5 Qs with Fighting Eel’s Rona Bennett

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I usually wear tank tops and pajama pants when I’m at work.

It’s the perk of working from home.

But if I need to leave the house — and it’s not to surf — I’m usually wearing something from Fighting Eel, a locally designed line that’s beachy chic, simple and uncomplicated but utterly stylish and well made.

IMG_2285And it just so happens one of the owners, Rona Bennett, is my high school classmate. (The other owner, Lan Chung, is my fashion idol. OK, her preschool-aged daughter is.)

The pair started Fighting Eel is 2003, keeping true to their fashion philosophy and commitment to running a successful clothing company from their hometown.

Their line — as well as its sister line, Ava Sky — have garnered loyal fans around the world, many who flock to their four retail stores on O‘ahu. Even Rachel McAdams and Emma Stone have stopped by its flagship boutique in downtown Honolulu for their fix.

“We make clothes that people can wear for a long time,” says Bennett. “You look good but not trendy. We also make everything comfortable so the pieces become your go-to favorites.”

Bennett and Chung just opened their latest boutique in Kahala Mall this month — much to the joy of East Honolulu shopaholics and fashionistas.

I took a moment to chat with my dear friend — you might remember her from my photos of Greece — to talk about the new store, her inspiration and what’s she obsessed with right now.

1. You already run three successful boutiques in downtown Honolulu, Kailua and Waikīkī. Why another one?

We heard a voice saying, “If you build it, they will come.” So far, so good.

2. What are your favorite items from your latest collection? And was there a design you didn’t think would do well but did?

From Fighting Eel, the Dress Brook in leopard. And from Ava Sky, Top Chi in black. As for a design that surprised us, it was the Dress Kenzie (from Fighting Eel). People still ask for it. Also, the crazy T-shirts from FE. I’m glad people ‘get’ us.

3. What can your fans look for in your next collection?

Fighting Eel is going to bring back colors. Pinks, blues, fun prints and nautical stripes. The summer collection comes out in May. Spring II comes out in March; that’s surf-inspired. Summer I is nautical.

4. Where do you get your inspiration?

Music. I put on headphones and work and a million ideas come to me.

5. What are you currently obsessed with — and it doesn’t have to be fashion-related?

I’m obsessed with yoga. I might want to be a yoga teacher/life coach on the weekends. I’m also really into Via Gelato’s cookies and cream gelato. I wish they would open up a location downtown.

Check out any of of Fighting Eel’s boutiques: Downtown (1133 Bethel St.), Kailua (629 Kailua Rd.), Waikīkī (Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, 2201 Kalākaua Ave.) and now at Kahala Mall. Follow both lines on Instagram @fightingeel and @avasky. And visit the shop online at www.fightingeel.com.

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#WeekendDish: Okinawan shoyu pork

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I posted a photo on Instagram of Okinawan shoyu pork I had made in my crock pot.

A friend of mine (rightfully) commented, “What makes it Okinawan?”

That’s a good question, one I couldn’t answer. I have no idea.

All I know is the dish — called rafute (pronounced ra-foo-teh-) — is part of the food landscape in Okinawa. It’s made with pork belly, stewed or braised in shoyu and brown sugar. It’s supposed to help with longevity. (Okinawans are believed to have the highest life expectancy in the world.)

The only connection I see between this dish and Okinawa is the pork, a mainstay in the country’s diet. Interestingly enough, up until the 19th century and the introduction of pork and goat to the island, people here used to avoid eating meat. Now, pork is so much a part of Okinawan cuisine, it’s often said that “Okinawan cooking begins with the pig and ends with the pig.”

When the Okinawans immigrated to Hawai‘i more than a century ago, they must have brought along this dish, too.

As easy as this dish is to make, I’ve never actually tried to cook it, mostly because I’m not fond of chopping up large chunks of meat. (I’m a lazy cook, what can I say.) But I wanted to whip up something for Super Bowl Sunday that was quick, easy and would go great with a bowl of white rice.

Okinawan shoyu pork it was!

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There are tons of recipes online, most with the same key ingredients. Some recipes called for miso, others required garlic, still others used sake over mirin. (I used both.)

Most cooks also recommended trimming the fat from the pork butt before cooking it. I decided to leave the fat on, figuring it would only make the dish that much tastier. (And I was right.)

