#GiveBack: Fix the hole in the He‘eia fishpond

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It’s Christmas. Everyone’s strapped for cash. I get it.

But one of the best things you can do with your money is support a charity or project that has an ROI (return on investment) that goes beyond Christmas morning.

Look, I’m budgeting this year for the holidays. It’s the first year that I’m solely, completely working on a freelance budget. (And if you know anything about freelance writing, you’ll know that I’m *thisclose* to eating instant ramen every night.) But I still found a way to give back this year — and I hope you do, too.

B39TevMCUAAUX55The one that really connected with me was this: Paepae o He‘eia, the private nonprofit that cares for the historic He‘eia fishpond on the windward side of O‘ahu, needs to raise $100,000 to fix an 80-foot-wide hole in the fishpond wall.

The significance of this campaign — called “Pani Ka Puka,” or “close the hole” — is that once the hole is filled with rock, the fishpond can finally be used. That means, all the work that’s been done since the nonprofit took over stewardship of the area in 2001 will come to fruition.

The 800-year-old ancient Hawaiian fishpond will finally be useable.

Watch and learn here.

“It empowers the Hawaiian to practice in a modern-day setting, being able to restore something that our kūpuna built 800 years ago and provide opportunities for others to do the same,” says executive director Hi‘ilei Kawelo. “There are less than a dozen useable fishponds left on O‘ahu, and this is an important cultural tradition that we have the opportunity to preserve and pass onto our children.”

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On Wednesday the nonprofit officially launched the campaign with a blessing and rock-passing ceremony (above) at the fishpond. The goal is to raise $100,000 in the next 12 months to pay for materials, labor and other support.

The first time I went to the fishpond was back in 2008, when I had joined the marine conservation staff at The Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i. We helped cut down invasive mangrove, stacked rocks to build the wall, and removed invasive algae from the water. It was inspiring to see an entire community of people, all of whom felt a certain responsibility to preserving this treasure, come together and work on this project. That feeling never left me, and I’ve since written dozens of stories about the nonprofit, the fishpond and its significance in Hawai‘i.

So here’s a real, tangible chance to help.

I’ve done the physical labor — and would do it again — but now it’s time to give.

So I went to the website and donated.

I’m not saying that everyone should donate to Pani Ka Puka (though that would be nice and I’m sure the nonprofit would love that!) I’m saying find something that speaks to you, that inspires you, that makes you believe in a better world — and support it.

Trust me, it will make your — and someone else’s — holidays that much merrier.

To learn more about Paepae o He‘eia’s Pani Ka Puka campaign, visit here.

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#DidThis: Riding horses at Kualoa Ranch, O‘ahu

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I was one of those little girls with posters of horses on her walls and a very well-worn copy of “Black Beauty” by her bedside.

Yes, I had a fascination with horses, even back then.

And while I had always wanted to ride on, the chance never really came up.

Until this weekend, when my sweet husband surprised me with a horseback tour at Kualoa Ranch.

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Maybe this will come as a surprise to many of you, but I hadn’t even been to Kualoa Ranch, either. So this was going to be quite an adventure!

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. The terrain varies from dense rainforest to lush gaping valleys to white sandy beaches.

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 we had come to do.

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We checked in at the Ticket Office, where you can, for $3, rent a locker for your belongings. (You can’t bring along anything that can’t fit in your pocket, so bags and large cameras had to be stowed.)

Then you waited by a horse pen for the tour to start.

I won’t lie, I was a bit nervous. I had climbed onto a horse before — back in Vegas a few years ago — and the height was a bit daunting. You can definitely feel the strength of these animals, and you know, at any given moment, they can decide whether they want you on their backs or not. So it was a bit intimidating.

We met our guide (above photo), Kyle, a 2011 graduate of Kahuku High School, who grew up on her family’s ranch on the North Shore. Knowing — and seeing — how comfortable she was with these horses put my fears at ease.

She handed me a 10-year-old horse named Ace. He was once a guide horse, so he was really familiar with the trails on the ranch. “He’s super mellow,” she told me. “And he totally knows what to do.”

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My husband opted for the two-hour tour ($99 per person), which took us deep into Ka‘a‘awa Valley, where films such as “Godzilla,” “Jurassic Park” and “50 First Dates” were filmed. We started off along the highway, through groves of kiawe trees with stunning ocean views (above).

There were just a few of us — maybe 10 — on the tour, led by a guide. We rode single file and never went faster than a quick walk. That’s it. In fact, trotting or galloping would result in you — and I’m assuming your horse — getting kicked off the tour with no refund. They were THAT serious about safety.

I got used to being on a horse pretty quickly. (Maybe it’s my Portuguese heritage coming out.) At first, I was a bit nervous, gripping onto the reigns a little too much. But after a few minutes, I started to relax into the gait, using the reigns only when I needed to and truly enjoying the scenery. (It helped that my horse, Ace, lived up to his name.)

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We made our way toward Ka‘a‘awa, past freshwater ponds and grazing cattle. The verdant cliffs, the depth of the valley itself — it was all so breathtaking. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much had I been walking or biking.

