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Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Taste of Hawaii: Ahi Pizza

July is upon us. It is summer in the city which, unlike the sweltering, feet-baking-concrete, flesh-melting-summers of Manhattan where I was hatched and raised,  in San Francisco means long gloomy days chilled by relentlessly brutal fog and wind, where the sun makes the occasional cameo appearance only just in time to set. The rare hints of summer in San Francisco come from the produce section in markets: tomatoes are riper, juicier;  corn tastes like candy; there are berries galore: the blue, the straw, the black, the boysen, the rasp & the tay. Vegetable bins are overflowing with both the leafy and the stolid: purslane and nettles, arugula and lambsquarters, every kind of kale and cabbage, melon and squash; apricots, cherries and peaches gush over our lips and tongues with all their sweet honeyed blush.  So, let's forget the damp and dreary,  get all Porgy and Bess-esque to sing: "Summertime and the living is easy.... fish are jumping"... and I am thinking of all kinds of ways to prepare them. Sorry vegetarians. But first? I want to talk about summers past, maybe it's because I've been reading Proust (again) and am in search of lost time, or maybe not... Still... take a turn with me on the Way Back Machine...

Summertime. I remember the summer I turned ten. It was monumental for me. I was sprouting a pair of wings. Testing the air of my independence. Already feeling the desire of men being imposed upon me as I shimmered and soared above New York's streets & beaches. All pigeon-chested and peacock-feathered. Wearing my little halters and short-shorts, swaying my hips. My hair dyed deep auburn by my lunatic mother who thought it would be fun for me to show up the last day of school with a new hairdo. One that matched hers. Never considering what my classmates would think ("The Redhead is dead." was probably the nicest thing said to me. Later that summer, just before school started again, I would sneak all the way to 86th Street and Third Ave. to The Hair People to have all the red cut off, leaving me practically bald, but mercifully free of my mother's Nice & Easy dye job).
Only 9-7/8 years old ( at a time when counting every fraction of those years was soooo important), but with a fully developed body and, like a good Lolita should, very much cognizant of the effect my pubescence had on those swimming in my ken. Though not actively seeking attention as Nabokov's poor little Dolly did, still certainly enjoying the effect I seem to have dressed as the little nymphet. I loved staring at my own breasts. I understood why men liked them. They were so pretty. I'd walk down the street looking down at my cleavage. Fascinated. Pert mounds of flesh, firm, nipples always erect. I used to poke them in to invert them, so that I wouldn't have to wear a bra. I hated underwear. Still do. Just like my mother. "Coqueta", my family's friends would call me affectionately. Our next door neighbor Dona Juanita's youngest son, Moses, who was about 21, and enjoying plucking the gowans fine with both my mother and my Aunt Kay at the time, would smile at me, and say, "You know exactly what you're doing, don't you?" before he was whisked away by the women of the household to indulge in his taste for their over-ripeness. I really didn't know what Moses meant, not exactly, but I liked the way the white of his teeth contrasted with his cocoa-colored skin when he flashed that grin. His pleasure gave me pleasure. 
I started menstruating that summer, too, but told no one. There were plenty of women in the house, all of them of child-bearing age with a bathroom full of feminine hygiene products, I had no need to purchase anything special and I knew it was the natural progression of aging, so I wasn't alarmed by it, nor did I feel particularly excited by it. To me, it was just a fact of life, not worth celebrating. Parties would be thrown by many Boricua families at the onset of girls' menses. As I was the first-born granddaughter, it was expected that there were be some ritual to commemorate my fertility. I thought that was ludicrous. It was what it was. I had no interest in parading the fact that my uterus was lined and ready for action.