I also used a crock pot instead of a pressure cooker — too high-maintenance — or on a stovetop. I like the idea of combining all of the ingredients, dumping them into a slow cooker, and going on about my day without having to tend to it.

It’s one of those crowd-pleaser dishes. You really can’t go wrong.

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Here’s the recipe:

Okinawan Shoyu Pork
In a crock pot or slow cooker

Ingredients:

3-5 pounds of pork butt, chopped into 2- to 3-inch pieces
1 c. shoyu
1 c. brown sugar
1-2 c. water
1/2 c. mirin (sweet rice wine)
1/4 c. cooking sake
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 T. ginger, minced or grated
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

In a small bowl combine the shoyu, mirin, sake, garlic, ginger, brown sugar and water. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and set aside.

Butcher down your pork into pieces and place them into the crock pot. Pour the sauce over them. Set the slow cooker on low, cooking for about six to seven hours. (The pork will turn a very dark brown, but the pieces should be fork tender.)

Serve over rice.

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5 Valentine’s Days ideas for the adventurer

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Valentine’s Day is coming up — and you all know it.

While I’m not big on over-the-top romance, I am a fan of Feb. 14. (Don’t believe me? Read last year’s blog on it.) And lucky for us, it lands on a Saturday. Which means, you’ve got a lot of options out there.

But if you’re planning to impress a woman who’d prefer to watch a sunset from the top of a mountain than at an oceanfront table, then I’ve got five ideas for you. (Anyway, most of the best restaurants are already booked on Saturday.)

Don’t wait. Plan now. And I’m giving you all the info, so no excuses!

1. Tour a farm

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There’s nothing cooler than a farm, especially one sells smoothies using ingredients grown just steps away.

That’s what you get when you take the Smoothie Tour at Kahuku Farms, just off Kamehameha Highway on the way to the North Shore.

You ride a tractor-pulled wagon through a 5-acre, scaled-down commercial farm with groves of apple banana trees, rows of pineapple, orchard of starfruit and liliko‘i fruit trees, and fields of eggplant. After this 20-minute educational tour — I’ll be honest, I learned something new about papaya and banana trees! — you head over to the quaint café that sells fresh fruit smoothies, grilled paninis and roasted vegetable soup using ingredients grown at the farm. (The Smoothie Tour comes with a fruit smoothie at the end.)

IMG_4324_2The café is a great place to buy something for your valentine. It sells caramel toppings, body lotions and an awesome liliko‘i balsamic salad dressing — all using ingredients from the farm. My pick, though, is the grilled banana bread topped with housemade ice cream (left). To die for.

Kahuku Farms, 56-800 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku, O‘ahu. Cost is $12 for adults for the Smoothie Tour, $10 for children ages 5 to 12, free for children 4 and under. Grand Tour costs more. Call 808-628-0639 or visit www.kahukufarms.com.)

2. Kayak to the Mokulua Islands

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Catching the sunrise from Moku Nui, the largest of the Mokulua Islands in Kailua, is a sight you won’t quickly forget.

So imagine if you’re there — with a bottle of champagne and your GoPro. Valentine’s in the bag!

I’d recommend launching from Lanikai Beach. It’s a much shorter — and more direct — route to the islands than if you’re departing from Kailua Beach. It will take about 30 minutes to get to the island, where you can land your kayak and explore.

The backside — and it’s not super safe, so wear protective footwear and be careful — features a protected cove where you can frolic. (Folks like to jump into the cove from the cliffs overhead. I wouldn’t do it, personally.) And you get a great view of the smaller of the two islands, Moku Iki, which is off-limits to the public. Both are state seabird sanctuaries.

DCIM999GOPRODon’t forget to bring snorkel gear, as this area is teeming with marine wildlife including reef fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles (left).

But go early. The water is calmer, conditions are better, and it’s far less crowded in the early hours. And you get to see the sunrise, too.

Rent a kayak from Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks, 130 Kailua Rd., Kailua, O‘ahu. It costs $59 for half a day for a single kayak, $60 for a double kayak. Call 808-262-2555.

3. Sleep in, eat brunch

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I’m a big fan of brunch.

