I am on vacation in Maui, standing in the produce department of a supermarket, trying to remember why I was brash enough to want to cook dinner for one of Hawaii's great chefs. George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro in Honolulu is flying over to Maui the next day because I wanted to do something nice for him and his wife, Donna Jung, who have been helpful to me on previous visits.
My wife and I are sharing a flat overlooking Kaanapali Bay. It has a wonderful view, and the tropical birds sing day and night. The modest kitchen, however, is not built for dinner parties. The nearest grill is down by the pool, 2 minutes and 30 seconds away—I know because I walked it, thinking grilled fish would be a nice main course. On the shelf, there are four mismatched wine glasses and fewer bowls than plates. But we have a rice cooker, and I brought my own knives from home.
Besides, I know that chefs love it when somebody else cooks for them. They usually don't care if the food is elaborate because they can just relax and eat. And I was careful to let George and Donna know that this was going to be a casual dinner. "We'll have a little dinner, drink a little wine and watch the sunset from the lanai," I told them. George wanted to bring a whole fish from the Honolulu auction, an offer I regretfully declined.
Wine was not going to be an issue. We had brought some light white wines from Italy and Washington, even a couple of serious reds. They were stacked in a corner of the kitchen.
Given the rudimentary kitchen setup, I figured I'd better prepare as much as possible in advance. If I couldn't grill fish, I could make it into ceviche. I could make several ceviches for a first course and braise something for a main course. Dinnertime duties would amount to serving it up and opening the wine.
So there I am in the supermarket in Honokawai, the nearest town, trying to think up an idea for a main course. The market has ingredients we're not used to seeing on the mainland, things like taro root, Molokai sweet potatoes, Hawaiian chili water and stacks of insanely sweet Maui Gold pineapples for 79 cents a pound. It has Chinese parsley but no curly American parsley or Italian parsley.
I spy a bin of fresh shiitake mushrooms. We're lucky to find these for $15 a pound on the mainland, but here they are on sale for $9.99 a pound. I fill a bag with a pound and a half of them and head for the meat department, where they have Ewa chickens, Hawaii's answer to the free-range brands on the mainland. The main course was taking shape in my mind: braised chicken with shiitake mushrooms and fresh ginger, light enough for a warm Hawaiian afternoon, hefty enough to go with a red wine. With jasmine rice steamed in the cooker, we're in business.
I had discovered a serious little fish market in Honokawai. It had fresh, gleaming white fillets of opakapaka, satiny, ruby-colored bigeye tuna and pre-cooked Japanese octopus for the ceviches. Back at the apartment, I mix the delicate opakapaka with lime juice, diced mango and papaya, bathe the bigeye in coconut milk, pineapple and habañero chile for a sort of piña colada effect, and marinate the octopus in Hawaiian chili water and finish it with avocado and red tomatoes grown in upcountry Maui.
The chicken, baked slowly in the oven until it falls off the bone, absorbs the ginger root and shiitake flavors. I finish it in the morning, figuring it can only get better as it reheats in a low oven.
Clouds over the island of Lanai block our sunset, but a few taro chips and a couple of bottles of Chateau Ste. Michelle's lovely Eroica Riesling 2003 from Washington make a colorful match with the ceviches. The chicken, simmering away quietly in the one large pot I could find, comes out when the rice cooker clicks off. A refreshingly fruity Tuscan red, the Banfi Centine 2002, holds its own with the ginger and chicken flavors.
Dessert was going to be a cop-out—fresh pineapple with haupia ice cream (haupia is the Hawaiian coconut custard traditionally served at luaus)—but George saves the day when he arrives with a small blue and white cooler. "I stopped by the restaurant and stole some things before we went to the airport," he says with a grin. He unpacks the ice chest and fills small juice glasses with lilikoi custard, made from the Hawaiian passion fruit, and squirts guava foam over the top.
It would have been a lot easier to take everyone out to a restaurant. Maui has some great ones. But if you're staying in a place with a usable kitchen, enjoy cooking and have access to good ingredients, why not make use of them? All it took was a little improvisation all around.