Aromatic Memories

Smells have amazing powers. They can conjure spirits.

I was chopping parsley and mint the other day to put in dinner and, as the combined smell wafted from the cutting board, I though of Rhian Jones.

I shared a house with Rhian and five other women during my last year at university. Yellow House, as we called the brightly painted Edwardian edifice, was a good place to live. Though all seven of us had different majors and different personalities, we shared a desire to make the place feel like home.

We all enjoyed cooking, and regularly shared food. Rhian made tabbouleh that sang with flavour. “Granny’s” tabbouleh, because the recipe came from her grandmother. I still have that recipe.

I haven’t thought about Rhian for years, but the mix of herbs under my knife the other day drew her into my kitchen. I heard her infectious snorting laughter, remembered her vast collection of colourful bras, and tasted her granny’s tabbouleh shared among us on hot summer days.

I don’t know what became of any of my housemates from that year, but it was lovely to have Rhian laughing in my kitchen thirty years later. I hope wherever she is, she’s still making tabbouleh.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.

Ugliest Cake Ever

Yesterday was a bad baking day, for sure. In the afternoon, I tried to make meringue with aquafaba, which we’ve done before with great success. Not so on this attempt. After nearly 40 minutes of beating, my meringue mixture was still nowhere close to being stiff enough. I tipped it into the compost pile.

Later, I made chocolate cupcakes using a tried-and-true recipe. What could go wrong? First, I was out of cupcake papers. No problem—I greased and floured two cake tins instead. The layers looked gorgeous coming out of the oven.

But fifteen minutes later when I tipped them out of their pans, they stuck. By the time I got them out, one layer had the entire bottom ripped off, and the other was in a dozen chunks. 

I should have broken up the rest of the cake and made a trifle out of it—it would have been an excellent trifle! But the whole inspiration for making cake was to make frosting for it from a half-block of cream cheese that had been sitting in the fridge for ages unused.

So I glued the layers together with generous slatherings of tart apricot jam from last year’s bumper apricot harvest, then topped it with my cream cheese frosting, which wasn’t enough to cover a whole cake, of course, since I only had half a block of cream cheese (would have been plenty for cupcakes…).

The result was …

“A remarkable recovery,” in my daughter’s words.

And I suppose it was, considering the crumbled mess I started with. Still, this is a cake to eat quickly and with closed eyes.

It is delicious, though. Especially with all that apricot jam glue holding it together.

Duck for Christmas

In the excitement of our pre-Christmas hike, I forgot to introduce the newest members of our menagerie—a pair of Indian runner ducks.

I looked into getting ducks years ago, based on the fact they like slugs, won’t tear up the vegetable garden, and lay eggs. I gravitated toward Indian runner ducks for their quirky looks and less water-dependent lifestyle. 

I ended up with chickens instead, because they were easy to get locally, and ducks were more difficult.

Three laying hens is about right for us, in terms of eggs. Unfortunately, a few months ago, before I had a proper fence constructed, one of my chickens escaped and never returned. So we’ve been a little light on eggs.

When someone posted in our community Facebook page (two days before our trip) that they had Indian runner ducks to give away, I couldn’t pass up the chance.

These two are ducklings, and won’t be giving eggs for a while (if they’re even females … we’re not certain), but they’ve been quite entertaining, and I look forward to letting them loose in the vegetable garden once I’ve finished the fence.

The chickens, with whom they’re housed, weren’t at all amused at first and are still thoroughly offended when the ducks go for a swim in the drinking water, but for the most part the birds ignore each other.

I look forward to finishing the entire garden fence so I can let the ducks loose among the vegetables. 

Christmas on the Heaphy Track

Our pre-Christmas tramp this year took us to Kahurangi National Park to walk the Heaphy Track. The trip was simultaneously spectacular and miserable.

The Heaphy Track follows the path of a proposed road, and as such is gently graded—it’s a technically easy walk. So easy it’s almost boring. But it passes through some spectacular landscapes teeming with remarkable flora and fauna.

Day 1 began for us at 5.30 am when we awoke in the Collingwood Campground to our tent being blown flat by the wind and rain. We quickly decamped and retreated to a shelter to wait for the rain to let up before starting our hike.

