Holiday Test Kitchen 2009

What would you give for a great island cookbook? Our staff puts local chefs’ recipes to the test.


Story by  Shannon Wianecki | Photography by  Nina Lee

Early one Monday morning, several plucky staffers from Maui No Ka ‘Oi magazine gathered to work at our publisher’s house. Instead of firing up our laptops, we tied on aprons. A few of us even strapped on pearls a la Julia Child. Inspired by the recent film about America’s most influential cookbook author, we dug into a stack of new cookbooks written by top Hawai‘i chefs.

Our mission: Determine which of these cookbooks will make the tastiest holiday gifts—and why.

Our team: Publisher Diane Haynes Woodburn, a magnanimous hostess who volunteered her spacious kitchen, bountiful garden, and consummate baking skills; Alix Buchter, MNKO’s new-media maven, whose previous restaurant experience earned her the sous chef role for the day; art director Ceci Fernández Romero and staff photographer Nina Lee, who doubled as stylists and prep cooks; and me, a food writer far more practiced with a fork than a butcher knife.

Our first discovery: Even with chefs’ recipes in hand, creating restaurant-style cuisine is no easy feat. Home cooks must make do without a commercial kitchen’s equipment and gourmet pantry. While hitting my fifth store in search of masago (smelt roe), I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew with this assignment. No wonder I eat out—cooking is a full-time job! Finally, having gathered our ingredients and our courage, we launched MNKO’s Test Kitchen, putting the recipes and ourselves to the test with decidedly delicious results.

sushi chef kitchen mauiD.K.’s Sushi Chronicles from Hawai‘i

Sushi Rice & the Sansei Special Roll

Since rice has near-religious importance in most Hawai‘i households, our adventure began with D.K. Kodama’s Sushi Chronicles. Kodama, the mastermind behind the Sansei sushi-bar empire, shares his recipe for shari-su, the seasoning that elevates ordinary rice into sushi rice. Just a few tablespoons of rice vinegar, sugar, salt, and kombu (kelp), and, viola! Perfection is guaranteed. In fact, if your rice doesn’t turn out perfectly, Kodama says use it for fried rice, or “I’m afraid you’ll have to throw it away.” Now that’s a standard to be reckoned with.

After steaming our rice and letting it cool, we mixed in the shari-su (a little goes a long way), and conducted our first taste test. Success! Shari-su activates all four tastes—sweet, salty, sour and bitter—making it a perfect canvas for sushi. Next we tackled the Sansei Special Roll: a combo of crab, masago, sambal (Indonesian chili paste), furikake (a dry rice condiment), avocado, cucumber, and rice, wrapped in nori (seaweed). I appreciated Kodama’s tip to use Japanese cucumber, ideal for sushi since it doesn’t have the regular variety’s wet seeds. “Lining the bamboo mat with plastic wrap makes all the difference,” said Diane, proudly displaying her first “inside-out” roll, with the rice on the outside.

Results: Kodama’s detailed instructions make creating this ultimate island snack a cinch. We loved making the fancy rolls, and ate them as fast as we could sprinkle on the furikake. Kodama’s attractive book, re-released in soft cover, makes a great gift—especially when paired with a few hard-to-find ingredients, such as wasabi or furikake. The chapter detailing sauces and shikomi (preparation) alone is worth the price. The miso marinade and lobster butter will transform a dabbler into a pro—or at least someone who can disguise her mistakes with some seriously tasty sauce.

Get the Sansei special roll recipe here.


Mala Ocean Tavern cookbookMala Ocean Tavern Cookbook

Spicy Sugar Snap Peas

I love the spicy sugar snap peas served at Mala Ocean Tavern, so I was thrilled to find the recipe in Ellman’s cookbook. The supermarket’s snap peas were tired and limp, so we substituted bright green beans from Diane’s garden. Chef Ellman, a fan of Indonesian cuisine, kicks up the heat in this recipe with a spoonful of sambal and fresh ginger. Alix wowed us with her skillet skills, sending the beans airborne and catching them again in the pan.

Results: This delicious dish is a snap—uncomplicated, nutritious, and tasty. The Mala Ocean Tavern Cookbook is filled with solid, highly useful recipes. The creamy edamame puree, for example, is perfect for taking to a party at a moment’s notice. The book itself is a small, rather flimsy paperback. While not coffee-table quality, it’s a dynamite stocking stuffer when paired with a gift certificate for dinner at Mala.

Get the spicy sugar snap peas recipe here.


Family-Style Meals at the Hali‘imaile General Store

‘Opakapaka with Saffron-crab Cream Sauce and Purple Sweet Potatoes

This colorful snapper dish captured our attention from step one. Making soup stock from scratch for the first time, I faced a conundrum: no fish head! I could only find a few ‘opakapaka fillets, no whole fish. So I bought a cheaper, frozen fish, thawed and cleaned it, and—letting my inner Queen of Hearts revel—whacked off its head. I arranged the dismembered fish on a roasting pan and tossed in the crab-leg shells for company—er, added flavor. After browning the carcass sufficiently, I simmered it in a big stockpot with leek, onion, and carrot. The house filled with an irresistible aroma.

