacking against her bowl, overtakes me. She taught me all this. Or that is, I copied all her movements and watched her carefully when I had the chance. Her cooking wisdom and her flavor opinions became mine as much as I could make them mine. Of all the people I knew as I was growing up, her cooking stood as the most exemplary, the most awe inspiring, to me. It was absolutely my intention to make food like my grandma made her food. I memorized flavors, layers of seasonings, inhaled fragrances to the deepest part of my mind, the primitive core of myself, where they must have met inherited wisdom passed from the women before me who knew how to cook food so that their families would thrive and be content.

Cooking my frittata this morning, I re-experienced my grandma's movements, voice, sounds, beliefs about what is good and bad in the kitchen. I have been asked how I know which herbs to use when I cook something. Well, I just know. But, I know because I watched and tasted carefully, attentively, with absolute belief that what I could learn was the best that anyone could teach, and it was my heritage, my job to learn. It was my responsibility. I felt like a relay runner being handed a baton from many hands before me, back in time.

This food knowledge was mostly practical, involved frugality and cleverness, represented a resiliency in the face of adversity. She called it "poor man's food" a lot. Bait fish breaded, fried, eaten crisp and whole. Sausages ground and packed right in the kitchen. Albacore that far exceeded any canned product I've ever had in my life since, cooked and bottled in her kitchen, accented with Meyer lemons from her tree. She needed some greens once, to make a little salad to go with our fish, so she went out into her yard and came back with what I thought were weeds but were most likely dandelion greens, miner's lettuce, and who knows what else. She dressed them lightly in olive oil, "a little vinegar, a little salt and pepper." She was strong but had a light hand with seasoning. She winked at me while she sopped up extra juices on her plate with a crust of good french bread, conspiratorially, letting me know we had put one over on the rich people who had no idea how good "junk fish" tasted with weeds from the garden.

I smile about that as I scrape my skillet clean of every last bit of chard and onion. The chard is lying in its casserole pan now. I pour the golden egg and milk over it and the grated romano and cheddar and scatter the remaining cheese over it all. It looks good. It smells right. Into the oven it goes for about 30 minutes.

I like that I have not measured anything, done it by memory, by feel, that I have the baton in my hand and am running with it. I was right to have learned her, to become essentially her when I cook and experience food. The learning honored the heritage of all the women before her who all knew. They just knew. Right down to their bones.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

In a Lull

I have not been writing much these days, as you have noticed. I've been away from my keyboard, and also not musing as much about what piques my imagination. Good news is, my imagination is still rambling along on its own, having a good time. I'm just letting it kind of go about its business, like a pet off its leash, snuffling about, chasing butterflies and kicking up leaves.

What is really going on here? What does a writer do when a writer is not writing, anyway?

Well, let's see. Trees are still green, sirens still wail, and birds still strafe my car. That seems to never change. Don't you notice that your attention shifts and turns differently at different times of the year or in different seasons. Now that Spring is coming, I feel a relief, like there's more to look forward to. Not only "Whew! Made it through the winter!" but that possibility is real. Flowers are showing up on trees again. It was a long cold winter. People were sick a lot. The heater was always going. It just seemed worse this year somehow.

There has been a lull. The waves of inspiration have died down a bit, but I feel a change now. Look at that ocean. A light breeze is riffling the surface and a weather change is coming, over on the horizon. Feels like it might be interesting.
Not quite time to put the leash on the imagination because it's still having a good time chasing squirrels, but I have not forgotten about writing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pedals, Pork and a Pool - Kapaa and Hanalei

I need a pool. But, hey, why not swim in the ocean since it's everywhere? Good question. The difference between a pool and the ocean gets down to salt and swell. I guess I'm too used to swimming a measured distance in fresh water under controlled conditions.

I've brought a few bags on this trip to carry my things and bring groceries home if I need to. I exasperate myself with my indecision about what to bring for the day. It seems I end up with everything. When did my life get this complicated?