Unfortunately, the rain outlasted our patience, so we started out under a heavy fall that had us soaked within minutes. The steady climb was largely unremarkable. The rain eventually cleared and we reached Perry Saddle Hut under a sunny sky.

Day 2 was more eventful, with two endangered species sightings by 7 am. The first was a takahe browsing the grasses just outside the hut as we finished breakfast. This critically endangered bird, the world’s largest rail, was presumed extinct for 50 years. Its population now numbers just 445.

Minutes down the track, with rain setting in again, we nearly stepped on our second endangered species of the day—a Powelliphanta snail—a fist-sized carnivorous snail. Without the rain, we never would have seen these nocturnal, moisture-loving animals. We counted ourselves lucky.

Under increasing rainfall, we made our soggy way across Gouland Downs and then the weird and wonderful Mackay Downs. We explored caves and admired huge glacial erratics tossed like giant bowling balls over the landscape. Weka (another endemic rail) with chicks in tow scurried around our legs every time we stopped for a break, waiting for us to let down our guard so they could make off with a snack.

We reached Mackay Hut drenched, but the worst of the rain was yet to come. Half an hour later, the sky opened up and the wind rose. The torrent sheeted down, spilling off the hut roof like someone was tossing buckets of water over the edge. It didn’t let up until nearly 4 am the following day.

Again we set out in the rain, this time into a landscape scoured and still gushing water. But again the rain held delights—another giant snail, sundews lining the track, enormous 700-year-old southern rata trees, waterfalls in all directions, sprays of flowering bamboo orchids dripping from tree trunks, a mistletoe with scarlet flowers … That evening—Christmas eve—drying out in Heaphy Hut, we composed a New Zealand tramping ballad as a family:

T’was the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the hut
I sure wasn’t stirring; I was sitting on my butt.
A cup of tea nestled warm in my hand.
I ate lots of scroggin, expanding my waistband.
Out on the porch, the weka did play,
Hauling our shoes and our stockings away.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter
I limped from my bench to see what was the matter.
The sun on the roof of the dunny nearby
Made me shade my eyes as I peered up to the sky.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a trio of cheeky, mischievous kea.
With can opener beaks and curious minds
The birds tore apart everything they could find.
When done on the roof they moved on to our packs
Eating their fill of our Christmas Day snacks.

With our stockings all gone and no snacks to eat,
We still had a Christmas that couldn’t be beat.

Christmas morning dawned and the last ragged storm clouds blew away, leaving brilliant blue skies and blooming rata trees for our last leg along the coast under dense stands of nikau palms.

We ended with a quick dip in the Kohaihai River (very quick—it was ice water) and the long drive home. A most enjoyable Christmas!

Navettes Sucrées—Sugar Shuttles

I tried a new cookie today–Navettes Sucrées–from The Gourmet Cookie Book. I’ve recommended this book before and it’s worth doing again—not only are the recipes great, but the interior book design is an absolute delight.

Sugar shuttles apparently appeared in Gourmet Magazine in 1951, but the recipe originated in France, and has clearly been around for a very long time. I’d wager the original makers of sugar shuttles would have been surprised to find them in a high-end cooking magazine.

The ingredients are simple, and most are the sort of things that would have been available to subsistence farmers in pre-industrial times—flour, butter, eggs. The scant sugar—once a luxury—is mostly on the outside of the cookie, making them seem sweeter than they really are. 

The method also speaks of antiquity. The ingredients are placed together in a bowl and kneaded by hand to create a dough. Only the refrigeration step in the modern recipe is out of place, and for this very stiff dough it’s hardly necessary.

And of course, the name refers to the shape of loom shuttles—no doubt a common object to homesteaders of the past.

The resulting cookie is as basic and satisfying as the recipe itself—simple flavours with a little sparkly bling from the sugar crust. One can imagine eating them in some remote cottage in the French Alps three hundred years ago.

Here’s the recipe:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar (+ extra for coating)
1/4 tsp salt
60 g (1/4 cup) soft butter
2 eggs, separated
1 tsp vanilla

Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a bowl. Add the butter, 2 egg yolks, and vanilla. Knead until the dough is well blended. Refrigerate 2 hours. Divide the dough into pieces the size of a small walnut and shape each piece into an oblong about 5 cm (2 in) long and 1 cm (1/2 inch) wide. Dip each in lightly beaten egg white and roll in granulated sugar. Bake on a buttered baking sheet at 175ºC (350ºF) for 8 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove immediately from the pans and cool on a rack. Makes 20.

