You could say that chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman celebrates the farmers as much, if not more than, the tantalizing Hawaiian regional cuisine his restaurants have become known for. Located in the hip urban-island Ward Village, Merriman’s Honolulu is a fine dining restaurant that epitomizes the farm to table and ocean to plate dining movement -- not just on Oahu, but throughout the Hawaiian islands. My husband and photographer, John Ivanko, sampled the myriad flavors the menu offers on a recent trip to Oahu.
Merriman’s restaurants started more than thirty years ago, on the Big Island of Hawaii, way before islanders were buzzing about fresh greens or vine ripened tomatoes. A Pittsburgh native himself, Merriman fell in love with everything Hawaii, from the people to the native dishes. Unfortunately, he discovered that most food on the islands was shipped in from thousands of miles away, ever since the pineapple and sugar cane plantation era largely wiped out local food production.
Merriman decided to begin to change that with his first restaurant. As a chef, his core tenant remains to support local farmers who were willing to grow vegetables and fruits in the rich volcanic soil, or raise pastured meat products on the rolling ranchlands. Added to this is local fish harvested in season, again, a pioneering direction when the restaurant was starting out. Today, Merriman is a leading restauranteur in Hawaii with a portfolio of establishments that feature hyper-local sourcing of fresh, seasonal produce, pastured meats and seafood sustainably harvested in the warm waters of Hawaii.
He joins other forward-thinking chefs increasingly taking a leadership role in the local food movement. As we’ve written about, from Yucatán-born chef Mateo Granados in Healdsburg, California, creatively using the whole animal in his dishes, to Chef Chris Sherrill at CoastAL on Alabama’s Gulf Shore, serving up invasive species like Lionfish, Merriman adds his vision to this mix to recreate a vibrant local farming scene on the islands.
If you’re looking for a blend of old school Hawaii cuisine with an international flair, Merriman’s Honolulu delivers. Their Tako and Country Bread appetizer exemplify what we consider the perfect dish when we travel by taking a unique and local twist on a classic dish. In this case, tako, or Japanese octopus, is served “ala escargot,” drenched in cognac-infused garlic butter. Slow food at its finest, we lingered over the warm pan and used the big chunk of homemade bread to scoop out every last bit.
Another signature appetizer on Merriman’s menu is their Kalua Pig Quesadilla, served with the house-made mango chili sauce, recipe shared below. A classic Hawaiian dish, Kalua pork, also called Kalua pig, is traditionally made by building an underground pit oven lined with Hawaiian vegetation, like banana leaves, that help create a hot and steamy environment for the pork to slow cook for eight or more hours.
For our main entree, their chef’s choice daily sustainable fish, a mahi mahi in a chermoula (Moroccan marinade) served on top of a creamy polenta with Jalapeno aged cheddar, was topped with a delightfully acidic relish made with lemons, chard, tomato and cucumbers. The side of green beans were locally sourced, of course.
For dessert, their warm pineapple bread pudding topped with Macadamia nuts and a generous scoop of vanilla bean ice cream was the best we’ve ever had, served in a cast iron skillet. Nearly everything is crafted or made in house at Merriman’s, including the ice cream.
Not ready to build your banana-leaf lined earth oven to make your own Kalua pork for the recipe below, experiment with your own version of Kalua pork by using pork shoulder or butt and a slow cooker. One key ingredient for an Hawaiian mainlander version of Kalua pork not miss is liquid smoke, needed to recreate the slow-cooked, over-the-fire flavor.
Sambal Oelek, used in the mango chili sauce, is an Indonesian chili paste with a strong flavor resemblance to fresh chilis. You can often find this paste in an Asian food section of a supermarket, or you can use Sriracha or fresh chili peppers as a substitute.
Merriman’s Signature Kalua Pig Quesadilla Recipe
Ingredients for Quesadillas:
- 8 (8-inch) flour tortillas
- 2 ounces (4 tbsp) fresh goat cheese
- 12 ounces (1 ½ cups) Kalua Pork, including onions
- 8 ounces (1 cup) shredded white cheddar cheese
- 4 ounces (½ cup) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Ingredients for Mango-Chili Dipping Sauce:
Makes about ¾ cup
- 1 mango
- 4 ounces (½ cup) rice wine vinegar
- 1 ounce (2 tbsp) granulated sugar
- 1 clove garlic, minced (about 1 tsp)
- 0.16 ounce (1 tsp) fresh cilantro leaves
- 0.16 (1 tsp) sambal oelek
Directions for Quesadillas:
1. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Use the roast or convection bake setting, if available.
2. Place 4 tortillas on a baking sheet. Spread 0.5 ounce (1 tablespoon) of the goat cheese onto each tortilla. Follow with 3 ounces (3/8 cup) of Kalua Pork, 2 ounces (¼ cup) of the cheddar and 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of the Parmesan, spreading each layer uniformly. Top each stack with another tortilla to form a sandwich, and compress lightly using the flat of your hand.
3. Bake quesadillas for 6-8 minutes, until cheese bubbles and top of the tortillas are lightly browned. Use a wide spatula to lift each quesadilla onto a cutting board, and cut into 6 pieces.
Directions for Mango-Chili Dipping Sauce:
1. Peel mango and cut into ½ inch dice.
2. Place half the chopped mango into a bowl, blender, or food processor and puree. Transfer mango puree into a small bowl.
3. Place 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of the puree back into the blender. Add vinegar, sugar, garlic, cilantro and sambal. Blend with 3 short pulses, followed by 2 (3-second pulses). Place in a bowl and add ¼ chopped mango.
Place dipping sauce in a bowl on a serving plate and arrange 6 quesadilla slices beside the sauce. Repeat for the remaining quesadillas.
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, and millions of ladybugs. Read all of Lisa’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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