Before I visited Maui the first time, a friend warned me about the food prices on the island. “If you have to have cereal,” she warned me, “pack your own.”
I remember seeing the cost of such items and I was glad that cereal is just one of the many foods I can live without. If it comes in a box, it most often doesn’t get a second glance from me.
But I can’t live without fresh fruits and vegetables as well as fresh meats and seafood. If your idea of grocery shopping is only about a trip to the local supermarket, then you may be in for the same sticker shock that my friend talked about. Limes were $1 apiece at one grocery store near the place I’m staying. Carrots were close to $3 for a small cellophane bag. Lettuces were out of reach.
On my first night, I arrived after most of the restaurants were closed and I was starving, but I didn’t want or couldn’t afford much of anything, so I ended up with a Maui onion, some celery and a carton of eggs. Scrambled eggs always work in a fix.
The next day, Costco beckoned and I loaded up on cheese, raspberries and wine, all of which can be truly expensive elsewhere. The store is located less than a mile from the airport, so you can make an easy pit-stop after your arrival. It also specializes in the freshest local fish you could want. I cooked up a meaty ono fillet one evening after marinating it in local spices.
Alongside the fish was organic kale that I found in an upcountry grocery store and trinket shop. Behind the souvenirs and postcards was a display case filled with local clover sprouts (they weren’t from Europe, so I assumed they were safe) and just-picked zucchini. Nearby were tomatoes that had been harvested at the peak of ripeness.
After loading the car, we headed further into the country where we found a fresh fruit stand with an honor box at the side of the road. Lemons and limes were 25 cents apiece, so were tiny Mandarin oranges that were so aromatic I left the peel in the car as a pleasant reminder. A few rock hard avocados were there for 50 cents apiece. I have them in a brown paper bag and hope they ripen before we leave at the end of the week.
On the way back, we found a farmers market set up in a Kmart parking lot (just behind the Costco). Ripe fingerling bananas, tubers of all shapes and colors, exotic roots and more filled the stands, and I felt like a kid on Christmas morning sifting through everything there. Fresh pineapples, three for $5, were next to miniature organic watermelons. Litchi and mangosteen (at least I think that’s what the farmer called them), fresh dill and basil, butterleaf lettuces, carrots, Asian eggplants — I couldn’t believe my luck. The prices and the quality were much better than those touristy markets set up alongside the main drags where pineapples are priced at $7 apiece.
A chiffonade of Thai basil topped the tomato and slices of fresh mozzarella. Each ingredient was so good, so ripe and so flavorful that no olive oil, balsamic vinegar or salt was needed, though we had all three on the side.
The pineapple I picked was so ripe and golden that its fragrance perfumed the car. It proved the star of the evening. One slice was all that was needed for the perfect dessert. It was sweet, almost honeyed, yet it had enough acidity to offer balance. No canned or fresh pineapple on the mainland can ever come close. As my friend Carol said, “One has never had pineapple unless one has it in Hawaii.” If you’ve never been here, that may sound snobbish. Once you visit, you’ll understand how true her words are.
I threw the remainder of the pineapple in the blender to create a marinade for a pork roast, which was also seasoned with fresh ginger and garlic. Perfect with a ratatouille made from the zucchini, tomato, onion, red bell pepper and radishes.
One of the secrets of enjoying any trip you’re on is sampling as much local food as possible. The local food is always the best. That’s why it grows there in abundance. It’s really that simple. And thanks to the growth of farmers markets and independent vendors, more and more people, locals and tourists alike, are tasting the proof for themselves.
Zucchini, thinly sliced
Red bell pepper, diced
Radishes, diced (optional)
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
Fresh herbs, such as basil or thyme
The beauty of this dish is that you can make it to your tastes, using as much or as little of any ingredient as you choose.
Pour a tiny bit of oil in a pan and heat the onion and garlic together until slightly soft, 4-5 minutes. Empty the pan into a large pot.
Add a tiny bit more oil to the pan and soften the zucchini, about 5 minutes, depending on how much you use. Add that to the pot. Repeat the procedure with the radishes, if using, and red bell pepper. Last, warm the tomatoes slightly. Add to the pot and season with salt and pepper and thyme, if using. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are ready. Just before serving, stir in the basil, if using.
From John Griffin