There’s something rustic and exhilarating about riding a horse through this terrain. Like it’s the way you were supposed to experience it. On horseback. And with an iPhone. (smile)

Two-hour rides 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 here.

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The one thing I’m thankful for this #Thanksgiving

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Being thankful is like appreciating the weather.

When it’s nice out, you don’t notice the sunshine or tradewinds. You just go about your day and not even think about it.

You only notice the weather when it’s bad.

And that’s how I feel about life.

We tend to complain about or dwell on the bad things that are going on. The mounting bills. The hateful boss. The dead-end job. The sore back. The bad relationship you feel you’re stuck in.

It’s when life is good — when the sun is shining down on you — that you don’t seem to stop and appreciate it.

I’ve learned a lot this year about just that: stopping and looking around and saying, “Hey, Life, you’re not so bad after all!”

Sure, I’ve got problems just like everyone else. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in a couple of months on just car repairs. My computer got hit with a virus that could’ve wiped out my hard drive. I can’t seem to get my dogs to stop barking at the beagle who lives up the street. And lately I barely have enough time to fold clothes, let alone meet friends for karaoke or go to Pilates.

But so what. So I had to fix my car. At least I have one. And my dogs bark. Big deal.

What’s really important is this: life, no matter how difficult or trying it can be, is a gift. They are people in this world who are starving, imprisoned, sick or dying. And I’m worried about gaining weight or my barking dogs. It’s pretty ridiculous.

What I’m thankful for, though, really boils down to one thing: the people in my life. I’m grateful that despite everything going on, I have people who make me laugh, who never hesitate to help or just listen, who remind me all the time what’s really important in life.

So to everyone — from my childhood friends to the people I’ve just met, to my sweet husband and my awesome family and my three barking dogs — thank you. You have put my life into a better perspective. Turkeys and gravy for all!

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Hope you all have a great #Thanksgiving! Eat a lot and hug everyone!That’s what the holidays are all about!

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#FUUD: Izakaya Torae Torae in McCully

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Back when people still read newspapers, there was a rule for food critics: wait a couple of months before reviewing a new restaurant.

The reason? You want to give new chefs and owners a chance to work out the kinks, tweak their menus, and get into a steady flow. It’s really only fair.

Well, thanks to something called the Internet — specifically, food bloggers and sites like Yelp — restaurants get reviewed almost before they even open. And it’s not uncommon for a new spot to get a buzz during its first few weeks of opening, then fizzle.

That didn’t happen with Izakaya Torae Torae.

This izakaya (Japanese tavern) in McCully opened in February to a lot of online chatter — and it’s still super popular nine months later.

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Inside the izakaya. The sushi bar peeks into the open kitchen, where you can watch your food being prepared.

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The wooden walls are adorned with hip art by Chanel Tanaka. Very different.

Hide Yoshimoto, the popular chef from Doraku Sushi, opened this neighborhood izakaya to rave reviews early on. (It helps when you organize a soft opening for all the social media foodies and bloggers.)

The menu here is extensive, likely part of the appeal. You can find just about whatever you want here, from salads to donburi (rice bowl dishes) to sushi to desserts. (The website calls it a “kitchen sink menu.” I like that!) And it’s obvious Yoshimoto brought along his Asian-fusion flair.

I went with a friend recently who’s been there before — that helps! — and here’s what we ate:

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The gyūtan (cow tongue), or tanshio, is one of my favorite izakaya staples. The salted meat has to be super thin and fried to an almost crisp, and this didn’t disappoint.

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Our server recommended the snow crab and cream corn croquette, a richer, softer version of what people would think of when they hear the word, “croquette.” The white cream filling was creamy — just a hint of Alaskan snow crab, really — and flavorful.

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The pupu-style jidori chicken plate was a surprise. You can get this seasoned with yukari (salt) or curry. I had heard the curry seasoning was a bit intense, so we went with the yukari and it was nicely done. Simple — and great with yaki onigiri (which isn’t on the menu, but ask anyway).

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My girlfriend loveloveloves the hamachi carpaccio, which comes with ponzu sauce and a hint of truffle oil. The fish was crisp, the onions added some crunch. Really a perfect dish.

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Another signature dish is the pork belly kakuni, a slow-braised pork belly from Sunterra Farm simmered in a shoyu sauce and balanced with an ontama and daikon. The fall-off-your-fork pork is packed with flavor. I think I moaned after each bite.

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One of my surprise favorites was this Angry Buta roll. Get this: pork belly and kim chee stuffed in this sushi hand roll. You can’t get better than that!

Some thoughts: You want to make reservations. We did — and though we were the first people in the izakaya, the place filled up quickly. And it was a weekday! And if you don’t get a stall out front — there are only a few and it’s not the easiest to back up onto McCully Street — you can park at Central Pacific Bank for a $2 flat fee.

Trust me, the walk across the street will be well worth the effort.

