The Cook and the Mango Tree: Ordinary Blessings

I need to feel the earth under my bare feet.

Just a few hours ago, I was hurtling across the blue Pacific, returning home to Hawaii, my partner, and a houseful of guests. Honestly, I’m feeling more than a little tired and ungrounded.

Standing in the kitchen of our Kailua house, preparing dinner for the visitors who depart tonight on a red-eye flight, the compelling urge to be outside, barefoot, suddenly feels insistent. Never mind that my hands are thickly coated in an Indian-style yogurt marinade that I’m massaging into the segmented remains of some free-range chickens.

I feed people, it’s what I do. Fresh, homemade fare that nourishes the body and soul.

Despite my own long day of travel, on the way home from the Honolulu airport, we stopped at Whole Foods Market in Kailua where I wandered around and gathered some basics with which to make a meal for the six of us. Nothing elaborate, I’m too knackered for that, and being summer in Hawaii, where most houses don’t have air conditioning, it’s too damn hot and humid to even consider cooking anything that requires more than a few minutes on the stove.

I have decided to grill some Indian-style chicken and serve it atop a saffron rice pilaf, with a fresh green salad alongside. Once the yogurt sauce is slathered over the chicken pieces to soak up the flavors for a couple of hours, I can rest my tired bones until just before dinner. Ideally the saucy fowl would marinate overnight, but a few hours will have to suffice.

suribachi

Suribachi: a finely-grooved mortar and pestle for grinding.

To a thick, Greek-style plain yogurt, I’ve added minced garlic, ginger, fresh lime juice, salt, chiles, cumin, cardamom, cloves and a kiss of cinnamon. The cumin and cardamom seeds I have both toasted lightly in a heavy skillet, and then crushed them using my suribachi—a Japanese-style mortar and pestle with ridges carved along the inside of the ceramic bowl for better traction and grinding.

Making incisions into the chicken pieces, I work the fragrant marinade into the flesh, thoroughly coating the segments on both sides, an aroma of spices rising with an exotic note, and set the lot to rest in the fridge until this evening.

I’ve purchased two large, ripe, mottled green and red mangoes grown on the Big Island, and these I will dice finely with some organic cucumber and cilantro, add a squeeze of lime, and spoon the juicy-sweet goodness atop the grilled chicken and saffron-infused rice.

I’m perspiring in the humidity. As I step from the house into the verdant and rustling landscape, a welcome breeze dances over me, wicking away a bit of the sticky heat. The cool of the stone lanai and then the soft grass beneath my bare soles feels very close to a sigh of relief.

The lush green, tropical world enfolding me offers a startling contrast to the parched brown of California in its drought-plagued summer. I know that in a few days I’ll gradually adjust, but right now the island air feels oppressively hot and humid, and I’m sweating from every pore. The breeze is a godsend.

lei of intoxicating tuberose is draped around my neck and shoulders, a welcome-home-to-the-islands gift from my beloved at the airport. The perfume of the white buds is heady and sweet, one of my favorite tropical scents—like the fragrant plumeria blossoms, it captures for me the essence of Hawaii.

Slowly I cross the lawn towards the venerable mango tree, the focal point at the edge of the ravine beyond, one of the special “Standing Ones” in my life that I am inordinately fond of. We are friends, this lovely old being and I, and I note immediately that the long, tonguelike leaves are bright, vivid green rather than dark. They seem to glow with new life, animated from within.

Several years ago, long before we moved to this house, the tree was heavily damaged in a storm, losing most of its upper, central trunk. It was severely pruned so it might survive, but it has never born fruit since the trauma of the storm and being harshly cut back.

mango

The mango tree at edge of the ravine.

When we arrived to live here two years ago, the thick brown trunk—a circumference equal to three or four men standing together—was tightly wrapped in a corset of non-functioning, old Christmas lights. I could almost hear the tree begging to be cut loose of the restrictive wires embedded in its rough bark, and on the second day of my residence, I marched out with a pair of wire cutters and freed it.

Looking at the mango tree now, admiring its shape and the way the wind dances through the thick foliage, it seems vibrant, healthy and happy. Someday soon it’s going to bear fruit again, I think.

My senses open to what surrounds—the scents, sounds, sights, and energetic feeling—I wiggle bare toes down into the thick green grass. After too many hours of hurtling through the atmosphere in the belly of a great metal bird, how good is this tactile reconnection of sole, soul and soil.

The frenzied jostle and chaos of airports, the buzzing electromagnetic energy and noise, the queues of people funneling through transportation security and boarding the plane, I find all of it tiresome. It is the most draining and tedious part of traveling.

