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.

Summer Soup 2019: proof we really are nuts

The family made our annual Summer Soup on Sunday. 

I think we definitively proved we have no self-control when it comes to gardening or cooking. In spite of me reducing my garden area this year, and despite the knowledge that our son is leaving home in a week (and won’t be around to eat this year’s soup), we managed to make even more than usual.

We filled all three of our big stock pots, and it took from 7.30 am to 9.00 pm to pick, chop, and process all that soup.

We had soup for dinner, I put a meal’s worth of soup in the fridge, and there are 28 beautiful quart jars full of soup lined up in the cupboard. 

Summer Soup is full of potatoes, carrots, soy, green beans, zucchini, tomato, sweet peppers, hot peppers, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beet root, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and celery. The only thing not from the garden is the salt. It’s a burst of summer goodness for the cold days of winter. It’s a quick and delicious meal when we all come home late. 

But it’s more than preserved vegetables. It’s a whole-family team building exercise. After a dozen years, it’s a family tradition. Each soup-making session brings back memories of early years, when the kids’ help was more of a hinderance. They took enormous pride in their work those years, reciting the vegetables they’d cut every time we opened a jar.

Now they’re both accomplished cooks, and their help allows us to go way overboard on soup-making. They’re less vocal about it now, but I think they’re still proud of their part in Summer Soup.

As I’ve mentioned before, anyone can make soup, but it takes a family to make Summer Soup.

Mystery Maggots

Caterpillar, not maggot–see the six true legs and 10 prolegs?

The weather has been hot here, and all the doors and windows stand open all day. With no window screens, that means an array of bugs (and the occasional bird) pops in and out of the house. It’s not unusual to find flies, butterflies, damselflies, etc. on the windows. 

Still, I did a double-take when I saw maggots on my desk the other day. I knew they hadn’t flown in on their own—they must have been hatched nearby. I checked for unseen dead things on the shelves above, but found nothing. There was another maggot this morning, and I did a second unsuccessful check for the source. Then, while I was away from my desk for fifteen minutes, another appeared.

This time I pulled out the microscope and had a closer look.

It wasn’t a maggot at all. It was a tiny caterpillar.

I could think of no reason for a bunch of caterpillars to be living on my bookshelves and dropping onto my desk.

Then I remembered earlier in the day I’d shooed a wasp out of the office several times.

Bingo!

The wasp was a European tube wasp. These little insects seek out cracks and holes to nest in. They fill their nests with up to 20 caterpillars as food for their larvae and then seal the nest with mud.

That would explain the bits of dried soil that accompanied some of the ‘maggots’.

We’ve seen the same thing with our native potter wasps. Last year I had to put tape over all the screw holes in the underside of the dining table, because potter wasps were stuffing them with paralysed spiders (and the spiders kept falling out all over the floor).

As I write, the wasp has returned. Empty-handed this time, she’s fossicking around for a new place to raise her young. Maybe she’ll find one her caterpillars will stay in this time.

Inside-out Cupcakes

I love cupcakes for lunch boxes. They’re just the right size and are an easy to grab and go snack. But if they have icing on them, they make a huge mess in the lunch box. 

I had some cream cheese frosting left over from a cake I made a couple of weeks ago. It needed to be used, so I thought I’d make zucchini cupcakes to put it on. Then I considered the problem of frosting in lunch boxes. What I needed was a way to put icing in the middle of the cupcakes, so it wouldn’t get all over everything else.

I decided to divide the batter into two square pans. Then I stacked the two layers bottom-to-bottom, with the icing between. This left the mostly crumb-free cake tops exposed on top and bottom, and kept the messy icing in the centre. I cut them into handy grab-and-go squares, and voila! We had … what? Inside-out cupcakes? Icing sandwiches? I’m not entirely certain what to call them, but they’re delicious and travel well in lunches without making a big mess.

Crazy Cake Season 2019

I’ve been remiss. Crazy Cake Season is two-thirds over and I haven’t posted a single cake blog!

I admit, it’s because I felt this year’s cakes weren’t as good as previous years. In part, the kids asked for challenging subjects for their cakes: slime moulds (daughter) and a 3-D map of Wellington with all the buildings (son).

I resisted the urge to create a big pile of dog vomit slime mould for my daughter’s cake, and instead created a log covered in slime moulds of various species. Mexican paste worked well for the stalked fruiting bodies, and a little gum arabic glaze made them glisten like the real thing. All in all, it was a successful cake (she was able to identify most of the species, so I got points for biological accuracy, at least), but it wasn’t a cake with a lot of visual appeal for most people.