First of all, we're going down to Kapaa to rent bicycles. I've heard there's a community pool somewhere nearby, but distances are vague in my mind. I recall that most things are not very far from anything else on this nearly round island.

I give up on deciding what to take, stuff everything into all my bags and declare myself ready. We leave, heading south to a place called Coconut Coasters where we can rent bicycles. It's easy to find. On the way down the coast from Hanalei, we've already seen glimpses of the bike path I read about before our trip. And, no kidding, the pool is right behind it at the Kapaa Community Park. Wow. The pool isn't open yet, though. That's okay because the bike ride is going to be first.

Outfitted with big ol' three-speed cruisers we begin to ride south on the one-mile-long trail section that's right next to the water and find ourselves grinning like fools. There really is no better way to see the countryside than by bicycle, and this wide, easy, flat path is as pleasant as any I could find anywhere. For anyone interested, this trail is interrupted after a mile by a two-mile length of city streets that have no trail. However, once you get on past the two-mile section of town, you are back on a separate trail again. More trails are planned apparently but need funding, of course.

Most of the trail is a wide, flat cement trail that seems more like a wide sidewalk than a "path." We go to the end of that one mile, including a charming little lagoon-like protected area called Baby Beach where a tiny boy and his mother are playing in the sun. We turn around and come back past Coconut Coasters and the park. Then we continue on north taking the next 3.5 miles which is a very scenic and gently undulating trail. This is Sunday, and we hardly see anyone. There is a good headwind, but the air is warm, and our 3-speeds are handling the terrain without any trouble. Every so often, covered picnic tables provide shelter from sun or rain. We pass several beaches that seem virtually deserted but perfectly beautiful. Too many beaches on Kauai - what a problem! On the way back we have a tailwind and zoom along for free, hardly pedaling.

The bicycle fun is over far too soon. Our backsides are squashed by the cruiser seats, but that's the only complaint. The big cruisers are back in the able hands of staff at the Coasters, so we look for lunch. Nearby is a small cluster of food trucks, so we go see what we can see there. One looks well kept and a young woman is outside neatening up. She says her food truck, Al Pastor, offers a special mahi fish taco she recommends ordering medium rare, which I do. We sit, wait, watch kids nearby and then gather our order when it's all ready.

Oh dear, I'm not sure I'll ever have better fish taco again. Pinto beans, rice and lime are served with the taco, which is served inside small corn tortillas. Very few Mexican places make their own beans, but this little truck does, and they are buttery soft and savory. The fish is tender, perfectly done, and they are big healthy hunks of very fresh mahi. We rave, exclaim, savor and slurp. It's messy good food. The young woman comes over to check on us and tells us her husband, the cook, is a native of Oaxaca. Well, he's hired. That's all I can say. Hired.

Not a bad start to our Kauai vacation at all.

The community pool is open now, but I'm too full to eat. I make a mental note about the pool in case I cannot find one closer to our bungalow. Heading back north on the main road, there's a sign for a farmer's market, so we make a quick turn up a sloping, bumpy county road. You pay on the honor system for any fruit you want, and you can try some Hawaiian barbecue pork. I carry away a pineapple, a good bunch of apple bananas (small size, wow flavor), and some limes for papaya back home.

On the road again, we decide to have a look at Princeville, a highly manicured collection of time shares, resort hotels, golf courses and tennis courts. A friend has told me I might be able to find a lap pool here and join for a week. She's right. The Makai Golf Club will let you be a member for a month and use their pool. I'm only here for a week; the price is pretty spendy for only five days of swimming, but it's only five minutes away from our bungalow and I need to keep swimming, so I join. Still stuffed with mahi tacos, I decide to begin my swim regimen tomorrow.

The road takes us to our rustic place, a satisfying contrast to the uber high-end digs at Princeville, which, by the way, is offers eye-popping views of Hanalei and the Kalalau Range. Just so you know I appreciate both ends of the rental market...

