Holiday Test Kitchen 2018: Buono Festa!

Italian: Perfetto. English translation: Perfect. Flawless. Complete.

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Drain short ribs and pat dry before searing. Skim coagulated proteins from the hot marinade, pour the marinade reduction over the pan-seared ribs . . . and cook them two or three tantalizing hours before checking for tenderness. Lynn and Cathy remove the stringy, fine roots from baby carrots. Blanched carrots sauté in butter and a touch of sugar. Baked polenta is dappled with browned butter and Parmesan cheese.

The pomodoro simmers on the stove with meltingly tender shallots and garlic, large beefsteaks tomatoes cut into cubes, whole yellow and red cherry tomatoes (locally sourced), all yielding a delicious sauce that’s fresh and sweet. Roger says, “I like using cherry tomatoes because they hold their shape, while the large tomatoes cook down and thicken the sauce. All it needs is a little basil, salt, pepper and it’s done.”

Meanwhile, Diane is on her tippy toes, struggling to roll out the squid-ink pasta. Roger laughs and says, “Who needs the gym when you can roll pasta, huh?” Diane answers, “My counters at home are made for my height, and I’m a little over five feet. This counter is made for tall people,” she adds, glancing at Sharon, who says, “We designed our home with an architect friend, Eric Henderson, who we’ve cooked with many times. It made designing easy.”

As a chef and former restaurant owner, I’ve been discreetly checking out the Saunders’ kitchen layout. “I love the butler service area,” I say, “and the ovens there,” motioning to the hallway/pass-through attached to, but separate from, the central kitchen. Sharon says, “The oven’s heat gets vented out to keep the main kitchen cooler.” I ask whether she and Joe like to cook, and Sharon grins, telling me that for her thirteenth birthday, her parents gave her a timecard. “My family owned a restaurant in Bensenville, Illinois, serving diners from 1920 to 1998. So, yes, we love to cook. Joe’s love is his wine cellar.” Now it’s Joe’s turn to grin.

Their love for food extends to their philanthropy. For the past four years, they’ve been major donors to the American Heart Association’s “Kids Cook with Heart” at Princess Nahienaena Elementary School, Lahaina Intermediate, and Lahainaluna High School. The program’s goal is to educate and instill in our keiki the importance of healthy eating. The Saunders hope to see the program go countywide.

Chef announces that vitello tonnato sauce is next on the agenda. Egg yolks, lemon juice, tuna and olive oil go into the Magic Bullet and a sauce magically appears. I sneak a taste and it is creamy and soft, yet lively with lemon. Nearby sits a jar of capers; I give them a nibble, too. “Those capers are so yummy!”

“I wash the brine off, dry them well and fry them,” says Roger. “We’ll use them to garnish the vitello tonnato.” Oops! I stop nibbling.

Lynn, Cathy, and Diane circle a bag of Aina Lani Farm’s colorful baby carrots, and begin cleaning them. “Are you going to peel them?” I ask. “No,” says Lynn, “we just wipe off the little hairs and cut the root end.” Whew! All this food is making me hungry. Thirty more minutes of peeling carrots would be torture!

With our holiday dinner ready, mise en place set for the à la minute zabaglione and figs, and Joe’s wonderful wine pairings selected, we sit and enjoy the fruits of our labor. “Buon Natale!” says Roger as we raise our celebratory glasses of wine.


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