The Season for Salsa

2016-02-26 16.28.01 smNothing beats a good salsa. And there are limitless variations on the theme—tomato or tomatillo, cooked or raw, spicy or mild, cilantro or none…

If I’m using tomato, I prefer a raw salsa, but if I’m making salsa verde—based on tomatillos—I like it cooked.

I have a love/hate relationship with tomatillos. On the one hand, I quite enjoy them in salsa verde. On the other hand, we don’t tend to like them in any other form, so we’ve never been able to eat all the tomatillos produced by even one plant, and the rotting fruits in the garden are truly disgusting.

But salsa verde is a lovely alternative to ketchup on burgers and fries, is fantastic in burritos, and makes a great chip dip. I’ve seen many variations on salsa verde, but this is what I do.


500 g (1 lb) tomatillos, husked and rinsed

½ cup water

1 fresh chilli pepper or a pinch of cayenne

2 red sweet peppers, charred

1 onion

1 clove garlic

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 Tbsp cream or half and half (optional)

salt to taste


To char the sweet peppers, spear a whole pepper on a fork and hold it over the flame of a gas burner, turning regularly, until the skin blackens. Drop the charred pepper into a bowl and cover with a plate for a few minutes to let the skin steam and loosen Peel off the blackened skin before using. Roughly chop tomatillos, chilli, sweet peppers, onion, and garlic. Place all ingredients except the cilantro and cream in a saucepan and cook 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are soft and the liquid is reduced by about a third.

Blend until smooth (I use my immersion blender). Stir in the cilantro and optional cream, and adjust the salt. Serve hot or chilled.

This sauce freezes well—I freeze it in small quantities and pull it out as we want it.


On the Beach

Today's massive, whole-family sandcastle effort.

Today’s massive, whole-family sandcastle effort.

We spent the day at the beach today, doing what most parents do at the beach—building sand castles with the kids, throwing frisbee with the kids, jumping in the waves with the kids, flying kites with the kids, rock pool fossicking with the kids.

Do you sense a pattern?

Beach activities always seem to be “with the kids.” So, what do adults—without kids—do at the beach?

Today at Okains Bay, an elderly couple lay in the sun. Another older couple walked the beach together. A young gay couple swam in the waves, then made sand castles. Tourists photographed children playing.

Though my husband and I were married for ten years before having children, it’s sometimes hard to remember life before kids.

But now that the kids are both in high school, it’s time to start looking ahead to that light at the end of the tunnel—that glorious day when the kids leave home. It’s time to start figuring out what we want to do when we grow up.

Why not start my plans with the beach?

I, for one, still plan to jump in the waves. And I’ll always peer into the rock pools. And you might even catch me with a frisbee…

Jewels in the Garden

groundbeetlesmDigging potatoes for dinner yesterday, I came across one of my favourite New Zealand insects—the metallic green ground beetle.

When I teach about this insect, I always tell the kids it’s magical because at first glance it appears to be just a large black beetle. A closer look, however, reveals shimmering green around the edges.

Some individuals are more spectacularly green than others, and the one I found yesterday was one of the most vibrant I’ve seen.

Metallic green ground beetles are welcome in the garden. As larvae and as adults they eat slugs, grass grubs, and caterpillars—some of my worst pests.

But I think that what makes metallic green ground beetles most special is that they are endemic, not just to New Zealand, but to the Canterbury region. That means they are found nowhere else on Earth but in this little region of New Zealand.

They aren’t rare or endangered—they thrive in nearly every environment. They have close relatives nearby. But I appreciate the fact they are our own unique jewels.


2016-02-26 12.56.09 smOh, limp plant!
I know how you feel
When the wind blows hot
And the brain cells congeal.
And you’d give all you own
For a cool glass of water
But nothing will help
As the sun burns still hotter.

And you know it must end,
But it all comes to grief
When the sun goes down
And you get no relief.

For the night wind, too,
Blows hot and blows dry,
And your leaves stay limp
Though the moon’s in the sky.

Then, just before dawn
You feel the wind shift.
And you pray for some rain,
That life-giving gift.

As the drops start to fall
You breathe a great sigh
And lift your leaves up

To give thanks to the sky.

Beautiful food

2016-02-22 17.55.00 smI was making a lovely Indian dish the other day, with paneer, zucchini, green beans and tomato, and as I stirred everything into the pot, I couldn’t resist taking a photo.

And I realised that half my enjoyment of food comes from the beauty of the colours and shapes in the pot and on the plate. That beauty is what turns an ordinary meal into an extraordinary one.


PilandocoffeeJulian smThrowback Thursday was so fun last week, I thought I’d do another one this week.

This week I dredged up a photograph of Julián, our landlord and next door neighbour in Panama. He was tickled to pose for this photo—he always enjoyed sharing cultural differences.