It's time to get down and real at the beach. Slippers, suit, towel, and we take a shuffle on down to the huge beach. There is only one thing to contend with:  What part of said beach is more perfect than the rest? We are spoiled, aren't we. Yes, it's tough here. Lifeguard flags signal the biggest rip tide area, so we avoid that. Way over to the right of us is the very picturesque and useful covered pier.  Clouds are low in the area. It looks like rain any second.

On the way to the pier, we see a tall, thin young blonde wearing a glistening sparkly gold rashguard and a red helmet. She's trailed into the water by two young local men who are wearing rashguards with the name of their surfing instruction business. Two guys to teach one girl? I wonder who she is. She looks accustomed to having staff.

The pier was built in the 1930s and stands patiently awaiting some maintenance, upkeep, anything. The sandy bottom of the bay is shallow, easy to learn to play at water sports. In rhythmically surging ocean next to the pier, two stiff and anxious Chinese men are learning to surf from only one instructor who is very patient with them. They seem very unused to the water, unable to figure out how to paddle. They are game to try though. Before you know it, they're hopping up on their feet and catching swells that the surfer pushes them into. Looks fun. I'd try it too if the sun was out and I had my stuff with me.

Rain drizzles down but stops absolutely no one from doing whatever they're doing at the shoreline. Way out at the surf break at the tip of the bay opening, surfers are getting long rides Hanalei is famous for. They must be a mile away.

After watching for quite a while, we walk back home along the beach and access streets to our place. Dinner out at a local tourist restaurant and we're good for the night. Life is very simple this way:  The sun comes up and we're up with it, outdoors most of the day and back in when it's dark. Keeping things sweet and real. That's Kauai for you.

Hanalei: A living lullaby

Rain wakes me up in the middle of the night, a building rush of sound that holds its deepest note for no more than three minutes and then fades into the darkness. I am awakened by the sound, feel a cool breeze on my face from the open window by the bed. There is no other sound at first. Then I hear a low, soft, muffled and distant rhythm: the waves on Hanalei Bay's beach. Then, I drift off to sleep again.

In the morning, something awakens me again from my sleep. Or many things do, all of them the small noises of creatures and life stirring. I have these early morning hours to myself as my husband sleeps. Time to imagine what I'll do in the day ahead, think of what we did the day before, and listen. 

The birds out in the garden are local, not island birds native to Kauai. Like full-blood Hawaiians, native birds are very rare now. Whatever variety they are, the songs and calls color the early hours of the day. 

As a short-term visitor here, I am a bit torn between a wish to just sit peacefully and a need to get out and do things. I imagine friends I talked to before the trip, asking me, "What are you going to DO when you're there?" 

"Well, nothing," was my reply. But I am very curious to go see, to be active and not just be a blob. Blobbishness, I tell myself, will be enjoyed after some kind of exploration is undertaken, by some mode other than car driving. I just have that need to move and feel myself alive in this paradise. There is a sense of excitement and thrill, being in a more exotic environment than my own home. I imagine myself some kind of rugged, fit athlete, able to climb, paddle and surmount physical challenges with aplomb. The truth is, I am some fainter shade of that colorful imaginary self at my age now, but I've got a lot of kick left in me. 

I sigh. We'll come up with a plan for the day, sketched in broad strokes, as we usually do. We've got a few things on a mental list that sound interesting or entertaining: Biking, hiking, swimming, body surfing. Boredom is to be avoided, but so is a frenetic pressured need to see and do all. We'll walk a line between them, I hope. 

I begin cutting up fresh pineapple, papaya and some sweet bread we bought yesterday at a farmer's market in Poipu while we were driving around. Coffee begins to brew and fill the small bungalow with its familiar aroma. It already feels like home here, easy to fall into a rhythm of our own. We sit at the table in the kitchen, listening to the hum of the refrigerator and the birds in the yard. It's peaceful here. We are escapees from the ugliness and stress of modern life, way far away from anyone we know but also very safe, unchallenged except by any small bit of physicality we chose to throw into our own path. 

