Author Archives: Dana

Cacao tree with purple and red pods

Chocolate in Hawaii – 21 Degrees Estate and Manoa

What’s your vintage?

Ah, the question that I get to ask myself, what is my favorite vintage?  I’m not talking about wine or cheese or even coffee.  No, I’m referring to chocolate, the delectable concoction that is a gift from Quetzalcoatl and the fruit of Mesoamerican culture.  

Originally used as currency and eaten as seeds, chocolate has evolved into a confection that touches nearly every diet.  Some of us only imbibe on the good stuff to celebrate, whereas others, to include myself, need it daily for a mental and morale boost.  The kids are screaming? A bit of chocolate is the answer.  The car battery died? Chocolate will definitely help.  The day was fantastic and you just want to wind down before bed? Chocolate can help you do that. 

It turns out that Hawaii is the northernmost region where cacao trees will grow, or more specifically, where cacao trees will produce cocoa pods.  They will not grow north of 21 degrees latitude in the northern hemisphere nor south of 21 degrees in the southern hemisphere.  Luckily, I live exactly at the 21st parallel and can skip down to my local cacao farm for a nibble, a tour, or a harvest at will. 

Cacao farming in Hawaii has taken off, and visiting 21 Degrees Estate is a treat.  Nestled in the Kahalu’u Valley and snuggled up to the Ko’olau Mountains, 21 Degrees Estate enjoys the tropical rainforest climate that allows it to grow 650 cacao trees among other tropical plants and fruits as well as raise bees and goats on ten acres of land. When you arrive Buddy, Lilikoi, Wilbur, and Orville  – the primary weed management technicians – greet you with curious bleating and a desire for ear scratches and treats.   If the goats had their way they’d eat cacao leaves all day and in fact there’s a sacrificial tree there for that purpose.  But alas, Mike Rodgers and Maria Carl-Rodgers grow the cacao for bipeds and I am eternally grateful. 

Requiring partial sun and good drainage, cocoa trees grow pods nearly year round.  Cacao trees and pods are cauliflory; they grow from flowers which emerge from the trunk and primary branches of the tree instead of new growth and shoots.  This allows animals that can’t climb or fly to reach the pods, open them, and propagate the seeds.  Each pod takes 7-8 months to grow, however they grow and ripen independently of each other, which means that they’re harvested every two weeks.  Harvesting pods at the peak of their maturity takes insight and knowledge about the individual tree because if the beans are harvested too early their sugars will not have developed enough, but if the harvest is too late the seeds will have sprouted inside the pod making it useless for chocolate production.  The window of peak maturity is the matter of about a week.  Each tree has different colored pods that change their hue when they’re ready to be cut.  The harvester needs to know the trees well because a yellow pod on one tree might mean its ready for harvest, whereas on another tree means it has some maturing to do.   The trees themselves are the criollo variety at 21 Degrees Estate but are mostly a mix of various parentages and thus making each tree’s pods truly unique.

Each pod weighs roughly one pound, a quarter of which is the weight of the wet cacao seeds.  Those are the wet with their fruity pre-fermented pulp.  The pulp ferments for roughly ten days here.  It varies by region because overnight temperature is crucial to fermentation and colder temperatures mean that fermentation takes longer.  After fermentation they’re dried and more acetic acid is given off and sugars are concentrated.  They are dried for two weeks and then gauged for quality. 

It typically takes two pods to produce one almost 2 ounce bar of chocolate (it’s actually 50 grams, which is 1.76 ounces).  Are you now seeing why quality chocolate is so costly?  The chocolate makers look for uniform size, no unpleasant scent – it should smell mildly vinegary, and no mold growing.  It’s apparent when the beans have either had a bad fermentation, were left to rot, or were fermented in less than ideal conditions – such as on the ground near a dusty dirty road, which happens frequently in other locations.  After that they’re tasted and assessed for three qualities: bitterness, astringency, and acidity.  While acidity can be nice, bitterness and astringency need to be managed because they make it difficult to roast and can leave the mouth panting for water.  Each quality can be tempered or intensified during the roasting process with higher temperatures and longer roasting times bringing out different qualities while sending others into the background.

