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.

Uplifted Polenta Lasagne, Take 2

A while back I blogged about the Uplifted Polenta Lasagne my husband made. Well, recently I decided to create another version of it based on the ingredients I had available. The result was spectacular and deeply satisfying.

First, make the firm polenta:

1 1/2 cups corn meal (sold as ‘polenta’ here, sold as ‘instant polenta’ in many other places)
5 cups water
1 1/2 tsp salt

Bring salted water to a boil and whisk in the cornmeal. Turn the heat down slightly and whisk for about five minutes, until the polenta thickens. Pour out onto a large, lightly oiled jelly roll pan and spread evenly. Allow to cool for at least 30 minutes.

While the polenta is cooling, make the tomato sauce:

2 cloves garlic
2 Tbs olive oil
2 smallish carrots, grated
1 Tbs paprika
1 can chopped tomato (I would have used fresh if I’d had any)
handful fresh basil
salt and pepper to taste

Saute the garlic in oil until fragrant. Drop in carrots and paprika and cook for a minute or two longer. Add tomato, basil, salt and pepper and simmer for 15 minutes.

While the tomato sauce is simmering:

Preheat the oven to 190ºC (375ºF).

Slice a medium-large zucchini into 3 mm thick rounds.

Grate 1 1/2 cups edam cheese.

When all the components are ready, oil a 23×33 cm (9×13-inch) baking pan. Cut polenta into about 24 squares. Layer polenta squares, tomato sauce, and zucchini rounds in sideways ‘stacks’ to fill the pan. Pour over the remaining tomato sauce and top with cheese. Bake for 30 minutes.

Old Friends, New Perspectives

We regularly seek out new places to hike, but sometimes it’s nice to visit old friends.

Kura Tawhiti / Castle Hill is one of those old friends. We’ve been going there since we arrived in New Zealand 15 years ago. Lately, we’ve been there a lot, because the kids enjoy bouldering there.

I never get tired of the place. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore, it feels like every visit is new. And the place shows different faces in different weather—fog, rain, snow, or sparkling blue skies. It never gets old.

Last week when we visited, there was a carpet of daisies blooming in a spot I rarely pay attention to. It made me stop and take note of the location as though I’d never been there before.

On every visit, I make the climb to the top of Castle Hill—the highest point at Kura Tawhiti on which stands a glorious sentinel rock. It’s a stiff climb of about 160 vertical metres. From there you can look down on the rest of the limestone formation.

Looking down at Kura Tawhiti from Castle Hill Peak.

I was lucky to have the opportunity, not only to visit Kura Tawhiti on Wednesday last week, but to look down upon it from a much higher vantage point on Friday.

We hiked up from Porter’s Pass to Castle Hill Peak (1078 metres higher than Castle Hill, and a serious slog on unrelenting scree), from which all of Kura Tawhiti looks like a little bump on the valley floor below. It was interesting to see what I think of as a large part of the landscape put into perspective. And it was a great reminder of just how many places there are to explore, big and small—it’s a great wide world out there!

Nelson Lakes Tramping

Before Christmas, the family spent five days tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park. We have tried several times to plan a trip to the area around Angelus Hut, but something has always happened to cancel it—once it was bad weather, another time it was a gastrointestinal bug at Angelus Hut that laid 30 hikers low, another time it was the Kaikoura earthquake. But this year, we managed, with only a 24-hour postponement due to the weather.

We rolled in late on day one. With only a two-hour hike to the first hut and pouring rain forecast to clear late in the day, there was no reason to start early. We lucked out, and the last raindrops fell as we were getting out of the car. The climb to Bushline Hut on Paddy’s Track was a bit of a monotonous uphill, but with nice views. If I were doing it again though, I’d give Bushline Hut a miss. The place is overrun by mice—if the noise of them nibbling into everyone’s packs didn’t keep you awake all night, their pattering feet over your bed or down your neck did. It was less than pleasant.

Vegetable sheep (Raoulia spp)

Leaving the mice behind in sparkling sunshine the next morning, we followed Robert Ridge to Angelus Hut. Well above tree line, the ridge is one continuous spectacular view of the mountains and lakes in and around the park. We were prepared for wind and cold (it had snowed on the ridge the day before), but enjoyed sun all day with very little wind. My favourite part of the ridge was the profusion of vegetable sheep—some of the most spectacular specimens I’ve ever seen.

Angelus hut dwarfed by the surrounding landscape.

We made good time and enjoyed lunch overlooking a mountain tarn just a few minutes before reaching Angelus Hut, in its dramatic location at the edge of Lake Rotomaninitua. That left us all afternoon to explore the stunning tarns, streams and rocks around the hut. Rain from the preceding days had left all the tarns and streams overflowing, and the sound of flowing water was a constant—trickling through rocks underfoot or rushing in torrents down the mountainsides.