It's really a living lullaby in Hanalei for visitors like us. Times like this, I'm not certain at all I ever want to go home again.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Kauai Again

It takes no more than 20 minutes to fly, from liftoff to touchdown, from Honolulu to Lihue, Kauai, but the flight crew of  Hawaiian Airlines manages to hand out small juice cups up and down the aisle before we land. Nice touch.

Lihue airport is situated on the island like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier; it's on a flat shoulder of land that's like a shelf off the island's southwest curve. Kauai is here! Rather, we are here! Kauai has been here longer than any of the other habitable islands, the northernmost in the chain of Hawaiian Islands. It's the prettiest one, in my opinion, and it has the most chickens. Little factoid there, but I'll get to that later, in another post.

We round up our rental car, load up our stuff, drive away to the south shore, opposite direction from our home town for the week, Hanalei. It's too early to check in, so we've decided to explore. Most visitors to this island beeline for the south and stay in Poipu. In the winter, it's drier, warmer, and all the big resorts are here. We are hungry and look up best bets for good local grinds, choose a popular hamburger chain, head for it, find it, and then smell garlic. Hmmmm. I poke around a bit and find a place called Savage Scampi and my mouth waters vigorously. After some, ahem, discussion (he wants a burger), we go to the shrimp place. It seems more authentically good. A few thousand people have turned the walls into a giant yearbook of sorts by writing messages to the owners all over the walls, floor to ceiling.

He orders a fish taco dish, and I order a scampi-and-rice dish that comes piled up with garlic, garlic and more garlic. I have to peel the scampi, but it's good. I'm happy. We eat with fine appetites and then go poke around Koloa, an old sugar mill company town now given over to touristed trinket shops and food places.

The one main reason we drive to and from Koloa is the chance to go along the so-called tunnel of trees. The trees are tall, grand, overhang the highway and border the road on both sides for miles. They were stripped of all leaves and most small branches during Hurricane Iniki in 1992 but have recovered wonderfully and form a living cathedral over much of the roadway. Along the same stretch of road, a dramatic panorama catches my eye, a cattle ranch. Its spread of trees, backdrop of volcanic ridges and hills, as well as the open plain of grasses is rugged and natural in appearance, a testament to the beauty of nature if left mostly alone.

It's time to head up to Hanalei Bay and find our place. We were here two years ago, so the island is looking and feeling immediately familiar. The famous Princeville area with its many condo communities and golf courses sits on the high point above the bay to the northeast. Taro fields, a long curving scythe-shaped beach and spectacular mountains form a stage-backdrop setting for the little village of Hanalei. It's so perfectly tropically pretty and charming from every angle that even ugly is pretty. The dark red iron-rich soil tinges buildings, cars, the tree trunks and fence posts with its ochre red. Corrugated roofs built to withstand upwards of 25 inches of rain a year and hot sun as well are picturesque to me. Lush undergrowth and tall beautiful trees with flowers in their canopies give way at times to reveal craggy and jagged peaks in every view on the mauka side of the road.

Our bungalow is a vacation rental that we have completely to ourselves for the week. There's no maid service. Just us. I find it to be in total contrast to our Waikiki hotel. It's very quiet, simple, old-fashioned in some respects, but our wifi hookup is far better than we had at our last hotel. In defense of better hotels on Oahu, wifi is generally no problem, but it seems like a kind of voodoo security system is evolving there to the point that it's sometimes very hard to find cell-friendly areas with adequate signals for smart phone use. But, I digress.

We take a walk after settling in. The sandy expanse of Hanalei Bay is about a five-minute walk away. The sand is soft, warm brown and easy to walk on. My guess is from one end to the other might be about three miles. We walk around and wade in the warm water when the waves rush up onto the beach. Without suits on, we are just up to our ankles only. We'll begin our exploration tomorrow in earnest. Right now, softening into the rhythm of the place is all that's required. Wow, is it pretty.