Post roasting, the beans are then winnowed; the shells are separated from the nib center.  The shells are used for chocolate tea.  They are brewed and steeped like a traditional tisane producing a chocolate scented tea that is light, restorative, and full of polyphenols.  Nibs are collected to then be ground into chocolate and mixed with sugar and other ingredients. 

In a manner similar to making peanut butter, cocoa nibs are ground for days, depending on the machine, until they have a smooth consistency.  First, nibs are ground on their own and then heated while being ground and they go from solid nibs to liquid coco liquor.  The process of melanging, conching, and grinding refines the chocolate.  Conching ensures that the cocoa butter within the beans enrobes the cocoa powder is equally distributed.  The Hawaiian chocolate makers, Manoa, ultimately aim for particles between 14-20 microns for their chocolate.  This is also the step where sugar and cocoa butter are added.  When you add sugar to the newly liquid chocolate is very important, because sugar locks in certain characteristics of the chocolate.  Sugar volatilizes acetic acid and adding it early on will lock in various flavors whereas waiting until later in the grinding process will let those flavors mellow.  It is part of the process that is at the judgment of the chocolatier and will vary from season to season and with each batch of beans.  It is during grinding that produces (or not) a smooth, silky texture for the finished bar with the chocolate maker scraping down the sides consistently as well as sieving any nib that didn’t get fully ground.  Cocoa butter is added in this phase at the chocolatier’s discretion, as it’s a matter of preference.   Different chocolatiers add varying amounts of cocoa butter which on the one hand can make the flavor more pronounced, however too much impedes the distinct flavor profile and too little can leave a bitter nibby flavor.  As Manoa chocolatier Dylan Butterbaugh likes to say, cocoa butter is the melt in your mouth, the cocoa powder is the flavor.  During the tempering phase the cocoa butter structures are aligned and brought close together so that they bring out the cacao powder flavors as well as produce a smooth texture instead of a gritty one.  Tempering also affects taste because if chocolate isn’t properly tempered the fat separates from the solids making the chocolate taste “off” and out of balance.  Blooming has more to do with temperature fluctuation than age.  Well tempered chocolate should snap when broken, not bend, and when you look inside the particles are close together and indistinguishable versus gritty and where the fat has bloomed.

It’s a mark of a talented craft chocolatier to bring out the special and particular nuances in each variety and each harvest of chocolate whereas mass produced chocolate companies aim for a consistent one note product.  Deciding which and if there should be any inclusions in the chocolate is another art form.  Inclusions being: milk, salt, spices, or flowers.  Milk chocolate is chocolate with an inclusion of milk.  The better the chocolate, the fewer the inclusions.  At 21 Degrees Estate Maria guides everyone on a chocolate tasting and highlights how each harvest and therefore batch of chocolate varies in taste.  Some of the chocolate varieties we tasted had backnotes of banana (Spring 2018) while others were more floral and bourbon-y (Fall 2018).    

Chocolate should be tasted at 65-74 degrees Fahrenheit so that the chocolate will melt in your mouth properly and the fat won’t be too hard.  In fact it’s not recommended to ever eat frozen chocolate (for tasting) since it alters the crystalline structure because the fat is frozen and thereby compromises the taste.   Only liquids can enter the holes in your taste buds, otherwise known as papillae, which is likely why chocolatiers advise having a sip of room temperature water before and in between tastings.  A bite of chocolate should glide gently across the palate, coating it fully. It’s not a race to the end, but a bite to savor as long as possible. Only then can you pick up on the undertones in the bars and the differences them.

A less common treat are the seeds themselves. The seeds, which I could snack on all day are coated in a white mucilaginous substance has a fruity sweetness and encases the crunchy nibby bitter center.  Unfortunately, I have to contain myself with the seeds lest I eat too many and deprive the chocolatiers of turning them into chocolate and selling it to me.   It would be a shame.

However, the seeds are sometimes turned not into chocolate, but into a drink.  I love the fermented bean drink just as much as I do chocolate.  It is a true pick me up and I find it sweet and fruity.   Manoa offers it in their factory, and they’ve promised to help me find some pulp for home use.

