Meal Memory: Warming Foods

By Romney “Nani” Steele

Reflecting Upon Winters Past

LIKE MANY PEOPLE DURING THE HOLIDAYS, I long for foods to warm body and soul, dishes that evoke a sense of place and bring me back home again. For me, that might include a crisp, roasted chicken with my grand-mother’s sage stuffing, or thick slices of brown sugar-glazed ham, hearty bowls of butternut squash soup, or tapioca sprinkled with nutmeg for dessert.

When I lived in Hawai’i-more than 20 years ago now-my first real home away from home, I looked to the mom-and-pop ramen shops to fulfill that longing on windswept days. Tucking into a steaming bowl of noodles with flecks of ham or chicken in a warming broth seemed just the right thing to cure a cold or soothe my youthful ache for home.

Sure, there were the fluffy pancakes at the diner off the Pali Highway that sometimes did the trick, or the coconut pudding at Keo’s that I savored on special occasions. Come to think of it, I felt equally content eating barbeque and Kalua pig at a potluck on the beach, the feeling of ‘ohana and food connected to place, always ringing true.

As I see it, our longings are inextricably tangled with place, our childhood memories and everything in-between-my own colored by a unique setting and storied venue. I grew up at Nepenthe, the iconic cliff-side restaurant in Big Sur, Calif. started in 1949 by my maternal grandparents. Known for its illustrious guest list, it was the favorite watering hole of author Henry Miller, who used it like his private club, and actors Steve McQueen and Kim Novak both hung out there.

By the time I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, Nepenthe was a way station for those passing through and yet a welcome home for others. Much like the islands, it was an oasis-a friendly haven to soak up the stunning views and forget your worldly cares.

My grandparents’ Nepenthe was celebrated not only for its whimsical menu-french fries were named “Golden Plumes”-but also for its “happenings” and flair. In the 1950s, they once turned the restaurant into a tropical hut complete with tiki bar, the guests arriving in full costume. It was later featured in the1960s drama The Sandpiper, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, both of whom caused quite a stir dining there daily during filming (evidently he enjoyed a daily cocktail and she drank tea).

Each year around the holidays my family cooks for a crowd at the restaurant, and it’s always a memorable meal. There was the time we roasted whole pigs with the requisite apple stuffed in the mouth, and served venison that we caught and aged ourselves. My grandmother always served her mulled wine at Christmas, and pumpkin spice cake with cream cheese frosting for dessert.

Today, my list of warming foods would no doubt be more sophisticated than it was when I was younger and include not only particular dishes, but ingredients connected to locale, like earthy, golden chanterelles appearing on the coast after the first rains; sweet, salty mussels gathered from the rocks at low tide; fruits of longing like pears and quince for crumbles and pies, or when in Hawaii, as I was recently, mango and passion fruit-the makings of a merry feast linking me not only to my roots but to food that is seasonal and soul-satisfying.

In traditional Chinese medicine, warming foods are considered foods that literally heat the body-like root vegetables, garlic and chilies-ingredients that I like to incorporate into my cooking this time of year as much for their health properties as for the tastes and memories they tend to capture in a single bite, reminding me not only of my youth, but of my travels too.

I haven’t always linked the dots between my homeland and Hawaii-how and where they bridge my story-nor have I even fully captured what they share in common: not in the least, the maritime expanse and lifestyle, the gorgeous views and deep attachment to place and family that is enriched by the sharing of a meal overlooking the azure sea.

Even so, I am reminded of the comfort a simple bowl of soup can bring at each location-that sense of belonging and special connection to a land and its people that brings me back home again, warming me at every level, regardless of the season or what’s actually on my plate.

Curry Butternut Squash Soup with Coconut Milk

This is a simple, soul-satisfying soup enriched with coconut milk, reminding me not only of home, but Hawai’i too. Use less or more chili pepper to taste. Garnish with fresh basil or cilantro leaves and a sprinkling of toasted pumpkin seeds or macadamia nuts to finish.

Serves 4-6

1 medium butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
2-3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 Thai red chili pepper, coarsely chopped
1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk (about 1
1/4 cup)
8 fresh basil leaves
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375º F.

Cut off the stem end of the squash, halve lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place the squash face down in a small pan with 1/4 cup water. Cover tightly with foil and roast in the oven for 30 minutes, or until squash is tender when pricked with a fork. Cool well enough to handle, and then scoop out the flesh.

Heat the oil in a medium pot. Add the onion and garlic and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the curry and the chile pepper, cook 1 minute. Add the squash and 2 cups stock, plus more as needed to cover, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until the flavors meld. Carefully transfer soup to a blender and blend until smooth. Pour back into the pot and place over low heat. Stir in the coconut milk and basil leaves, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, adding in more stock or water to thin, as desired. Warm through to serve.

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