Now with restorative earth under my feet, admiring the giant mango tree, listening to an island breeze as it dances clackity clackity in the swaying palm trees, and the coo cooing of mourning doves, I feel my nervous system unwinding gently—slowing down, a gentle softening of belly and breath. It’s a sense of coming home to myself after being uprooted and jangled about, barreling through a noisy, harried, technological world.

Gazing out across the wild jungle of the ravine, with a twinge of sadness I realize that this is the last time that I’ll return to this gracious house. For a dozen reasons, including my ongoing presence in California, we’ve decided to let go of this lovely sanctuary and downsize to something much smaller, close to Kailua’s beach.

The painted gypsy wagon rolls on again.

In the coming week, as this nomad has done so many times before, I will box up our belongings and get us moved to our next campsite. Given the heat and humidity, it’s not a task I am looking forward to, but such is life.

Chop wood, carry water… pack boxes.

I feel a faint tingling in my feet and lower legs, the energy of the earth gently working its subtle magic on my physiology, recalibrating me after the long travel. I know from experience that if I spend just half an hour barefoot outdoors, I’ll suffer little or no jet lag, and will effortlessly make the transition to my new locale.

The task of packing up the house looms large, and in my newly minted columnist role I have articles to write in the next days as well. It all feels slightly overwhelming at the moment, but I have been here before—too many times, really—and I know to take a couple of deep breaths and keep my feet on the earth.

One step at a time, River.

Vista2

View from the rear lawn.

Savoring the cooling breeze, I briefly go over my list of kitchen tasks in my head, making sure that nothing else needs to be done right now. I want to rest for a bit beneath the fan of our bedroom, a little siesta before I rouse to get dinner on the table for the guests.

Truth be told, I’m feeling anything but social, but I will rise to the occasion and we will gather at our long rectangular table in the dining room with windows and doors ajar to the evening. Like a soft round of applause, the wind rustling the great stand of bamboo just outside will serve as a backdrop to our animated conversation, and we will feast on a good, simple and fresh meal.

How many times have I written about the grace of the table, how it rests at the center of our lives..?

I’m still admiring my friend the mango tree when I note that high in its branches hangs a single, large green orb, and a childish grin of delight breaks across my face. 

How wonderful. Despite the setbacks, losses and challenges, life goes on. It bears fruit, no less.

I often say in these posts that blessed are the ones who find beauty and amazement in the most ordinary, familiar things, we who recognize them as the treasures of life. Friend, here’s hoping that whether it be the grace of the table, the fresh ingredients we have gathered, the sensation of being barefoot on the earth, a ripening mango, the wind in the trees, the light in our lover’s smile—anything, really—that we take a moment to pause and appreciate.

Savor it… and blessed be.

 


Indian-style chicken

Ingredients:

1 free-range, organic chicken, cut into pieces

250g (1 cup) plain yogurt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

1  1/2 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground coriander

½ – 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon sea salt

——-

For garnishing:

fresh ripe mango, diced

1 small cucumber, piled and diced

fresh cilantro

juice of half a lime

 

Method:

Prick the chicken pieces all over with a fork and, using a sharp knife, cut slashes in the flesh. Place the chicken in a wide, shallow dish and sprinkle both sides with some sea salt.

To make the marinade, in a glass or ceramic bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, cumin, ground coriander, cayenne pepper, cardamom, cloves, black pepper and salt. (I prefer to toast whole cumin and coriander seeds, along with black cardamom, and then grind them.) Stir until well mixed, then pour the mixture over the chicken and work it into the flesh, turning the chicken several times. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator, preferably for 8 hours or overnight. Remove the chicken from the fridge at least 30 minutes before cooking.

The chicken may be grilled or roasted. A gas-fired grill is convenient and works well. Preheat the grill on high for ten minutes or longer, lower it to medium heat, and place the chicken pieces on the oiled grate (which helps prevent sticking). Lower the heat and cook, turning occasionally, knowing that bone-in pieces require longer than boneless ones. Near the end of cooking, spoon additional marinade over the top and allow to bake.

If using a charcoal grill, prepare the fire for direct-heat cooking, and position the grill rack 5 inches from the fire. Allow the coals to burn until white ash covers them and the heat is moderate. Remove the chicken from the marinade, pressing lightly to extract excess marinade, and brush with oil. Place the chicken pieces on a well-oiled rack and grill, covered, with the vents open, turning 3-4 times, until the juices run clear when a piece is pierced near the bone with a knife, 35 – 40 minutes.

If roasting the chicken, preheat an oven to 450 F (230 C). Place the chicken in a roasting pan and cook, turning once, until the juices run clear when a piece is pierced near the bone with a knife, 25-30 minutes.

While the chicken cooks, finely dice the mango, then peel and dice the cucumber, and combine them with the chopped cilantro in a small bowl. Add a good squeeze of lime. When the chicken has cooked, spoon the mixture on top.

Serve with rice, or as desired.

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