And I would be your biggest fan, too, if you let me sleep in first.

So consider this option: Spend Friday night doing something fun and adventurous. Maybe hit the surf at sunset or spend the evening watching a “The Walking Dead” marathon.

Then get up and get brunch.

My recommendation: Scratch Kitchen & Bake Shop in Chinatown, where you can feast on breakfast items like stuffed French toast with strawberries, Nutella and whipped mascarpone (above); smothered biscuit sandwich with a housemade chorizo patty, jalapeño-cheddar eggs and smashed taters; or the popular “Milk & Cereal” pancakes with Frosted Flakes in the pancakes and sweetened milk in the syrup. And top that off with a kim chee Bloody Mary or Tang mimosa cocktail.

Hey, she deserves it!

Scratch Kitchen & Bake Shop, 1030 Smith St., Chinatown, O‘ahu. Call 808-536-1669 for reservations or visit www.scratch-hawaii.com.

4. Take a hike

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I love being surrounded by trees.

Better yet, surrounded by trees at a summit with a great view.

IMG_8068I can’t imagine a better Valentine’s morning than hiking through thick groves ironwoods or inhaling the smell of eucalyptus and reaching a summit that overlooks the most beautiful mountain range (in my opinion) in the world.

Better if that trail is fairly easy and short — and gives you enough time to head back home and barbecue.

I like Pu‘u Pia Trail in Mānoa, really a trail for everyone. It’s only about 1.5 miles roundtrip, across easy terrain on a well-worn path, with a view of the majestic Ko‘olau Mountains. And it’s easy enough that, if you want, you can backpack with a bottle of mocasto d’asti and maybe some salami and cheese and have a picnic at the top.

IMG_8084It’s a very gradual climb to the lookout point, where you will be surrounded by native koa (left) and ʻōhiʻa trees. Despite the relative ease, the view of Mānoa Valley and the mountains are pretty amazing — and if you’re the only ones up there, it can be very romantic, too.

Directions to the trailhead: Head towards the back for Manoa by going to the end of East Mānoa Road. At the end, make a left on Alani Drive and go to the end of the street to where it intersects with Woodlawn Drive. Park along the road in this area. Follow the sign on the road to the trailhead.

5. Ride a horse

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I went on my first horseback ride in December — thanks to my very sweet husband — at Kualoa Ranch. And loved it.

The ride was fun, the scenery unbeatable, and the whole experience relaxing and memorable.

Established in 1850 on the northeastern side of O‘ahu, Kualoa is a 4,000-acre working cattle ranch, stretching from the Ko‘olau Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. There’s a ton of activities here, from ATV tours through its scenic valleys to catamaran rides of picturesque Kāneʻohe Bay with views of Mokoli‘i Island (Chinaman’s Hat) to a glass-bottom boat ride to the secluded Secret Island.

But one of the most popular ways to explore the ranch is by horseback — and that’s what I’d recommend you book for Valentine’s Day.

IMG_2698_2The two-hour tour takes you deep into Ka‘a‘awa Valley, where films such as “Godzilla,” “Jurassic Park” and “50 First Dates” were filmed. You ride single file — led by a seasoned guide — and never faster than a quick walk. So it’s not scary or intimidating.

And you’ll earn extra points if you pack a picnic lunch for later, too.

Two-hour rides at Kualoa Ranch in Kualoa, O‘ahu cost $99 per person, one-hour rides (to the southern half of Kualoa and the ranch’s 800-year-old Hawaiian fishpond) are $69 per person. To book a horseback tour, call 1-800-231-7321 or 808-237-7321 or visit www.kualoa.com.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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#CatEats: Sampling Alan Wong’s Shanghai menu

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I never turn down any opportunity to eat anything created by Chef Alan Wong.

To be honest, I haven’t had a bad dish at his Honolulu restaurant, still considered one of the best eating establishments in Hawai‘i. Even his tilapia — incidentally, on the menu for Valentine’s Day this year — is top-notch. (So good, in fact, it beat out the highly palatable mahi mahi and opakapaka at a dinner event back in 2009, the majority of guests picked tilapia as their favorite. Yeah, he’s that good.)

So when I got invited to sample the menu for his new restaurant last week, I jumped at the chance.

