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.

Lazy Sunday Baked Oatmeal

I make a cooked breakfast every Sunday. It’s a luxury—a gift I give myself as much as to the family. So it doesn’t feel like a chore to get up early and cook once a week.

At least, most of the time it doesn’t. Once in a while I’m uninspired on a Sunday morning, particularly if I spent Saturday in the kitchen.

Last week was one of those Sundays. I couldn’t be bothered making scones or pancakes or muffins. So I pulled out a recipe my mother gave me years ago. One I don’t recall ever having made, but it was a simple, stir-together baked oatmeal that struck me as just the thing for a Sunday I didn’t feel like cooking. Best of all, the bread oven was still hot from the previous day, so I didn’t even have to use the electric oven. 

I modified the recipe a bit (because I can’t seem to ever make a recipe exactly as it calls for).

here’s my version of baked oatmeal—delicious with a generous dollop of unsweetened yogurt or a splash of milk.

125 g (1/2 cup) melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
3 cups quick cooking oats
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup raisins

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Pour into a 23 cm (9-inch) square baking pan. Bake at 180ºC (350ºF) for 30-35 minutes. 

Oh Christmas Tree!

This time last year, I wrote a blog post about Christmas trees and our family’s unorthodox take on them. I argued that, while our trees may not look like the traditional pine tree, they embody the spirit of the season.

This year’s tree is no exception. After years of suggesting we build the tree out of LEGO, the kids finally agreed. For over a week, the living room floor was a construction zone, strewn with LEGO bricks, mini-figures and gears. The two-metre-tall central structure took two evenings of negotiation, planning and construction. Then there were the branches—marvels of LEGO engineering.

Then came the whimsy—that took the longest. A combination staircase/ ladder/ escalator/ elevator winds upward from level to level. A waterwheel turns lazily on the eighth floor. Gravity takes a holiday as a kayaker paddles straight up, trailing his pet shark on a lead beside him, and emergency personnel (including the undead) carry an injured person up the side of a column. Mini-figures evoke Escher on a section of staircase. A large ship juts from both sides of the trunk, as though the tree grew into place around it. A man fishes from the ninth floor. Motorised gears turn a fantasy clock, spin a merry-go-round, drive a hammer in a dwarven workshop, and spin a star. Under the lowest branches, a kiosk sells tickets to visit the tree.

And all that is before ornaments were added.

Now, mini-figures greet Santa Claus, and a giant butterfly takes flight from the top of the tree. Snowflakes, baubles, and our eclectic mix of homemade ornaments (including the Christmas tardigrade, quite a few insects, and possibly the only Trichonympha ornament on the planet) add to the seasonal cheer. To the Christmas purist, I’m certain our tree is an abomination.

But … evenings of family fun, laughter and creativity—the Christmas season doesn’t get any better. 

See the tree in action:

 

Colourful Carrots

The carrots are just at the thinning stage right now. I’m embarrassed to admit it took years for me to figure out that if I pulled the largest carrots at thinning time, we could eat them, and the ‘runts’ (which I used to pull out) would grow to a fine size.

But I’ve learned, and so at thinning time, we enjoy handfuls of pretty little baby carrots.

I planted six varieties of carrot this year. And despite my talent for over-planting, I’ve never yet grown enough carrots to satisfy the family’s annual consumption. The range of varieties encourages me to plant more, and they make for beautiful kaleidoscope dishes, cheerful with colour. 

Delicious Disaster

Ugly but delicious.

Gooseberries are ripening by the bucketful right now, so when I was planning dessert for a party last Saturday night, I naturally turned to gooseberries for inspiration. 

I made a large batch of gooseberry pie filling and baked up dozens of gooseberry tarts. Unfortunately, the fruit bubbled over, creating a sticky mess that glued the tarts into their pans.

Almost every one broke when I tried to take them out of the pans. One was so crumbled I had to spoon it out …

… right into my mouth. It was a sublime experience. Deliciously sweet and sour with a flaky crust, I thought I’d serve them anyway. I requested a second opinion from my husband and kids, giving them each the most broken tarts. They moaned in pleasure and nodded.