Channeling Julia Child, I sautéed butter and shallots in the stock, added white wine, reduced it to a tablespoon, added cream and reduced again. Though I reduced and reduced, the sauce never got as thick as in the cookbook’s photo, nor as brightly yellow after I added the saffron and crab. We blamed our elevation: 3,800 feet up the slopes of Haleakala.

Gannon pairs the dish with Moloka‘i sweet potatoes—a delightful, dark-purple complement to the saffron sauce. Following instructions, we boiled our potatoes, which then required a ricer—a tool I’d never even heard of. Diane  magically produced one, and we mashed the spuds into uniform smoothness.

Results: The lightly seared snapper fillets were outstanding. No one could get enough of the sumptuous saffron-crab cream sauce, which we also spooned over our potatoes. In general, Gannon’s recipes incorporate heavy creams and complex sauces and require considerable prep time. Her upscale comfort food runs the gamut from Tex-Mex to Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine. The cookbook is gorgeous, illustrated cover to cover with photos detailing the delicious side of Maui. It’s a great gift for mainlanders, since most of its recipes can be made with ingredients found anywhere.

Get the ‘opakapaka with saffron-crab cream sauce recipe here.


TasteofMaui-medTaste of Maui

Pork Tenderloin with Granny Smith Apple Compote

Maui Culinary Academy’s faculty and illustrious alumni produced a fine cookbook last September. Its island-inspired dishes span many cultures. We opted to test a staple: seared pork tenderloin.

With two ovens and four burners firing, and five cookbooks passing among ten hands, we were evoking Julia at her zaniest. In the heat of the action, I almost missed my cue to marinate the tenderloin. I lovingly wrapped three-inch medallions in thick-cut bacon strips, feeling very chef-like. While they chilled, in a moment of inspired improvisation, we added roasted Maui Gold pineapple chunks to the apple compote—a nice companion to the pork’s saltiness. The recipe said to scrape vanilla bean skins over the fruit before baking, but I’d neglected to buy vanilla beans. Mercifully, Diane’s neighbor stopped by and volunteered to ransack her spice rack.

Results: Alix really showed her chops this time, searing the medallions expertly. The bacon kept the pork tender and moist. The compote didn’t thicken as it should have (again, was it the altitude?), but the flavor was superb. The Academy’s cookbook offers the straightforward instruction you’d expect from this well-regarded school. Spiral-bound for easy use, it’s a great culinary resource for island and mainland cooks—though the tropical fruits used throughout might be challenging for some to source. Pair this with a quality chef’s knife and apron for a lovely gift.

Get the pork tenderloin recipe here.


The Hali‘imaile General Store Cookbook

Lilikoi Bars

I had an abundance of ripe lilikoi (passion fruit), thanks to a backyard vine, so I sought out a dessert to highlight the sweet, tart fruit. I found one in Gannon’s first book, The Hali‘imaile General Store Cookbook: a recipe for lilikoi bars contributed by Teresa Shurilla, Maui Culinary Academy instructor and former Hali‘imaile General Store pastry chef.

Desserts, we learned, often require more preparation than main courses. Not one of the five cookbooks we consulted included estimated prep times. While I’d written a schedule for the day, I underestimated. If Ceci and Nina hadn’t jumped in to help scrub pans, our planned lunch might’ve become a midnight snack! Timing may be what separates the amateurs from the celebrities in the kitchen, but we had camaraderie on our side.

The pastry dough needed to refrigerate for hours before being par baked and refrigerated again, so we had mixed it first thing that morning. Later, while Alix and I sautéed green beans and marinated pork, Diane juiced, strained, and blended the passion fruit with simple syrup. “Heaven smells like lilikoi,” Nina observed, as Diane poured the aromatic, golden filling into its ready pastry shell.

Results: We had our doubts that the bars would cool in time for our feast, but they did, firming up nicely in the baking dish. Diane, a lilikoi aficionado, thought the dough and filling were a tad too sweet, slightly masking the fruit’s jubilant flavor. I agreed; though it’s a definitely recipe I’ll make again, with less sugar. Gannon’s first cookbook, like its successor, is beautifully illustrated. Recipes detail dishes served at Hali‘imaile General Store—a treat for out-of-towners who can’t dine at the restaurant as often as they’d like. (Though don’t expect to find the famous crab-dip recipe; Gannon doesn’t disclose it.)

Get the lilikoi bar recipe here.


Our crew’s lunch turned into an early supper; we didn’t sit down until three. Before we got too cranky, Alix whipped up some daiquiris with the remaining lilikoi juice from a Bev Gannon recipe for lilikoi bars. Wow. Of the day’s many delicious experiments, these improvised libations stood out. “They were made with love,” explained Alix. Ah, love . . . that’s the ingredient that gives home cooks an edge over the professionals.

Get Alix’s lilikoi daiquiri recipe here.


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