Hanging Out with the Locals

Sunday’s family hike took us to Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Several years ago we’d been to the peak on our way to Crow Hut, but we’d never done the day hike loop from Arthur’s Pass Village to the peak and back. So in the interest of leaving no track unwalked, we did the loop.

Last time we were there, we reached the peak to find it packed with people. So many people jostled to stand at the top, I was worried about being shoved off. Stretched down the mountain, a line of hikers ascended to join us. We didn’t stay long, but quickly dropped off the peak, sidling up the ridge toward our destination, which was similarly crowded (there were 16 people staying at the 10-bunk Crow Hut that night).

Looking down on the Waimakariri River

Sunday’s experience was entirely different, in spite of it being a similar beautiful summer day. With no foreign tourists in the country, the only hikers were Kiwis. 

The long slog to the top was rewarded with a prime seat on the jagged peak (it’s the most uncomfortable mountaintop I’ve ever sat on—rocks like razors). We shared the summit with just two other hikers and three kea.

The weather was perfect—light winds, cool air, warm sun—and we took our time over lunch, chatting with our fellow hikers and fending off the the kea, who angled for our sandwiches, considered ripping open our backpacks and took a swipe at my daughter’s apple.

It was the most intimate kea encounter I’ve had (excepting the time one bit me on the butt). 

Wade, the cheeky kea

For those of you unfamiliar with kea, they are endemic to New Zealand and are the world’s only alpine parrot. They are an endangered species (estimated population of 4000 adults). A large factor in their endangered status is their lack of fear of humans and their incredible curiosity. Combined with a huge beak like a can opener, it means they get into all sorts of things they shouldn’t They have a deadly fondness for the lead heads of roofing nails, they like to tear apart automobiles and camping gear, and they irritate farmers by killing sheep (yes, a sheep-eating parrot—scary eh? Don’t mess with that beak!). 

Two of the birds hanging out with us were banded, and we were able to identify them on the kea database. ‘Wade’ was the most in-your-face bird of the trio—of all the photos I took, only a few didn’t include Wade. And, of course, I took lots of photos, in spite of the fact I have dozens of photos from previous kea encounters. I swear, it’s part of their strategy—one poses for the camera while the others rifle through your bags looking for treats. 

Eventually we said goodbye to our fellow hikers and our feathered companions and descended to a quiet Arthur’s Pass Village—so different from the frenetic activity of summer with overseas tourists. I feel for the tourism industry, suffering this year with a lack of business. But I love the opportunity to enjoy our backyard without teeming masses of people.

I look forward to the day we can invite our overseas visitors back—international tourism is not only an important part of the economy, but also a strong impetus for protecting the stunning and unique natural landscapes, flora and fauna we have here in New Zealand. It’s good to see Aotearoa through the eyes of tourists now and again, to remember just how special our natural heritage is.

But until then, I’ll enjoy hanging out with the locals.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas day dinner–no cooking required.

Much of the world has entered the holiday season under the threat of Covid. Holiday gatherings, a highlight for many, are necessarily smaller or cancelled altogether.

For some, a Christmas without parties and large family gatherings will seem … well, not like Christmas at all. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I talk to my family about their holiday plans, and there’s a lot of similarity in what they are going through to what my husband and I have gone through as expats. We’re used to holidays far from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We know how the ghosts of family-filled Christmases past haunt the table set for two on Christmas eve. We’ve learned how to fill the holidays with meaning even if we can’t fill them with loved ones. I imagine most other expats have done the same.

It occurred to me that the lessons we’ve learnt are applicable to those stuck at home due to Covid. So here are some musings on how we’ve navigated (and come to love) solo holidays.