All in all, 21 Degrees Estate and Manoa Chocolate are my favorite culinary treasures in Hawaii.  In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d find myself on a cacao farm or getting to walk – walk – to a chocolatier to see how its produced and ask endless questions and have endless tastings.  Manoa is not just a bean to bar chocolate, it’s a farm and farmer to bean to bar; they’re able to take it one step (a very large step) further than chocolate makers on the mainland and elsewhere.  Both 21 Degrees Estate and Manoa, their expertise and kindness is something I shall always treasure.  And it’s a great souvenir to bring back in my heart when we move away.

Smoked Chicken with Alabama White Sauce and Pickles

Smoked Chicken with Alabama White Sauce

I first had smoked chicken with white sauce in Alabama about four years ago.  Of course I sneered at it.  Smoked? Chicken?  No no no, you smoke pork!  White barbecue sauce, a combination of vinegar and mayonnaise… how disgusting!  It never ever fails that when I have closed minded thoughts like these I’m proven all sorts of wrong.  It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.  I had a bit of the snob knocked right out of me when I ate in Alabama. 

To begin with, smoking poultry is magical.  The meat obviously becomes smoky and enticing, but it also resonates with the beautiful dry rub seasoning and becomes sweeter.  In fact, to this day, my favorite Thanksgiving turkey was a smoked turkey breast we bought from a local Alabama restaurant.  I replicated that this past Thanksgiving and will write that up at some point because I intend to do it again and again. But, what I’m trying to convey is that smoked poultry is fantastic. 

Furthermore, dunking your chicken in tangy peppery white sauce is perfection.  They’re made for each other and I now understand why it’s so famous.

The only “trick” to doing this is making sure you allow yourself enough time.  It’s a two day process because you first brine the chicken and then smoke it.   And while it’s altogether easy, the process can be intimidating the first time around. 

To smoke the chicken I turned my basic grill into a smoker.  I “snaked” charcoal briquettes along one side in three layers to create one side that will remain hot and allow for indirect heat (and smoke) to cook the chicken on the other side.  The briquettes are topped with soaked wood chips, hickory in my case.  You start 8-10 briquettes in a charcoal chimney, if you don’t have one you start them on the opposite side of the charcoal snake.  Once they’re smoldering you transfer them to one end of the “snake” so that they start those briquettes smoking and then it becomes a chain effect and the longer the “snake” the longer you’ll be able to smoke your chicken. 

Smoked Chicken

Adapted from Feeding the Fire

For the chicken

1 chicken (about 4 lbs)

1 pot full of water

1 cup dry rub

Dry Rub

3/4 cup packed dark sugar

1/2 cup salt

1/2 cup espresso powder (ground espresso beans)

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

Alabama White BBQ Sauce

1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar + 2 tablespoons

2 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoon brown mustard

juice of 1/2 lemon

1 teaspoon grated horseradish

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2- 3/4 teaspoon black pepper

Bring a stock pot of water up to a boil and add in the cup of dry rub to dissolve.  Once the brine is cool, transfer it if needed to a container that will fit in the refrigerator, and add in the chicken and let brine for 4-8 hours in the fridge.   After the chicken has brined, pat the chicken dry and let it sit in the fridge for 6 hours to dry out.  Discard the brine.

Using the snake technique described above, preheat the grill/smoker to 275-350 degrees.  Add the chicken to the grill and smoke covered for 3-5 hours.  Mine took 4. 

Mix all the ingredients for the white sauce together.  Stir well.  Adjust with more pepper or vinegar as you prefer, but remember you’re going for a bit of a bite.  Taste with the smoked chicken (if possible) before altering. 

This is great served with white bread or cornbread, coleslaw if you have it, pickles for sure, and salad fixings. 

Peach and Mozzarella Salad

Peach and Mozzarella Salad

Oh how I like salads like these, a few ingredients, minimally prepped, coming together to make something more than the sum of its parts.  I can’t begin to describe how much I love light summery foods that don’t require me to expend a lot of energy, yet are delicious, filling, and satisfying. 