I recall a day when I was 12 and the sanitary pads ran out, all that was left were my mother's tampons. I read the instructions on the box, inserted one, grabbed another for later and realized the freedom of movement I now had without a blood-soaked napkin between my legs. It changed my life. No more embarrassing cotton wads that leaked. I could run, stretch, take my dance classes, be completely liberated. Every month. All month long. Eve's curse was mitigated. This was my get out of jail free card. I imagined that stick of cardboard and cotton as a middle-finger in the face of God. I wasn't bound by his chains anymore, for a crime I never committed. A few years later when my mother asked me if I had gotten my period yet, I told her yes, I had for years. She was stunned and pained by my nonchalance, then demonstrated her disappointment the way she always did. I wore the hot stamp of her disapproval as a red palm-print on my cheek for a few hours. My mother served up rancor to her offspring, the way other mothers did buttermilk biscuits. My not confiding in her was an affront to her motherhood. Not that she was ever maternal, she just liked to believe she was, and who knows? Maybe some part of her felt deprived by my apparent lack of need for her. She thought she was robbed. That's what I figured anyway. But that's another story...
My father had been separated from my mother forever, though only divorced from her for two years, when he came to visit me religiously that summer; he had odd hours; he managed and cooked for an all-night coffeeshop in Midtown Manhattan, sometimes not sleeping at all so he could take me to amusement parks, to the movies, to visit his family. I remember him falling asleep in the theaters several times. I didn't mind. He looked so sweet and relaxed. He didn't even snore. I'd eat my buttered popcorn, drink my Coke, watch my film, and gently nudge him when the houselights came back on. He'd pretend to have enjoyed the movie and I'd let him.
He was something of a gypsy. At least that's what I would call him, my wandering gypsy, he never stayed in one place for longer than a few months, disappearing for long stretches of time. He would laugh softly, wistfully when I called him that because he knew it was true; and truly regretted not being able to spend more time with me. My mother made these simple matters impossible. She'd obstruct as best she could, discouraging him from coming around by creating high drama whenever he showed, walls would be punched (him), knives flashed (her), police would be called (her), my grandparents, aunt, and neighbors screeching in the background like a sad mad Greek chorus, he'd have to leave... but he'd come back; then she'd try by locking me in with her in her room, and eventually when she couldn't physically restrain me from seeing him (we lived on the first floor, I'd just jump out of the window, into the bushes, climb the short wire fence and go to the front of the building where he was waiting) she'd try another tactic, wanting to make me believe he was a hitman for the mafia, that he knew where Jimmy Hoffa was buried, and , oh, a variety of things that were equally unlikely. She was pretty creative. In my childish way, I would half-believe her and begin to romanticize his adventures, but I knew she was a pathological liar and a substance abuser so she lacked credibility in my young discerning eyes (although in those days she was more like something out of "Valley of the Dolls" than "Panic in Needle Park", prescription drugs re-filled by a greedy pharmacist were her mind candy).
That summer with my father was wonderful. He introduced me to Hatha Yoga (through Richard Hittleman's classic book), martial arts, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, certain mathematical progressions, watercolors & pastels as well as an enormous anthology called The Best Loved Poems of the American People (edited by Hazel Felleman, Edward Frank Allen). That book was so heavy I could hardly pick it up but I lugged it with me everywhere that summer, reading it in parks, beaches, on the stoop of my building, in my bed at night. Couldn't get enough of it. Those pages were dog-eared & smeared with the melted rainbow of all those Firecracker  rocket-shaped popsicles & other evidence of kiddie crack. Those were Carvel frozen custard days...

What does any of this have to do with Ahi Pizza, the discerning reader might ask? Nothing is what this honest scribbler will reply. I think of summer, and I recall that summer I was 10. Distinctly. I think of summer, and I also think of Hawaii - the land of perpetual summer. El esposo and I used to vacation there twice a year. Once in the winter (ten days before Christmas, making sure to clear out as all the New Yorkers checked in on the 23rd for "Festive" which they made anything but), and once in the summer (just before Labor Day). Summer in San Francisco is an endless November. All shiver and mist. There's nothing summery for me to associate with July and August here in Bagdad By The Bay as Herb Cain used to say, so I try always to create a summertime landscape in my mind. I do that through cookery... Borrowing from our neighbor in the middle of the Pacific...

