Monday, 6 May 2013

Fiji, Kava, and Vodka

We recently returned from a 5 day trip to Fiji. I can't believe I actually made it there. While living in the US, Fiji was an exotic destination on the bucket list of places-I'd-like-to-visit-but-probably-never-will. Fiji is only a 4 hour flight from Sydney which really is just a puddle jump as it takes a long ride in a tin can to go anywhere else - US (CA 14 hrs, NY 20hrs), Europe (22+ hrs), Thailand (8+hrs) etc.

I was left with many positive impressions of Fiji - there are a lot of islands there, it is very lush & tropical, the snorkeling is wonderful, the Fijians are so nice. The Fijian people really stand out in my mind. They are so pleasant, calm and happy despite, many of them, living with very little. I don't know if their seeming happiness is from the heat or the chilled island lifestyle, but I felt very safe there. I was also stuck by the ethnic and religious diversity. Even with a small overall population, there is a diverse mix of Pacific Islanders, Asian and Indians.While exploring one day, we passed one of the biggest Hindu temples in the Southern Hemisphere, a huge Muslim "coliseum" and school and several Christian churches with schools all within relative proximity to each other. It was nice to see that perhaps there can be religious harmony in the world.

We did venture out of the resort and see more local sites. One afternoon, we went to natural mud baths, orchid gardens, a Hindu temple and the local produce market. As someone who likes to cook (and eat) I always enjoy going to markets and grocery stores in foreign countries. Much of the produce in Fiji was foreign, not things I'd eat on a regular basis: chillies, taro, coconuts, paw paw, unknown greens, and kava. Kava...I'd heard about it since we arrived and was curious to try it. What alcohol is to the Western world, kava is to the Pacific Islands. People enjoy it as a relaxing sedative that is not suppose to impair mental clarity. The roots of the kava plant can be chewed or pounded down into a powder mixed with water and drunk. You can see what I thought of it - yuck!  However from my few sips, my lips felt numb and I did feel more relaxed. Hm mm.....

Moving from one stimulant to the next, my dish this week is Penne ala Vodka. I haven't seen this dish served at restaurants nor the bottled sauce in supermarket stores here in Sydney. The origins of where this sauce originated from is still a mystery - a small restaurant in Italy, a restaurant in NYC or a Russian vodka company trying to get more people to drink vodka in Italy? Wherever it originated from, it's a nice alternative to plain spaghetti/pasta sauce and easy to make. Don't worry! It's non-alcoholic, family friendly and just like cooking with wine, Sherry or Marsala, it all burns off while cooking.

Penne ala Vodka
altered from original recipe of Lindsay Hague

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 small bunch of basil/coriander, finely chopped* (optional)

1 400g can diced tomatoes

1 680g bottle of tomato puree 

1/2 cup vodka

1 cup heavy cream*

small container of button or brown mushrooms, washed and sliced thin* (optional)

red chili pepper flakes*

1/2 tsp of salt

1 regular sized bag of penne pasta

grated Parmesan, Pecorino, Pana Grandano

1) In large skillet, heat up olive oil and add onion. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring until onion is translucent and soft. Add Basil/coriander and stir.

2) Add can of diced tomatoes (do not drain) and tomato puree. Turn up heat and when it boils, stir and turn heat down to a low simmer. Cook sauce for 20 minutes, letting the mixture "cook down" and reduce so that sauce is quite thick. During this time, stir occasionally so that sauce doesn't burn. Also, start boiling water for the penne pasta.

3) Once sauce is very thick, add vodka, turn up heat a bit and stir through. After 5 minutes of cooking (and steaming the vodka out), add heavy cream. Meanwhile, start cooking the penne pasta.

4) Lower heat and let the flavours of the sauce mix together. While the sauce is cooking, add the sliced mushrooms.

5) Once mushrooms have reduced in size and are cooked, add some chili pepper flakes and salt to taste.

6) Serve over penne pasta with grated cheese.

- Basil is optional. If you do use it, use fresh or frozen. Don't bother with dried basil as most dried herbs do not have a lot of flavour. Also if your child doesn't like "green things" in his/her food, I would skip it. 

- Diced tomatoes - It is important to use "diced" tomatoes as they add texture to the sauce.

- Heavy cream - you could make it lighter by using 1/2 & 1/2 or evaporated milk. I prefer the rich taste of heavy cream.

- Mushrooms are optional.

- Chili pepper flakes are optional but I really like them as they give a little "kick" to the sauce. Add more or less depending on your spice tolerance.

- This sauce is rich. I serve it as a main course or it is also good as a side dish with meat or salmon.

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