Our house here has no air conditioning and by 10 am I no longer want to move.  I literally take cold baths to cool down. … but I still have no issues making this salad.  Its almost peach season again and I wanted to make sure I shared this recipe before I let it lapse through another season.  I implore you to make this once the stone fruits come around again. 

In this salad the creamy mozzarella compliments sweet soft peaches and bursts of lemon.  This is fantastic to make just as a dinner for yourself, hem hem.  Or it’s lovely as a starter to make for company.  I definitely lump this into company food category, but, as I’ve mentioned, it’s not too fussy!  So, gather your friends around, have that BBQ, and make this salad beforehand. 

You do use the lemon peel here, so unsprayed and unwaxed lemons are best; if you can’t find any rinse them with some vinegar and water to scrub off the wax.  Also, I prefer the smaller basil leaves for their concentrated flavor and softer texture. I substituted burrata for buffalo mozzarella because the stores were out. I’m glad they were, it’s fantastic!

Peach and Mozzarella Salad

Adapted from Borough Market


2 large unsprayed lemons

3/4 cup olive oil

4-6 fairly ripe peaches, depending on size

2 balls buffalo mozzarella

8 sprigs of basil

In a small frying pan heat the olive oil on medium-high heat.  While that is warming up, peel the zest from the lemons; remove any of the bitter pith still attached.  Cut the zest into thin strips.

Place a paper towel lined plate near the stove.  Once the oil is hot, add the zest for about 30 seconds.  You’re looking for the zest to curl, color, and crisp up.  Scoop and drain on the paper towel lined plate.  Allow the oil to cool.  Once cooled, juice the lemons, about 4 tablespoons, into the oil.  Add in some salt and whisk all together. 

Slice up the peaches, dividing them among plates if you’re sharing.  Sprinkle the peaches with the lemon juice and olive oil, then tear up the mozzarella (if using burrata) or cut up nicely and cleanly if you want to be more prim about it.  Spoon more dressing over the mozzarella and sprinkle with the lemon zest and basil.  Enjoy!

watermelon and feta salad

Watermelon and Feta Salad

Watermelon and Feta Salad with mint and a lemon juice and olive oil dressing

This recipe has been in my files for a while now, however I’ve yet to write it up.  I don’t want another summer to go by without mentioning that this is one of my favorite summer salads and that it pleases everyone in the house. 

Watermelon and Feta Salad is an oldie but a goodie.  It’s classic for a reason.  My favorite rendition here strictly tosses watermelon, feta, and mint in a lemon and olive oil vinaigrette.  That said, there are versions that have olives for a fruity, salty kick or jeweled pomegranate seeds for a a nice pop of flavor. Feel free to add either of those in (but not at the same time). I will say the pomegranate goes better with a lime-olive oil dressing rather than lemon, but truly both work gorgeously.

This is absolutely perfect to bring to a BBQ. It’s a crowd pleaser, but I will say, make this the same day you want to serve it or at the very least hold off on adding in the feta. The salad doesn’t age well, in terms of looks, but will still be tasty. Eat within a few days.

Watermelon and Feta Salad

1 medium watermelon, cubed 

about 5 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

a half clamshell of mint, chopped

1/2 – 1 lemon

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

Peel and cube the watermelon, crumble up and add in the feta, add in the chopped mint.  Using a reamer, juice the lemon over the watermelon, feta, and mint.  Your looking for a good tablespoon of lemon juice here, I usually only need half a lemon, but if yours is stingy use the whole thing. Drizzle over the olive oil.  Toss everything together to mix well.  Eat with gusto. 

Fennel and Sausage Stuffing with bacon, wine, and good things

Fennel and Sausage Stuffing

Fennel and Sausage Stuffing with bacon, wine, and good things

I wasn’t going to post this, but I feel like I owe it to you.  This is the best stuffing I’ve ever eaten.  It’s the one I’ve been making for years, but this year it tasted especially good.  Was it the wine?  Was it my technique?  Doubtful.  It’s just a good recipe.  I follow it, don’t alter it…..