Hawaii. Tropical, lush, ever-blossoming Hawaii... There are few places in the world like it.
The spirit of Aloha permeates everything and everyone in it. You can just feel the tension drain out of your body as soon as your foot hits the tarmac and that first waft of warm fragrant air greets you. Hawaii seems to be suspended in some time/space warp: you co-exist with the rest of the known universe but nothing in it can affect you. Senate hearings, stock plunges, presidential conventions, Zika scares. Not even the mosquitoes dare bother anyone there.

None of it matters. Not in Hawaii. It is heaven. Everything is beautiful, everyone is happy.
A favorite expression among the locals, the rare time you may experience a mauvais moment is "It's all good!" Always said not as a rebuke but just as a gentle reminder of your good fortune to be experiencing such an earthly paradise... and how right they are!!!!

Christ, how I wish I was on the Big Island today...

 So--- because my husband requested it when I asked him this morning if he had a hankering for anything special for dinner, I offer you my adaptation of a wonderful appetizer served at what was the world's best bar, the Lava Lounge located in the beautiful Four Seasons Hualalai Resort on the Kona Coast of the Big Island. Right on the beach fully stocked with peeping tom moons, honu resting on the sand while ocean waves lap with frilly tongues upon a submissive shore.  Sadly, the Lava Lounge is no more, but this recipe remains as part of its legacy. So that you, too, could share a taste of paradise. Just close your eyes... and breathe.... can you hear the ocean? Good.

This recipe is a lot more laborious to read ( and write) than it is to make. It's really just an asian-influenced ahi tostada.

Don't be intimidated by the number & variety of ingredients. Most can be found in any large supermarket chain who do a great job of stocking asian pantry items these days. I like to cook foods with asian accents so I always have them on hand. The assembly of the dish is really quick and easy, once you have everything in front of you, pre-measured, chopped & ready to go. It takes about 30 minutes, start to finish. You vegetarians can skip the fish altogether, the veggies alone are scrumptious on this. Meat eaters can substitute rare thin slices of flank steak, pork tenderloin or lamb. You can also just dice the ahi tuna, season it with a bit of the vinaigrette poke-style and eat it raw, instead of searing it, only if it is VERY fresh and sashimi-grade. The yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) is a species of tuna found in epipelagic waters of tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide. Yellowfin is often marketed as ahi, from the Hawaiian  Ľahi, a name also used there for the closely related bigeye tuna. It is red-fleshed, meaty and should look deep red, jewel-like in color with a glossy texture.
 This dish can easily serve two people as a very satisfying light meal or six people as part of a pupus or tapas platter. A light steely chardonnay or sauvignon blanc would complement the sweet, salty richness of the dish without hurting the wine.. A lighter style beer like Asahi Super Dry or Corona wouldn't be a bad choice, either. Of course, you could go all the way & have a Mai Tai while playing some soothing steel guitar music in the background. It's all good!



For the Pizza:
  • 6 tomato- flavored flour tortillas ( I recommend "La Tortilla Factory" brand ) or 3 large sized lavash, the baked flat breads of the Middle East (every grocery store carries some version of it), cut into 18 small rounds with a 3-1/2" cookie cutter or empty tuna can
  • 1/3 cup olive oil, regular or light (not extra virgin, it will burn).
  • 1 tablespoon refined peanut oil
  • 16 ounces of sashimi-grade yellowfin tuna (ahi), at least 1" thick fillets
  • chili powder, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon of toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1 large or 2 small Haas avocados, thinly sliced just before assembly of pizza
  • 3-4 ounces good quality feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2 teaspoons of Chinese plum or Hoisin sauce
  • chili aioli, recipe below
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, membrane and seeds removed, thinly sliced crosswise (optional)

For the slaw:
  • 2 cups Napa cabbage, shredded
  • 1/2 cup red cabbage, shredded
  • 1/2 large red bell pepper, finely sliced into thin julienned strips
  • 1 carrot, finely grated
  • 1/2 large maui or sweet onion, finely sliced
  • 1/3 bunch of cilantro, leaves only, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup green onions, white & light green portions only, minced
  • 1/2 cup, or so, poi vinaigrette, recipe follows