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Wong, a James Beard award-winning chef and pioneer in the regional cuisine movement, has two Honolulu restaurants — his flagship location on King Street and the more casual The Pineapple Rom at Ala Moana Center. He’s opening his third location in Shanghai this summer — and we were able to sample some of the items slated to be served there.

The new restaurant, aptly called Alan Wong’s Shanghai, will open in the posh, five-star Portman Ritz-Carlton located along the renowned Nan Jing Road in the heart of the historic Puxi neighborhood.

The restaurant is a joint venture by Wong and Tama Food International, a Tokyo-based company that manages restaurants and fast food businesses, sport and resort facilities, and hotels. The sous chef who will be training the kitchen staff — Ryuta Sakuri — spent three months in Honolulu, working alongside Wong to craft the perfect menu for this Shanghai restaurant.

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The staff — including Wong — worked for three months in the test kitchen of Y. Hata & Co., whittling down the menu from about 200 recipes that Wong came up with himself. Every single recipe was videotaped and translated into Mandarin. That’s how serious Wong is about making sure this concept is executed correctly.

“It was more than just working with Chef and his whole team,” said Kevin Zhao, the assistant general manager for the restaurant who also spent three months here working with Wong. “He changed the way we live our lives.”

The dinner last Thursday, called “A Taste of Shanghai,” was sold out in 24 hours.

And since I’m not going to Shanghai anytime soon, I figured this might be my only shot to try the menu.

Here’s a glimpse:

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This was one of my favorite dishes: a fun take on a burger, this dish featured pork-shrimp hash as the “bun,” sandwiching smoked gouda cheese with a clever lup cheong jam, lettuce and a slice of tomato. Hard to eat but worth the effort.

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This “Duck Duck” was a crowd favorite. This well-seasoned duck meatball with a subtle serving of foie gras was steamed in rice paper and served with a tangy yuzu ponzu sauce in a saimin spoon. You gotta eat it all at once — and then you’ll want another. At least I did.

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A gorgeous plate, this panna cotta of sorts featured chilled shrimp, uni, ikura and cauliflower with edible flowers. The heat was provided by a kochi jang Asian pear and served with Tsing Tao beer.

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This beauty was actually an experiment. This is what happens when you deep-fry a lumpia wrapper — it puffs up like a pillow. It’s filled with Scottish smoked salmon and a smoked salmon mousse with capers, red onions and ikura.

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Everyone raved about this dish: Alaskan king crab in rice paper and deep-fried, topped with caviar and a truffle sauce.

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The sauce on this dish was addicting: Keahole lobster in its own yellow curry bisque with foie gras butter, spinach and mushrooms. All it needed was a bowl of white rice.

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I enjoyed this all-natural New York strip steak from Niman Ranch with a black bean sambal shrimp that was unusual and exciting.

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We got this dessert delivered by Wong’s new pastry chef, a young energetic Korean-American from California. This was a lilikoi tart with an Earl Grey kanten, caramel meringue and a brown sugar crisp. It was scrumptious — but you had to eat it quickly. It didn’t hold its shape for very long.

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The final sweet offering: a mint macaroon, an almond butter biscuit, a salted chocolate truffle, and strawberries and cream. No better way to end a perfect dinner. And yes, I got that bowl of rice, too.

So if you’re ever in the Puxi neighborhood in Shanghai — and you’re missing Hawai‘i — hit up Alan Wong’s Shanghai. While the menu will be vastly different from the one in Honolulu, the flavors are still unique Wong.

And it may likely be the best meal you have on vacation.

Alan Wong’s Shanghai, 2nd floor of Shanghai Centre, Portman Ritz Carlton, 1376 Nanjing Road West, Shanghai, China.

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The story of Snickers the Goat

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My life isn’t what it used to be.

I’m no longer living alone with two dogs in a rental in ‘Aina Haina, only worrying about keeping my basil plant alive.

Now, I’m married, caring for three dogs and two chickens, about to re-start my husband’s aquaponics system — blog on that coming soon — and figuring how to work from home without getting distracted by the laundry and digital cable TV.

And add to that raising a newborn goat.

Yes, I said goat.

IMG_5083Here’s what happened: my husband works on a farm that has goats. And one of the female goats had given birth last week but refused to nurse it.