Simply put this is fantastic.  This is the stuffing you want to eat on the holidays, it will make you weep because it’s that good and because you’ve been making lesser versions all your life.  There’s no breakfast sausage, no sage, no apples, no greens, no dried fruit.  Thank goodness!  There’s Italian sausage, bacon, and fennel.  The fennel mellows, so even my fennel-ly challenged husband enjoys this.  Yes, there’s both bacon and Italian sausage, but not so much that it’s overpowering.  It’s the kind of stuffing you want the next day and the day after.  Then you remember, it’s not exactly health food, so maybe it’s best to only make it for the holidays.  Yummy holidays. Continue reading

Kimchi Pancakes with rice and dipping sauce - Kimchijeon

Kimchijeon – Kimchi Pancakes

This is my new football food go-to.  Kimchi pancakes.  Salty and crunchy and entirely addictive.  These are best enjoyed with an ice cold beer, hence my labeling them football food.  They can be made in small pancakes, as I did here, or one large pancake.  I like the smaller size because they can be turned into appetizers or in my case a bar-type snack.   Continue reading

Venetian Ghetto Taglietelle with Chicken, Raisins, and Pinenuts

Venetian Ghetto Tagliatelle With Chicken – Lovely Remnants of a Birthday Dinner

Venetian Ghetto Taglietelle with Chicken, Raisins, and Pinenuts

The other night I roasted two chickens for my birthday dinner with the idea to have lots of chicken for leftovers.  I normally stick extra chicken in a quesadilla or taco – a dinner I happily return to again and again.  Rarely do I put chicken and pasta together.  Most of the time, it reminds me of “family style” restaurants who’s food is always too…. much….too much cream, too much sodium, too much everything but taste.  It’s a lot of bland calories.

However, I was watching some “old” Nigella on TV, an episode where she tore apart a roast chicken with her bare fingers – and somehow made that look alluring and delicious.  When I tear apart a chicken, which I do often, it’s a bit more of a cavewoman going at a carcass.  But when Nigella does anything…. well you know.  She’s Nigella!  And she was talking about a Claudia Roden recipe she swears by called Tagliatelle Frisinal.  The ingredients are minimal; the dish is simple.  You do, however, need to roast your own chicken.  This is crucial because all those delicious succulent juices comprise the sauce.  Truly, the pasta dish is out of this world. Continue reading

Slices of Angel Food Cake

Old Fashioned Chocolate Frosting For A Big Birthday

I had a birthday. A big one. The big 4-0. And I’m loving my new decade. I don’t feel older than I normally do. I’d say I don’t feel old, but my kids ensure I get no more than three hours of sleep a night…. so in that way, I feel oooold and tired. But, that’s it. I do feel wiser in a “screw what the world thinks” kind of way. Of course, I didn’t pay much mind before, but even less now. I already see myself turning into the batty old woman that others mutter about when they see me coming “Oh God, here comes Dana again. What’s that lunatic up to this time?” I love that feeling and I truly hope I’m the village nutter. Continue reading

Kimchi Fried Rice

Kimchi Fried Rice with Bacon Fried Egg

Kimchi Fried Rice

Have you ever had kimchi fried rice? For reasons unknown to me, I was hesitant to make this dish. I think it was because I thought I couldn’t work with fermented foods. I’ve eaten kimchi quite a few times before and loved it. In fact, banchan, the little dishes that accompany a Korean meal, are my favorite part of the meal. Plus, I would go so far as to say that kimchi is my favorite fermented food. But, could I handle working with fermented food?

As it turns out, yes! Kimchi doesn’t bite and kimchi fried rice is amazing and easy. Oh so easy. I worked up the “courage” because kimchi is sold at my farmers market as is kimchi fried rice. So, I not only had tried their kimchi before, but I tasted the complete dish. It gave my confidence a boost. Plus, the vendors are encouraging and helpful.  I can’t wait to tell them about this success.   Continue reading

Mango and Hearts of Palm Salad with Lime Vinaigrette

Mango and Hearts of Palm Salad with Lime Vinaigrette

Mango and Fresh Hearts of Palm

In an effort to eat more locally….I’m doing ok!…. I made a salad with mango, hearts of palm, lime…. all local. I normally don’t buy my lettuce local but that’s another story. This was a great tropical salad.  Easy and nice to compliment a midweek dinner. It’s husband approved (surprisingly!)  Continue reading