(CORRECTION: Now that the izakaya has its liquor license, it’s still BYOB, but you have to pay a $20 corkage fee.)

Izakaya Torae Torae, 1111 McCully St., Honolulu, O‘ahu. Hours: 6 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Monday, closed Tuesday; happy hour 10 p.m. to last call. Phone: (808) 949-5959.

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Let’s get this cookbook funded!

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I’m a big fan of cookbooks.

Oh, a big fan.

While I already foster a very disturbing addiction to books — you should see my collection! — I’ve dedicated a portion of the bookshelves (yes, plural) to cookbooks.

New ones, old ones, the kind you buy as fundraisers for school and churches. I think I have every cookbook published by every hongwanji in the state.

10441092_896400808825_7249436248650005850_n copySo when I heard that my social media pal Nicole LaTorre (@ChefLaTorre), private chef and owner of Hawai‘i Sustainable Chef, was raising funds through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to publish her first-ever cookbook, I got excited. Like, really excited.

LaTorre, who’s self-taught and super passionate, will share more than 50 of her original recipes, from farm-to-table dishes to quickie appetizers to meals great for kids to things like a Malasada Creme Brûlée and Truffled Kalua Pork Grilled Cheese.

Ah, yeah.

“Whether you want an easy recipe or a more challenging project, the goal is to get people excited about creating food at home, with family or friends,” says LaTorre, who grew up in South Jersey. “Food brings people together and I hope people not only enjoy making these dishes, but enjoy making memories with the special people in their lives.”

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The book, which should be out in December, will include some of her resourceful DIY projects like making your own up-cycled produce bags and “mason meals.” And yes, there will be vegan, paleo and gluten-free options for her recipes, too.

Plus, LaTorre will include a list of locations on O‘ahu — more than 25 farms, farmers’ markets and other small businesses — where you can source your ingredients.

It’s a lot of information packed into one cookbook!

“Whether using one local ingredient or six local ingredients, each recipe counts,” she says. “Each local ingredient utilized helps support the local economy and the farmers who work hard to make these food sources available to us. I hope to showcase some new possibilities by emphasizing what we can create, by bringing multiple farmers together all on one plate.”

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So right after I kicked in some cash to fund her project, I asked LaTorre a few questions about her cooking, her cookbook, and what she means by Italian-Hawaiian fusion.

CT: What influenced you to write your own cookbook? I imagine people kept bugging you for recipes! (I get that, too, and I’m not even a chef!)

NLT: It’s always been a goal of mine to publish a book and after a handful of friends asked for recipes I thought it would be a great way to share all my best recipes with others. I realized as a private chef, I can only cook for so many people on any given day. By sharing my recipes with others, they can recreate my recipes any time they want!

CT: What do you enjoy about sharing your recipes?

NLT: Sharing recipes is something that my family has done for many generations. My mom has a recipe box with recipes from my grandmother and my Great-Aunt Mary, who cooked with me as a young girl. Although they are no longer with us, their memories live on through the gifts they left behind.

CT: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your cooking?

I grew up in South Jersey, right outside of Atlantic City. I like to describe my style as Italian Hawaiian fusion because many of my dishes are inspired by a combination of my Italian upbringing and my time spent in Hawaii.

CT: What’s your culinary/food background?

NLT: I’m a self-taught chef. In high school I had a cookie and brownie business. I made $50 a day selling chocolate chip cookies and homemade brownies to my peers every day for 2 1/2 years until the art teacher sent me to in-school suspension. Apparently, it was illegal to sell anything in school and keep the profits. Many teachers supported the “Underground Bake Sale,” but all good things must come to an end.

At the time, I saw a need in the market because students were hungry and the lunch periods were either super early or super late in the day. With no other outlet to purchase snacks of any kind, my business became successful pretty quickly. It was my motivation for going to school. I lost all interest in reading Shakespeare and focusing on topics that didn’t interest me, but felt excited to go to school each day because people loved the baked goods. As soon as I got home from school each day, I’d start baking for the next day’s supply.

There was a lot of gratification in knowing people loved my baked goods and continued to purchase from me day in and day out. I felt really proud.

CT: What happened after high school?

NLT: After high school I worked in restaurants, waitressing and bartending my way through college.
I always observed the plating techniques of the chefs and tried to make my dishes look as visually appealing. I had a boss who used to say, “We eat with our eyes first.”

CT: And then you moved here and started your company in August 2012. Love it?

NLT: For the last two years I’ve cooked for an amazing family every week, cooked for corporate events, other special events and private dinners.

CT: Any last words for my readers, many of whom, hopefully, will buy your cookbook?

NLT: At the end of the day, no one can do it alone. We all need someone. Many of these recipes represent the importance of working together and also define just how much Hawai‘i really brings to the table. A synergy and an appreciation for all those that make these recipes possible, from the farmer, to the fisherman, to the cutting board shaper and the compost company. We all play a part in helping to sustain Hawaii. I hope this book helps create more sustainable chefs.

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To help Nicole LaTorre publish her first cookbook, click here.

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