And then it started to rain.

Now, I’m no livestock expert. But this combination — a baby goat not feeding and now getting rained on — didn’t sound good. We had to do something — and fast.

My husband sprung into action. He grabbed a towel, jumped the fence and started to dry off the newborn kid. Then I got on the phone and called our vet, then Waimanālo Feed Supply for help. Turns out, one of the workers there raises goats and was our Internet of information.

“Did the kid nurse yet?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you sure? Because if he didn’t, that’s not good. He won’t survive more than a couple of days.”

He told me baby goats need to get colostrum from their mother. Found in her milk, this contains antibodies that protect the newborn against disease. And the baby needs to get this in the first 24 hours of life.

It had already been close to that.

Luckily, the feed supply store in Waimanālo had colostrum powder that we could mix into a milk replacer formulated for goats. (It sold that, too.) And within the hour, we were handing over $50 for a bag of Land O’Lakes ProNurse, a canister of colostrum replacement, and two long nipples that could fit over a beer bottle.

The situation was somewhat dire. We weren’t sure if the newborn had taken any of his mother’s milk, and he was already starting to look weak. We dried him off as best we could, keeping him in a warm area in a warehouse, and tried to get him to drink some of the milk replacer.

And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy.

I bottle-fed my younger sister when she was a baby, no problem. I figured this would be equally as easy and simple. Just put the bottle in his mouth and make sure he doesn’t drink too much or too quickly, right?

I wish.

This kid was picky. The milk had to be warm. The nipple had to be warm. And he needed a little dab of corn syrup on it to entice him to even take the bottle.

It took a few tries, but we finally found a system that worked.

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I’ll be honest. Before this experience, I knew next to nothing about goats. I knew they ate everything in sight and, by a certain age, they stopped looking cute and started acting ornery. At least the ones I had been in contact with.

Turns out, though, there’s a lot to learn about these livestock animals.

For starters, goats are among the earliest animals domesticated by humans, dating back thousands of years. Neolithic farmers herded wild goats for their milk and meat, even used their poop for fuel and bones and hair for clothing and tools. Goat hide has long been used for water and wine bottle in traveling and transporting them for sale.

This guy — whom we named Snickers after my girlfriend sent me a list of names from her two sons — was a Nubian, a breed of domestic goat developed in Great Britain and bred for its milk, which has a high butterfat content. These Nubians can live in very hot climates and are distinguished by their large, pendulous ears — one of my favorite traits.

They grow to about 135 pounds for does, 175 pounds for bucks. And they live for roughly 12 to 15 years.

That is, if they make it past the first few days of life.

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Snickers was so sweet. He loved when I rubbed his muzzle and scratched his lower back. He loved licking our necks and faces and sucking on our fingers. And his tail wagged. Did you know goats wag their tails? I didn’t. I was completely smitten.

But we couldn’t keep Snickers. I’m unclear about the rules of owning farm animals in residential areas — all I found was that enclosures for farm animals can’t be located within 300 feet from any property line — but we don’t have the space for a goat. We already have a packed house of animals, and there was no way, no matter how cute Snickers was, no matter that we got him to drink milk out of a bowl, we were going to keep him in the house. The dogs would’ve loved it; the humans, not so much.

As it would happen, I was walking the dogs one afternoon — after feeding Snickers and getting goat milk replacement all over my legs — and met a neighbor who has fostered goats before. She agreed — after a martini — to take Snickers, raise him, and find a good home for him. Our only requirements were the new owner didn’t 1) eat the goat or 2) change his name.

“No problem,” she said, with a smile. “And it’s a good thing my husband isn’t home.”

So after a few days of hand-raising the little guy, we packed him up and let him go. Snickers is now living in a spacious grassy area in a nicer neighborhood than ours, playing with other dogs and getting bigger every day. We have full visitation rights, the woman told us, and we will likely take her up on that offer.

I never imagined I’d get up at 4 a.m. to bottle-feed a goat — or to feed two feisty hens every morning and walk a pack of dogs twice a day. I never thought I’d climb to the roof of a house to pick ‘ulu from a flourishing tree or gaze off our deck, past a koa tree my husband planted, and watch the sunset.

I never imagined it — but man, I wouldn’t change it, either.

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