Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

This website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

Advent List

It’s the silly season, with end-of-the-school-year stuff piling up with Christmas, summer vacation, and garden stuff.

Once again, lists take centre stage for me. The general to-do list gave way to a ‘before Christmas’ to-do list. That list has now been refined into a day-by-day list, a sort of sadistic Advent calendar counting the days to Christmas.

I’m afraid ‘write blog’ didn’t make it onto today’s list. It was bumped off when I failed to complete ‘pick and process peas’ on yesterday’s list, due to the unexpectedly large harvest.

So, I’m off to blanch and freeze peas. Hope you’ve all had a lovely day and completed everything on you to-do list. Just two more weeks, and we’ll get a day off!

Ruined by Popularity

Twelve years ago, we made the hair-raising drive out to Tumbledown Bay, on the recommendation of a colleague.

We fell in love. The remote bay with its sandy beach, kid-friendly waves, stunning scenery, and fabulous wildlife was exactly what we wanted in a beach. We began going there regularly.

For a few years, we could count on sharing the beach with, at most, half a dozen other people–that was on busy days. It was an intimate, private sort of experience, and those who found themselves together at Tumbledown Bay often struck up conversations (or, as we did on one of our very first visits, lasting friendships). It was a certain kind of person who went to Tumbledown, and everyone respected the desire for a crowd-free beach experience.

But word got about. Partly our fault–we praised the beach and encouraged our friends to visit it. Last week, when we arrived at Tumbledown Bay, there were already a dozen cars there, and more kept pouring in as the day wore on. The narrow footpath over the dunes had been replaced by a wide, driveable lane, and there was even a car on the beach. A rubbish bin overflowed at the end of the lane. Beach tents, boom boxes, people harassing the seals, dogs leaving ‘gifts’ along the waterline…it was no longer our Tumbledown Bay.

By any Northern Hemisphere standards, the beach was sparsely populated. But Tumbledown Bay isn’t equipped to handle crowds. It has no facilities, and the road to and from the bay is steep, narrow, and in poor shape. It’s not a road on which you want to meet oncoming traffic, but last weekend there was no way to avoid it.

It was possibly the last time we will visit Tumbledown Bay. A shame, really. It was a magical spot.

The Things We Do for Love

I’m not fond of pickled onions.

To be fair, I haven’t tried pickled onions since I was a kid, so who knows what I think of them today.

But I would never have planted, watered, and weeded pickling onions; I would never have spent a day prepping, brining and canning them for myself. 

No, all that work was for my son. 

He’s never had pickled onions, but I think he will adore them. He eats the garlic cloves from the bottom of the dill pickle jars, and loves onions in every form. 



So the pickled onions are for him. I’ll be curious to try them myself—maybe I’ll like them, too. Seeing how pretty they are in the jars, I wouldn’t mind an excuse to make them again next year. 

Currant Clearwing

Mating currant clearwings. Photo: Plantsurfer, public domain

They’re the most beautiful pests in the garden. Currant clearwings are moths, but they would like you to think they’re wasps, with their clear, narrow wings and yellow stripes. The deception deters predators who don’t want to tangle with a dinner that stings.

Adults emerge in early summer. They lay their eggs on the growing tips of currants and gooseberries. The caterpillars hatch out and burrow into the stems, killing them.

We’ve had the occasional currant clearwing in the past. Mostly, I let them go, because there were few of them, and I do like the way they look.

But this year there are many, many more than usual. I’m squishing all that I see. They leave gold dust on my hands when I do.

Hopefully, my efforts will be effective, and we’ll go back to just a few currant clearwings next year, so I don’t have to kill so many of these beauties.

A Cook’s Evolution

It’s a piece of cake…

I made quiche for dinner tonight. Not unusual on a Wednesday.

Not these days, anyway.

There was a time when quiche was a weekend meal. I made the crust, and my husband made the filling. It was a big deal. It certainly wasn’t a task for one person after a full day at work.

There are a lot of meals like that. Meals that used to be daunting, but now are regulars at any time of week.

Part of that is due to my 5-second commute. If I quit work at 5:00, I’m home at 5:00 (provided I’m not distracted by the weeds between my office and the house). I have more time to cook than when I had an hour-long drive to work.

But most of it is the evolution of my cooking skills. Things like pie crusts, homemade noodles and homemade tortillas used to be difficult and apt to cause me frustration by being too wet or too dry. I’ve made them so many times now, I don’t even pull out a recipe anymore. And I’ve refined the recipes so that they’re always the right consistency.

I have an intuitive feel for what needs to be done to cook a meal, so that I work efficiently, taking the opportunity of a minute here or there while something cooks to prepare another dish.

I know when to think ahead, too—putting beans on to soak at breakfast time so making refried beans at dinner is quick and easy, making a pie crust the evening before so that a quiche is as simple as cooking vegetables and tossing them in the pie, making a double batch of labour-intensive dishes so that there are leftovers for the freezer for instant gourmet meals, preserving garden produce in exactly the right quantities and forms so it’s easy and quick to use in our favourite dishes.

The evolution has been slow, and it’s only now and again that I notice it. When I do, I’m always surprised. “When did this become so easy?” By the time I notice, I’ve almost forgotten how difficult it used to be. There are a lot of past hours of stress and frustration behind every beautiful quiche, or stack of tortillas, or homemade ravioli that I casually whip up today.

It’s a good reminder, for those times I see someone else effortlessly doing something I find difficult or impossible. It may be effortless today, but you can bet a whole lot of effort and evolution has gone into making it that way.

Orange Cranberry Scones

In a nod to Thanksgiving, I made orange cranberry scones for Sunday breakfast. Another wonderful use of barley flour. I’ve grown quite fond of barley flour in cakes and pastries–it lends a softness to the texture that is delightful. It also seems to delay baked goods going stale. The remaining scone, pictured here, was just as tender and moist on Monday morning as it had been fresh out of the oven on Sunday.

2 cups barley flour
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
125 g (1/2 cup) cold butter
1 egg
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup orange juice
grated rind of 1 orange

Combine the flours sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs.

Whisk together the egg, buttermilk, orange juice and orange rind in a separate bowl. Add to the flour mixture, stirring until evenly moistened.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead two or three times. Divide dough in half. Pat each half into a circle about 2 cm (3/4-inch) thick, and cut each circle into eight wedges.

Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 190°C (375°F) for 20-25 minutes.