In this photo, Julián was grinding coffee in a massive mortar and pestle called a pilón. These tools get near-constant use—grinding coffee, pounding rice to remove the hulls, grinding corn—and I loved to hear the deep, rhythmic thud, thud, thud of the neighbours at work.

And I was always grateful to buy my coffee already ground…

A pilón is carved from the trunk of a tree, and when it’s not in use as a grinder, often serves, tipped on its side, as a bench in the kitchen. Every family we knew had one, but they must last forever, because I never saw a new one. They were all beaten and dinged, and I imagine they must be able to tell some great stories.

Soundtrack For the Drive Home on a Summer Evening

(with special thanks to Dave Dobbyn)


2016-02-24 20.57.32Traffic thins, dusk falls

Be mine tonight.

Windows down, breathe cool air

Just add water and dissolve, Baby.

100 kilometres per hour past disinterested sheep

Guilty through neglect.

Moths in the headlights make furry windshield thuds

The outlook for Thursday, your guess is good as mine.

Stray hairs tap tap tap a rhythm on my cheek

It’s magic what she do.

Purple mountains against a bruised apricot sky

Shouldn’t you ought to be in love?

Kids playing frisbee in the dusk

            Call me loyal

Round the bend, the neighbour’s dogs bark

Welcome home.

A Sense of Place

IMG_0147 copyMy daughter’s homework today involved exploring the idea of gratefulness.

One of the questions asked her to photograph the thing she was most grateful for.

This is the photograph she took. It is of our property, and includes a bit of everything here—trees, paddocks, sheds, gardens, and art.

Her answer doesn’t surprise me, and I echo her sentiments. I, too, am grateful for this piece of land that feeds us, shelters us, and provides us the vast majority of our entertainment.

And though some parents might have wished for her to say that she was most grateful for her family, I am pleased that my daughter has put her roots into the soil. I am pleased that she has developed a strong sense of place. In fact, I would have expected nothing less from the girl who spends every waking minute outdoors.

We develop relationships with places, just as we develop relationships with people. Those place relationships help us shape our identity, and place us in context in the larger world around us. They provide us an anchor, a whakapapa (cultural identity), and a homeland.

Our sense of place gives us a solid foundation from which to explore and learn to love the rest of the world. It makes our relationship to the entire planet more personal.

In order to care about the earth in general, we must first care about a special place.

In order to understand the tragedy of the loss of a rainforest, we must first understand the tragedy of the loss of our favourite climbing tree.

In order to understand the magic of an unknown place, we must first feel the magic of our own special place.

And so, for today, I am most grateful for this piece of land that has rooted my daughter’s sense of self, family and community in the earth.

22 February 2011

100_0076 smToday is the fifth anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people and brought life as we knew it to a grinding halt.

It was the day my husband insisted we get cell phones.

It was the day I started posting details of my whereabouts on the fridge every morning, just in case I didn’t make it home.

Our house was fine (anything vulnerable to quakes had been destroyed by the September 2010 quake), and we watched in dismay as news of the destruction and death in town trickled out to us. We watched the rescue helicopters fly over, ferrying patients to Dunedin.

When we loaded the car with tools and food and drove to the eastern suburbs two days later to do what we could to help, we were stunned by the destruction.

Five years later, those eastern suburbs are still struggling, and life for all of us is fundamentally changed.

New Zealand sits on the Ring of Fire. It was built by the Ring of Fire. Earthquakes and volcanoes are simply what happens here.

Do earthquakes frighten me? I don’t know if frighten is the right word, but I will admit to a surge of adrenaline with every tremor. I admit that whenever I enter a new room or building now, I immediately assess earthquake hazards, shelter, and exits. I’ve lost my love of cliffs and caves, replaced by wariness and visions of falling rocks. I still pause at the sound of a loud rumble, poised to dive under the table until it resolves into the sound of a truck.

I suppose we could leave New Zealand. We could move back to the U.S., to live on firmer ground.

But, much as I hate to admit it about my homeland, there is an ugly culture of fear in the U.S. When a presidential candidate can preach a doctrine of hatred, misogyny, and racism and gain in the polls, that feels like a betrayal. When schools are patrolled by armed guards, it is an outrage. When violence against each other is considered normal, there has been a failure of humanity and society.

But in an earthquake, there is no malice. Though it may cause great destruction, it is impersonal. It is simply the earth doing what the earth does. An earthquake is not a betrayal. It is not an outrage. It is not a failure of humanity and society.

Not that bad people don’t do bad things in New Zealand—there is racism, sexism, and violence here, too. But here I need not wonder who is packing heat on the street. Children walk to school. Fear of each other does not pervade life.

And so I choose earthquakes. I choose the destruction and stress, the uncertainty, and the inconvenience. And if someday the earth should shrug me off as it shifts to a more comfortable position, I’m okay with that.