No one at the party mentioned how the tarts looked. I’m not sure they sat on the tray long enough for anyone to examine them—one taste and they vanished.

A delicious baking disaster. I’ll definitely have to do it again.

Gooseberry Pie Filling (enough for two full-size pies)

8 cups fresh gooseberries
4 cups sugar
2 Tbsp corn flour (cornstarch)
enough water to prevent sticking (less than 1/4 cup)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook 1-2 minutes, until berries soften. Crush berries in the pot with a potato masher. Boil about 5 minutes longer until the mixture begins to thicken. 

The pie filling can be baked in a double or a single crust. If you choose a single crust, top with streusel topping:

2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbs (80 g) melted butter
Blend all ingredients with a fork until crumbly.

I baked my tiny tarts for 35 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). A full pie should take 45 – 60 minutes.

Obsessive Gardening Strikes Again

It’s done! I finally finished planting out vegetables this past weekend. At both houses. And though I said I wasn’t going to, I ended up with nearly full gardens on both properties (never mind how I managed to start so many seeds in the first place…). 

Of course, I justified it with the observation that plants won’t grow well in the new garden—neither the weeds nor the vegetables—so it’s not like that garden will be too much work (yeah, right). 

And it would be a shame not to plant in the old garden one last time and reap the harvest from fifteen years of work on that patch of land (even if I won’t get to harvest it all). It was only logical to plant two full gardens, right?

Logical only if you’re a problem gardener like me. Once again, I’ve proven I have no self-control when it comes to plants. I can already hear my justifications for excessive gardening next year … The soil is so bad at the new place, I’ll have to over plant just to get enough vegetables to eat. I’ll just plant green manures and till them in to improve the soil. I don’t know which varieties will do well in the new garden, so I’ll have to plant lots of different ones … I’m sure I’ll come up with plenty of other justifications, too. It’s hopeless, really. If you put me in an apartment on the twenty-third floor, I’d find some way to grow excessive plants.

At least I know I’m not alone. Just look at the number of gardening blogs out there. And the number of people I see in the garden centres loading up their cars with bags of potting mix and potted plants. And in a few months, the multitude of gate sales of excess vegetables. And the number of people who post proud pictures of their first tomatoes or strawberries of the season on social media. There’s a whole community of obsessive gardeners out there. Come on, pick up your hoe, spading fork, or trowel and join us. We’re always partying in the garden, and there’s usually great food afterwards.

Sorry, Can’t Stop …

I sat down to write the other day, but all I managed to put on paper for the first fifteen minutes was my to-do list. The combination of late spring/early summer garden work (on two properties), end of the school year madness, and the insane schedule of housework associated with selling our house has me enslaved to multiple to-do lists. Most of the items should have been done yesterday …

The irony, of course, is that the house and gardens have probably never looked better. It would be delightful to sit back with a cool drink and enjoy the quiet ambiance. There’s never been a better time to stop and smell the roses (which are blooming in profusion).

Knowing I wouldn’t actually sit down and enjoy a rest, or walk through the garden without pulling weeds, I brought some of the flowers inside where I’d be forced to enjoy them. Maybe I’m only stopping to smell the roses as I brush my teeth in the morning, but I’m enjoying them nonetheless.

Marinated Artichokes

The online recipes for marinated artichoke hearts tend to be for small quantities—enough to make a small jar. So when I decided to make marinated artichoke hearts with eight large artichokes left over from dinner, I took those recipes as a general guide, and made it up as I went.

Into the bowl with the cooked artichokes went equal quantities of cider vinegar and water until the vegetables were mostly covered. Then I added a sprinkling of red pepper flakes, some ground dried garlic (because I had none fresh), and a handful of chopped fresh oregano. I poured olive oil over the whole thing until the artichokes were completely covered by liquid, and then I stirred to mix it all.

The result was a beautiful vat of marinated artichoke hearts so good, they need a fancy dinner party to go with them.