Mt. Cedric Route

The following day was the hardest and most spectacular, following the Mt. Cedric Route to Sabine Hut. I thought Robert Ridge was spectacular, but the Mt. Cedric Route blew Robert Ridge out of the water! Again, we had fabulous weather and enjoyed the views. The route skirts around an unnamed 1880-metre peak, which we summited—an easy scramble without packs, and well worth it for the views. From that high point, the rest of the track is downhill. Fourteen hundred metres vertically, to be exact, most of which happens in the incredibly steep final 1.5 km. While the ridges and scree slopes of the majority of the route are visually and mentally daunting, they’re relatively easy to traverse. But the drop through the forest, on slick wet leaves, was basically one long ungainly fall.

We were rewarded at the end by Sabine Hut on the shore of Lake Rotoroa. A nice swim in the lake and a gentle walk to the Sabine River made for a relaxing afternoon.

Day four was a long uphill, which was actually welcome after so much downhill the previous day, ending at Speargrass Hut. Unlike the previous two days, the Sabine-Speargrass Track is entirely in the forest. And it is a magical forest—lush and wet, but it gives the impression of perching on nothing but great blocks of rock. The track regularly traverses roots with deep holes between them, and you could hear water gurgling underfoot in many locations.

The most magical spot along this section of track was an open bog not far from Speargrass Hut. A long boardwalk climbs to a platform perched in the bog. Benches provide a nice place to sit and take in the view. Coming out of the forest into a landscape so rich in colour felt like entering a painting—colours just a little too saturated, bog falling away a little too perfectly to reveal distant peaks a little too sharp and dramatic to be quite real. 

Day five was a quick, relatively unremarkable jaunt out to the carpark along Speargrass Track, and then a long drive home.

Quite possibly one of the most spectacular pre-Christmas tramps we’ve done. It was definitely worth waiting for.

Fixing Mistakes

Last week I started making a new pair of trousers. Because I used a tried and true pattern, I didn’t test the fit until near the end.

That was a mistake.

I couldn’t zip them up, they were so small around the hips. 

That can’t be, I thought. I’m still wearing the last two pairs of trousers I made with that pattern. What have I done wrong? They needed extra fabric in the side seams. But I’d installed a welt pocket over one of the seams, and I’d trimmed all the seam allowances—there wasn’t enough fabric there to let out the seams.

I thought about all the hours I’d put into them—how carefully I’d set the fly zip, how beautifully the welt pocket had gone in, how I’d only bought just enough fabric, how much I really needed a new pair of pants.

Thoroughly discouraged, I nearly chucked the garment into the bin. 

But I didn’t.

I put everything away and made myself a t-shirt instead. Then I made a lovely button-down tunic with slightly quirky buttons. Then I sewed a new laundry bag. 

Finally, I was ready to face the trousers again. There had to be a way to salvage them, if only I was creative enough.

I remembered my first pair of zip-off pants, in which I didn’t allow enough ease for energetic hiking. They’d had pockets over the side seams too. I’d split the legs right up the front and back from waist to knee and put in long triangular gussets that ended up looking quite sporty.

Maybe I could do something similar with these trousers. I drafted several inserts of various shapes. I didn’t like any of them, because they all destroyed the look I wanted. But the alternative was to throw the garment away.

With nothing to lose, I carefully sliced my beautiful trousers into pieces. I tried not to worry about why I’d made such a bad mistake in the first place, but to focus on making the fix as perfect as possible.

To my relief, the adjusted trousers fit. To my surprise, the inserts don’t look bad at all. 

It reminds me of how far I have come since my youth—an easily frustrated 20-year-old me would probably have tossed those trousers in anger (in fact, I can recall doing just that to more than one garment). But I’ve learned that most mistakes can be fixed once I let go of the frustration and move on to the problem-solving. It’s probably a good lesson for the rest of life too.

Cover Reveal: Squelched

I’m thrilled to be able to reveal the cover of Squelched. Release date January 2020.

Tory’s life is comfortably routine. She has her cat, her job at the Laurel Glen Library, and her friend Jess. She’s happy and content … until she loses her job, finds her deadbeat dad, and discovers she’s a monster with deadly powers.

FBI Agent Nico Michaelson was hoping for the assignment to launch his career. Instead he’s stuck following Tory and her crazy cat. But is she really the monster the government believes she is? And is he willing to kill her, or would he rather ask her out?

Sparks fly in this lighthearted urban fantasy in which the only likely casualty is one man’s heart.

Cilantro Security

Cilantro (aka coriander) is an acquired taste. When I first had it, I thought it tasted like soap. Now I love it. Which makes this year’s crop all the more welcome, because we’ve been without it for several months.

Cilantro will grow year-round here, although during our dry summers, it bolts quickly. Usually I plant a spring crop and let it bolt and re-seed itself for a fall/winter crop of volunteer plants. Unfortunately, last spring’s crop was badly stunted by aphids and a hot dry spell, and it didn’t set seed. 

So we went all winter without cilantro—a sad state, when winter is the time for chilis and bean dishes that we normally flavour with cilantro.

It’s hot and dry again, but I’ve taken precautions against another cilantro failure. I planted two crops several weeks apart, and I’m watering them well. Hopefully we’ll be back to a continuous cilantro supply this year.

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.