Fresh Eyes

Endangered dolphins? Nothing unusual to see...

Endangered dolphins? Nothing unusual to see…

Travelling around this week with friends from the U.S., I am seeing things with fresh eyes. The strange pronunciations, the shockingly changeable weather, the casual acceptance of road closures, spotting endangered species from the roadside…all those things I now just accept as normal. I’m reminded of how foreign they were to me once.

Coming from the land of restaurant chains, they were surprised by the abundance and quality of local cafés. Coming from a place of certainty, they remarked on the number of times I said, “This has changed completely since I was last here.” Coming from a land of freezing winters, they marvelled at fresh vegetables from the garden at the winter solstice.

It has highlighted for me just how much I have ‘gone native’. How much I have accepted, adapted to, and embraced this place. It has become me, and I have become it. There are many times when I still feel foreign, even after ten years here, but having visitors here helps me realise just how much I have come to belong.

Westland

100_3393 smI’ve been on the West Coast with friends this weekend. The South Island’s west coast always reminds me of Panama. Though one is a temperate zone in a modern, developed country and the other is a tropical, developing country, there are striking similarities in the landscape.

Both are landscapes in which agriculture struggles to hold its own against encroaching rainforest (or the other way around, depending on your point of view).

Giant trees in the middle of paddocks clearly grew up in the middle of the forest and were left for stock shelter. Stumps dotting the farmland attest to the recent clearing of the forest. Drainage ditches rush with water, and the lush vegetation defies a climate harsh in its abundance.

Towns and villages cling precariously to the wet slopes. Lichens and moss encrust rotting weatherboards. Sheds are engulfed by vines. Human sounds are drowned out by a cacophony of raucous birds. Nature dominates the human world. One good storm, one bad decision, and nature will reclaim what people have temporarily usurped.

Of course, this is where the similarities end. Panama’s sweltering heat, its humped Brahman cattle, and volcanic clay soils are nothing like the West Coast, where glaciers reach the rainforest, and black and white Holstein-Friesians graze the paddocks.

I love visiting the West Coast, with its unkempt abundance. It is a sparsely populated frontier, where only the hardiest survive. Lush and lovely and harsh.

Potato Soup

Potato soup is one of those comfort foods. A winter warmer that takes the chill off even the coldest day.

I grew up eating my mother’s delicious potato chowder, with milk and hard boiled eggs, but my potato soup repertoire has expanded since then, and I’ve tried many variations on the theme.

One my favourites has become this shockingly simple potato leek soup. It’s simplicity belies its rich, satisfying flavours.

1kg potatoes

4 large leeks

3 Tbsp butter

¾ tsp salt

Salt and pepper to taste

Slice the white part of the leeks as thinly as possible. In a large pot, sauté the leeks very gently in the butter until they are golden. Peel the potatoes and slice as thin as possible (We use our mandolin on the thin setting. You could use a food processor, or slice them by hand, too). Put the potatoes into the pot along with the salt, and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook until all the potato slices are soft, and some are disintegrating. Adjust salt and season with black pepper to taste.

*If you like potato skins, as I do, you can leave the skins on, but peel off several strips of skin from each potato. Otherwise the skins will slip off the thin slices in long rings and make your soup stringy.

Travelling

100_3358 copyA couple of friends are visiting from the U.S. this week. Poor ladies, coming from summer to record cold weather here!

We’ve done our fair share of travelling, so one of the things I asked them was, “What do you normally eat for breakfast?” Breakfast is such a fundamental meal. It sets up your whole day, and when you don’t get the breakfast your body wants, it can throw off everything. When I travel within New Zealand, I always bring my breakfasts with me. If I can have my usual bowl of homemade granola in the morning (and have it at 5.30 am, like I’m used to), I can handle any amount of lousy, erratic meals the rest of the day. When visitors come, I try to provide them a breakfast as close as possible to what they’re used to, so they can enjoy more fully the wonders of New Zealand.

Try it next time you travel. Take breakfast with you and see how the right start perks up your whole vacation!

Truffles!

truffles1One of my husband’s colleagues (Alexis Guerin-Laguette at Plant & Food Research) is working on the commercialisation of truffle production in New Zealand. They’ve just harvested this year’s crop, and as an ‘insider’ Ian got early access to the bounty.

“You don’t want to know what I paid for these,” he said of the five tiny mushrooms nestled carefully in a tissue-lined jar.

But, who cares—they were truffles! The real, if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it thing! They weren’t a food item, they were a life experience!

Of course, I will admit that they smelled odd. My son described it as, “sort of like petrol,” and my daughter declared the odour “weird”. I reserved judgement until the fungi were properly prepared and sitting on my tongue.

Ian described the flavour as “Sitting in my grandfather’s green leather chair in front of the fire on a crisp autumn night.” He obviously experienced it much more intensely than I did, because my description didn’t come close. I very much enjoyed the flavour—strong, rich and earthy, and unlike any other mushroom I’ve eaten. I also appreciated the crisp texture of the paper-thin slices on top of creamy risotto. Was it worth it? Yes. Worth every penny (even at $2500/kg)!

For those of you near Christchurch who want to try out some truffles yourself, check out the truffle festival July 11-18!

Vegetarian Meatballs

100_3355 copy“Why do we call them meatballs when there’s no meat in them?”

A fair question, from my daughter one day as I stood in the kitchen making one of the family’s favourite meals—spaghetti with meatballs.

Of course, as vegetarians, our meatballs contain no animal muscle tissue whatsoever. Their effect on the gustatory pleasure centres is comparable to a good traditional meatball, though, so the name sticks.

When I was breast feeding my son (13 years ago!), there were very few foods I could eat without causing him colic. It took eight weeks of round-the-clock screaming for me to work this out, and when I finally got him to stop howling by reducing my diet to nothing but carrots, rice and potatoes for a week, I was loath to add anything back in, lest the crying (his and mine) resume. I needed a source of protein, though, and eventually found that tofu was ‘safe’. The problem was that I wasn’t terribly fond of tofu. I knew it could be delicious, because I’d eaten some incredible tofu dishes made by a friend. I rang her up and begged her to send some recipes. One of the recipes she sent was for tofu meatballs.

Those meatballs (minus about half their ingredients) kept me alive for that year of breast feeding. When I was through nursing and was able to add back into the recipe the onions, mustard, and peppers that would have caused my son grief, they stayed on the menu. They are one of those foods that induces overeating. My husband admits that he refrains from using tofu for stir fries or other dishes in the hope that I’ll make meatballs.

I don’t know where this recipe originally came from, and I would love to cite the source. If you recognise it and can enlighten me, please do so!

 

Mix together in a large bowl:

500g firm tofu, crumbled

1 grated carrot

1 onion, finely chopped (I sauté the onion first—we prefer the flavour that way)

1 green pepper, finely chopped

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

¾ cup finely ground walnuts

1 c bread crumbs

2 eggs

3 Tbsp soy sauce

2 tsp Dijon mustard

1 ½ Tbsp sesame oil

1 tsp ground fennel

1 ½ tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried oregano

ground black pepper to taste

Form into small balls and place on an oiled baking sheet. Bake at 190°C for about 30 minutes, or until beginning to brown. Serve with a simple tomato sauce over pasta.