The Wellington cake was trickier. A map of Wellington? In cake?! I opted for a Wellington-themed cake, instead. Mexican-paste letters created a passable replica of the iconic Hollywood-style Wellington sign. A Mexican paste whale tail rises over the choppy waters of the harbour, and a replica of the Beehive proves you can actually make that building uglier than the original. The map? Well, I did try to create a map of the neighbourhood where my son will soon be living, but my icing wasn’t behaving well (it was a very dry 30 degrees C in the kitchen, and it was variously melting and crusting over), and that bit was quite a disaster. The end result wasn’t something to feast the eyes on.

But in the interests of full disclosure, here they are: this year’s lacklustre cakes. The good news is that they tasted great! The slime mould log was a lemon curd jelly roll that was one of the most flavourful cakes I’ve ever made, and perfect for summer. And the Wellington cake was a reliably delicious spice cake recipe with a beautifully soft texture. So, regardless of their look, they were enjoyed by everyone.

One more cake to go in Crazy Cake Season!

The Colours of Summer

Blue peas, purple potatoes, green beans, yellow zucchini, red tomatoes, orange carrots … The summer garden is full of colour. But it’s not just a feast for the eyes.

In the garden, the colours can serve a purpose—black and yellow tomatoes and red lettuce are overlooked by birds and bugs because they’re not the ‘right’ colours. Blue peas have tough pods that resist birds. And purple basil deals better with dry heat than green.

In the kitchen, the colours create spectacular visual treats—purple mashed potatoes, deep orange braised carrots, bright green pesto, pasta studded with all the colours of the rainbow. Along with the colours come flavours not found in supermarket produce—the rich sweet-tart of an Indigo Apple tomato, the succulent crunch of Scarlet Runner beans, the smooth earthiness of a Zephyr zucchini, the nutty bitter of a Touchon carrot.

A few years ago there was a campaign here to get kids to eat more vegetables. The main message was “Eat your colours.” I agree. Eat your colours. Revel in them. Feast your eyes and your taste buds.

Happy Coincidences = Amazing Results

I wanted to bake brownies the other day. I had my heart set on my usual brownie recipe, with chocolate chips and walnuts added.

But when I went for the cocoa, there was none. Oh no!

But there was a large bar of really nice dark chocolate … I used the chocolate instead.

Then, we were almost out of walnuts. Darn!

I rifled through the cupboards. Plenty of raisins, but that wasn’t what I wanted. Only a few dried cranberries, but that flavour would be nice. I remembered that dried gooseberries tasted a lot like dried cranberries, and we had plenty of those. As I reached for the gooseberries, I noticed a little jar on top of them.

Dried raspberries. When we dried them, I had no idea how I might use the crunchy little nuggets that resulted.

Now I knew exactly what they were for. I tipped the whole jar into the brownie mix, along with a generous quantity of chocolate chips.

The result is the most divine brownie I think I’ve ever made. The high-quality dark chocolate makes the bar decadently rich, and the dried raspberries provide sparkling, intense bursts of fruit flavour that lingers long after the last crumbs are eagerly licked off the plate.

And to think I would have settled for an ordinary walnut brownie …

Lucky thing I was out of cocoa and walnuts!

Gazpacho–Cool Food for a Hot Day

Gazpacho depends on good quality tomatoes. Only use the best.

While many of you in North America are shivering in the cold, we’re sweltering in the heat here. Our daily highs are in the mid-30s (the mid-90s F). After dripping sweat all afternoon, the idea of cooking is unappealing.

So we resort to hot-weather foods. Fortunately, the garden makes this easy. One of my favourite cool dinners is gazpacho—a cold vegetable soup. I think there are as many variations on gazpacho as there are cooks, but here’s my version. Serve with crusty bread and butter for a more substantial meal.

5-6 medium tomatoes (about 10 cups, chopped)
2 medium cucumbers
1 small red onion
handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
black pepper to taste

Peel and coarsely chop the cucumbers. Process in a food processor until finely chopped (not pureed). Remove to a large bowl.

Core and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Process in a food processor until finely chopped. Remove to the bowl with the cucumbers.

Finely chop the onion and basil (I find this easiest by hand, but it can also be done in the food processor). Add to the bowl.

Crush the garlic and add to the bowl, along with the vinegar, salt, and pepper.

*Optional—add a finely chopped jalapeño or a dash of hot sauce.

Mix all ingredients together and chill 2 hours before serving. If you’ve got no time to chill it, add crushed ice to the soup.