It’s always hard to come back from a vacation, especially one so perfect and food-centered as this one. Here are a few pictures from our South Pacific island feast.
Our destination was Tonga, an island kingdom located between Fiji, Samoa, and Cooks Islands, a short three-hour flight from New Zealand. From Auckland we took an Air New Zealand flight to the Tonga capital Nuku’alofa, then a charter flight in an antique 1944 DC3 airplane to the Vava’u island group, where we chartered a sailing catamaran to sail between the islands.
Picture a perfect tropical island, with a coral reef, a sandy beach, and coconut palms swaying in the warm breeze, surrounded by deep blue waters, full of fish, dolphins, and whales. Now picture sixty of these islands, a few of them with little native villages or fishing resorts, most of them uninhibited, within one-hour sail from each other. This is Vava’u island group.
Tongans love their food, and are very proud of it. The local diet is based on tropical vegetables (taro, sweet potato) and fruits (coconut, pineapple, bananas), with a lot of fresh fish and shellfish, and some pork, with some potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and lettuce thrown in. At the farmers market in the main town Neiafu you get a large basket of coconuts for $7 paangas ($1 paanga roughly equals 60 US cents), and a bunch of bananas or a pile of pineapples for $3 paangas.
Farmers market in Neiafu:
This is what we were using for snacks while sailing. Our regular afternoon after diving and snorkeling snack consisted of New Zealand cheese, salami, and crackers with bananas and pineapple slices, and a drink of an unripe coconut with a shot of rum poured in.
For breakfasts, I made simple omelets with bacon and cheese for those who were hungry in the morning; those who were not subsided on instant porridge, bananas, Turkish coffee and green tea.
Our divers and fishing lines proved to be useless in the South seas: the fish shied away from the divers, and it never got the lure. I had to go fishing at the farmers market. Fortunately, the local fishermen they sell them (cheap) at the farmers market: spiny lobsters, barracuda, Pacific snapper, grouper, parrot fish, jacks, etc., come in fresh every morning. We grilled the snapper and trevally on board on our gas grill, and I pan-fried parrot fish fillets with fresh coconut flakes – all delicious, accompanied with a rice and vegetable pilaf, green salad, or boiled potatoes.
Cutting up a trevally:
The highlight of the island cuisine is ota ika – raw fish – bite-size pieces of firm white fish, marinated with lemon juice, coconut cream, and vegetables, served with potato fries. This is addictive! Their fish soup is also coconut-based and delicious.
Fish coconut soup:
Back to New Zealand, it was a completely different food experience. The country’s main feature is rolling green hills, where they raise sheep, cows, and deer. New Zealand lamb feeds the world, but it tastes the best in New Zealand in spring. Beef and venison are fresh and tender. Even in the most touristy places you get a tender cut of meat, cooked to perfection and plated beautifully.
Rack of lamb:
Venison cooked on a hot stone:
Fish and seafood:
In Auckland, fish and seafood are great, and they do mind the presentation.
Street sushi is a Southrn Hermispere exotic, and, surprisingly, they are edible, and tasty.
Breakfasts and snacks:
Our captain’s birthday falls on December, 1st. The International Date Line is set up all crooked and twisted in the South Pacific, to make sure that all the island nations are on the same time and date. So, after celebrating our captain’s first ever summer birthday in Auckland by bar-hopping, we got on the plane to San Francisco on December, 2nd, and we flew into December, 1st and back into December 2nd, three more times. The turbulences didn’t allow for a proper celebration on the plane, but we held tight to our wine glasses, and we toasted every one of our captains birthdays in and out!
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Location:Kingdom of Tonga; New Zealand
These pot-stickers probably came to Siberia from China. Then they spread all over Russia, and became a favorite winter food. If the temperatures stay consistently below freezing for 3-4 month, you can invest into making a few hundreds pot-stickers, freeze them outside, put them in a bag, and hang it outside of the window, to be cooked as needed. They cook from frozen in about ten minutes. They are economical, easy to cook, and oh, so tasty! Shaping them is labor-intensive, but if you live in a region with freezing winters, or in a house with a large freezer, you only need to make them once a year.