For the poi vinaigrette:
  • 2 ounces poi* (white or red miso paste can be substituted)
  • 1/4 cup passionfruit juice (guava or mango juice mixed with equal parts fresh orange juice can be substituted)
  • 1 lime, juice & zest
  • 1 ounce rice vinegar (a mild-flavored white vinegar )
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon shallot, finely minced
  • 1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon of mirin (sweet japanese rice wine; you could substitute sherry or just honey)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup high quality, fruity extra virgin olive oil

For the Chili Aioli:
  • 1/2 teaspoon lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon Sriracha hot chili sauce or to taste( I recommend Huy Fong Foods brand, buy it at Safeway or
  • 1 small clove garlic, smashed & finely minced
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise


Preheat oven to 450 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, place it in the oven & heat blind for 15 minutes. If you don't have one, then line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil & place that in the oven.

While oven is heating, prepare the vinaigrette by whisking each item in a bowl one at a time, starting with the poi (or miso) then adding mirin ,shallots, mustard, vinegar, black pepper, soy sauce, mayonnaise, lime juice, passionfruit juice, & plum sauce until well combined. When mixture appears smooth & uniform, slowly begin whisking in olive oil & finally sesame oil until the emulsion reaches a consistency you like. The vinaigrette should be very light & fresh tasting. Taste & adjust seasonings. Is it too sweet, add more acid. Is it too acidic, add more oil. When you're done, set it aside.

Next is the seasoning for the ahi: using a mortar & pestle (or a small sturdy mixing bowl) grind the sesame seeds & the cajun seasoning together adding the tablespoon of canola oil & teaspoon of soy sauce & combine well. Rub mixture on all sides of the ahi & set aside to marinate for 5 minutes. While the ahi marinates, heat a grill or heavy-duty saute pan until very hot. When ready, place ahi on cooking surface, searing for 2 minutes on one side without moving the fish. Then turn ahi over & sear for 1 minute more. Remove from grill & let rest on cutting board.
Do not overcook the ahi. It should be blackened on the outside but still rare in the center. The best way to tell is by looking at the side of the filet while you cook it. The middle of the fish should still appear red & translucent from the side while the top & bottom 1/8" may appear opaque or brown.

Now, prepare the chili aioli: Using the flat side of a chef's knife (or a mortar & pestle) make a paste out of the garlic by adding a pinch of salt to it while alternately smashing the garlic with the blade & chopping it, working the salt into a garlic paste. Then place the garlic paste into small bowl adding pepper, sriracha sauce, & mayonnaise whisking with a fork until well combined. Add lime juice until aioli has the consistency of a thick salad dressing. Taste for seasoning. Then set aside. (Could be made 1 day in advance).

Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Brush tortillas with regular olive oil, coating very well on both sides then place on hot pizza stone or hot baking sheet for 5-7 minutes until crisp & toasty. (You could deep-fry them instead but I find it too dangerous & messy to do at home). When crisp, turn off oven & keep tortillas warm.

While tortillas are toasting, toss all of the slaw ingredients together, giving the vinaigrette a quick whisk to re-emulsify it before adding to the vegetables. Toss well.
Next slice the ahi against the grain & on the bias into very thin slices using a well-sharpened knife. If your ahi has strong tendonous intersections, don't fight it, cut along those lines. Then thinly slice your avocados. Try to keep the size of both the ahi & the avocado about 2-1/2" in length or no longer than the diameter of your "pizza" rounds.

Now assemble pizzas:

On heated plates or platters, plate your tortillas, brush lightly with plum sauce, add asian slaw to cover entire surface, place a single layer of the avocado slices (about 2 pcs.) on top fanning them over the slaw, now place a single layer of the ahi (about 2 pcs.) in similar fashion, drizzle the chili aioli over the ahi, sprinkle small amount of feta over center of "pizza" add another drizzle of aioli , if desired, then top with a sprig of cilantro and jalapeno.

* Poi is just a tuberous vegetable indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands. It has no discernible flavor to the untutored palate but it has a very distinct texture which adds viscosity and a certain Hawaiian panache to the vinaigrette. While most islanders would disagree with me, you'll never miss it, if you can't find it, especially in this dish where it is a really minor element in a small part of the dish. However, you can order on it line if you really want to try it.

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