Nina Cucina Delivers Elevated Vegan Meals From Kāne‘ohe
Proof that foodies can find indulgence in locally sourced, plant-based soups, baked goods and other comfort dishes.
What the writer Michael Pollan said—“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”—sounds easy enough, right? But plant-based food, free of flavorful, umami-rich animal proteins and their succulent fat, has been hard for most decadent foodies and chefs to embrace. As someone who loves food, eats for a living and strives to be health-conscious, I also harbor a love-hate relationship with healthy food.
So when I saw Nina Cucina’s plant-based menu online—and realized that it could be delivered to my house—I ordered it on the spot. Nina Cucina’s meal delivery service features ready-to-eat soups, salads and entrees that are dairy-free, gluten-free, grain-free and soy-free—and the plot twist? They taste really good, and you get a ton of food for the price.
Chef-owner Nina Pullella began sharing her nutritious cooking with others in 2016, when a close friend was diagnosed with stage four cancer. She grew up eating whole foods and learning to cook in her family’s Italian American restaurant in New Jersey, but trying to help her friend fight cancer with a clean diet, Pullella realized how hard it was to find prepared food that was actually healthy, unprocessed and made from whole ingredients. Nina Cucina was launched to create nutritious and delicious “fast food.” Pullella started her business selling vegan grab-and-go dishes out of the Waimānalo Market Co-Op, then local farmers markets. Now her team cooks out of KEY (Kualoa He‘eia Ecumenical Youth) Projects commissary kitchens in Kāne‘ohe and delivers meals to the Windward side from Kahalu‘u to Waimānalo and from Kalihi to Hawai‘i Kai. Every delivery is $130 (weekly subcribers get $10 off) and includes 32 ounces of soup, accompanying baked goods, two meal-sized salads and two entrées. Weekly menu sets are posted online.
Past dishes like juicy eggplant “meatballs,” mock tuna salad and savory lentil loaf made me a fan. Upcoming choices include cream of broccoli soup with cheddar and caramelized onion muffins; a salad of white bean hummus, roasted beets and “goat cheese”; and Chick’Un piccata with roasted spaghetti squash and garlicky string beans. When a recent menu spotlights cream of ‘ulu mushroom soup and gluten-free garlic parmesan focaccia, I simply have to taste them together.
The ‘ulu mushroom soup is creamy and rich with fresh herbs, tender chunks of breadfruit and cremini mushrooms from Small Kine Farms. And the focaccia! While it’s slightly softer than the glutenous version, a quick turn in the toaster crisps it up; it’s light and the bottom is perfectly olive oily. Dunking the garlicky bread into my bowl of soup is everything I hoped it’d be.
Next, it’s hot out and a papaya salad sounds divine. And it is huge! The greens, fresh and dry, form a top layer, while the dressed quinoa, papaya, pickled onions, mint and avocado are at the bottom of the compostable container—a pro move. The salad is bright, the lively flavors elevating the earthy quinoa. The tangy pickled red onions balance out the buttery avocado, papaya and pops of mint shine, and toasted pumpkin seeds lend a toasty finish. This salad seems to know that it still feels like summer on O‘ahu.
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I save the rest of the salad for the next day and dive into half of a locally grown miso-glazed eggplant. Cross-hatched, roasted until creamy and glazed with a salty-sweet miso sauce, it sends me into umami heaven. The miso is just flavorful enough to let the eggplant flavor through. The crunchy cucumber salad is laced with toasted sesame oil and partnered with a mix of red rice, brown rice, millet, quinoa and amaranth. A light dressing on the grains keeps me plowing through. At the end of my meal, I’m full, feeling good and left with portions for the rest of the week.
For me, the bottom line is that Nina Cucina knows how to let health-conscious foodies indulge. I like that the extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil is organic, the herbs used are medicinal grade, and produce comes from farms from Waimānalo to Kunia to He‘eia. Everything is made from scratch. The meals bring peace to my body and soul—by changing my love-hate relationship with healthy food to pure love.