In Siberia, they make pelmeni with all types of filling: mushrooms, potatoes, cabbage, grains, fish, meat, poultry, or any combinations. In Moscow, where I grew up, pelmeni are always filled with mixed meats, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and minced onion. The usual filling is half ground beef (not too lean) and half pork. Whenever we had venison, we would always mix ground venison into pelmeni filling (1/3 beef, 1/3 pork, 1/3 venison)
In my family, we would spend the afternoon before the New Years Eve making pelmeni. Mom made the filling, dad rolled out the dough, and we all shaped. The first hundred or so would go on our holiday table, the rest froze on all available surfaces out on the balcony, for winter dinners to come. We would put a whole peppercorn into one of the pot-stickers. The lucky recipient could make a wish that will come true in the new year.
In California, I like to make pelmeni for our Tahoe ski trips. After a day of skiing, they cook fast, and they taste great! Rolling out the dough is physically demanding. My dad (who is very good at it) being 9000 miles away and my boyfriend not being part of the culture, I replace them both with my pasta machine, on it’s thinnest, ravioli setting. I then cut out dough circles with a 3-inch round cutter. A glass with a thin edge, or a cut tin can can do fine. Pelmeni should be a little larger than ravioli, but smaller than most Chinese potstickers, about 2 inches across.
Serve pelmeni in beef stock with a little white wine vinegar, straight with butter and
a lot of fresh ground black pepper, with sour cream with minced garlic and scallion, or even with mayonnaise!
Makes about 200, serves 10-12
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
for the filling:
1.5 pound mixed ground meats (3/4 pound beef and 3/4 pound pork; or 1/2 pound beef, 1/2 pound pork, 1/2 pound venison)
1 large onion, minced
1 tsp salt
1 (generous) tsp fresh ground black pepper
Make the dough: sift flour into a large bowl. Mix in salt. Make a well in the center. Pour egg and water in. Mix, gradually incorporating the flour from the sides, to make very stiff dough, knead. At first it will look like it’s too dry and not coming together. Do not despair, keep kneading. If after five minutes of kneading it’s still not coming together, add a few drops of water, repeat (you can skip the gym that day). Cover with plastic, let rest 30 minutes.
Make the filling: combine ground meats, onion, season with salt and pepper, mix well.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough as thin as possible, using a rolling pin and a lot of elbow grease, of a pasta machine. Cut out 3-inch circles. Put together the leftovers, and roll out again.
Place about 1/2 tsp of filling in the center of each circle. Pinch the edges together tight. Connect the corners to make a neat ring. Place on a floured plate or cutting board. Repeat 199 times, or so. Freeze. Put in ziplock bags, keep in the freezer for up to 6 month.
To cook: in a large pan bring water to boil over high heat. Add frozen pelmeni, bring back to boil. Reduce heat to medium, cook until pelmeni float to the surface, 5-10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.
- sour cream and black pepper
- sour cream + minced garlic + minced parsley or scallion
- white wine vinegar and fresh ground black pepper
- beef stock + dash of white wine vinegar
- melted butter + a lot of fresh ground black pepper
- 1 cup sour cream blended with 1 cooked carrot and 2 minced garlic cloves
- (I didn’t say this) mayonnaise
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1 oz dried porcini mushrooms
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 leeks, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
1 parsley root, chopped
1 shallot, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
8 oz white mushrooms, chopped
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 qt chicken stock
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
4 juniper berries, lightly crushed
salt, freshly ground pepper
To serve, optional: creme fraiche, minced parsley, fried shallot.
Cover dried mushrooms with hot water and soak until soft, 15-30 minutes, depending on the quality of the mushrooms. Remove mushrooms, squeeze dry, and chop, reserving the liquid. Strain liquid through a fine mesh strainer.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil and butter in a large saute pan. Add leeks, carrots, parsley root, shallot and garlic. Sweat over medium-low heat until soft but not browning, 10-15 minutes. Add porcini and white mushrooms, cook another 10 minutes. Add mushroom soaking liquid, sherry, chicken stock, thyme, bay leaves, juniper berries, and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer gently over low heat for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked.
Remove and discard thyme, bay, and juniper berries. Puree soup in blender to desired texture. I like to leave the soup a little chunky. When pureeing hot soup, work in batches, and hold the lid down firmly with a towel, to make sure that the steam doesn’t force the lid off and the hot liquid all over the kitchen and the cook (been there, done this). Pour into a pan and re-heat gently.
Serve in soup bowls, garnished with creme fraiche, parsley, and/or fried shallot.
More details and pictures in my personal foodie blog, “…and then we eat”.