  • Treat yourself the way you’d treat guests. Do you usually make a special dinner Christmas Day? Cook it for your household, even if that’s only two people. Do you stay up late partying to ring in the new year? Well, put on the stereo and dance, no matter how few you are.
  • If the previous idea raises too many ghosts for you, create new ‘traditions’ instead. Throw out the holiday rulebook. Instead of a party, go for a hike with your household. Instead of buying a live tree, get creative and make one with your immediate family out of whatever’s lying around the house. Instead of a formal meal in the dining room, have pizza and popcorn while watching a movie on the couch. The more different the new tradition, the less likely those Christmas ghosts will show up. Just make the new plan as much of a treat as the old (not simply your usual routine). 
  • Dress up. Staying home? Put your party clothes on anyway. It will make the day feel special, even if all you do is lie around reading books.
  • Share with family and friends far away. This is so much easier today than it was 27 years ago when my husband and I had our first Christmas overseas. Then, I wrote letters describing our Christmas punch and mailed photos of our tiny Christmas tree. These days, we share via telephone, Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not the same as being there, I know, but I am thankful for the opportunities we have to be ‘together’ for the holidays.
  • Focus on what you can gain, not what you’re losing. Quiet time with your partner and/or children. Time alone to do what you want, not what the whole gang wants. Freedom from the intense cooking, cleaning and planning that go into hosting holiday events. A chance to re-think your holiday traditions. A reprieve from that loud uncle who always drinks too much and starts talking politics … I’m sure there are plenty of things you’ll happily miss out on this year.

No question about it, this year’s holiday is going to be different from normal for most people. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Make the most of the opportunities to try something different this year. Who knows? Maybe something you do this year will become part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Combating Seasonal Exhaustion

The days are long now, and our summer has officially begun. Weeds crowd crops in the garden, and the harvest of spring fruits and vegetables is in full swing.

End of the school year events crowd people’s schedules, and children are restive and eager for the upcoming summer holidays.

Retailers remind us there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. The house still lacks decorations.

The 2020 goals list dares me to get just a few more tasks ticked off, and everyone wants things done and dusted in the next two weeks.

There’s hardly a moment to sleep, and the long summer days encourage us to stay up late and get up early to accomplish our ever-lengthening to-do list.

Add the stress of a year of chaos, disruption and fear, and everyone is suffering from seasonal exhaustion.

I sit down to compose a blog post, and am distracted by an incoming e-mail with an urgent request. I write the day’s to-do list, and promptly lose it in the shuffle of random items cluttering my desk. I have to set alarms on my phone so I don’t forget meetings. I try to do a little editing, and can hardly keep my eyes open.

I see fatigue in the eyes of coworkers and students, of friends and family. I hear it in e-mails from colleagues. We’re all suffering from seasonal exhaustion compounded by a dumpster-fire of a year.

We all need kindness and understanding right now.

Which is why I’ve decided to go on a pay-it-forward spree until Christmas. I’m sure that in the next few weeks at work, I’m going to visit the cafe next door more frequently than usual for a pick-me-up coffee. I’ve decided that every time I get a coffee for myself, I’ll buy one for the next person in line. Hopefully, it will make them smile. Maybe it will inspire them to do the same. Maybe a whole string of exhausted coffee-drinkers will get more than a caffeine hit, but a lift to their spirits as well, as they both receive a gift from the person before them and give one in return. 

And with smiles on their faces, maybe they’ll say a kind word to someone, and that person will pass on the kindness to someone else, who will in turn pass it on to another person.

And maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the impact of giving a cup of coffee to a stranger.

But maybe I’m not.

I’m willing to take that risk and do my best to spread kindness. We could all use it right now.

Giving Thanks in 2020

Thankful for these glorious blue peas with their cheerful flowers.

Thanksgiving is this week in the US and, while we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here, I do always still pause and reflect on what I’m grateful for. This year, it feels doubly important to focus on the good things. 

So here are just a few of the things on my Thanksgiving list:

  • Top of the list this year has to be all the Kiwis who have responded with maturity and community spirit to the challenges thrust upon us this year. I am truly proud to be a New Zealander this year, and I’m thankful to be here, where our collective action has allowed us freedom and safety much of the world doesn’t have. 
  • Friends and colleagues who have encouraged those around them to approach Covid-19 as a challenge to develop creative ways to continue to pursue dreams, rather than as a disaster to be lamented.
  • I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m still incredibly thankful for our new house. It still often feels like I’m living in someone else’s home, but it is a joy to cook in the new kitchen and to live in a well-insulated building.
  • This time of year, while not exactly traditional harvest time, is rich in early summer fruits and vegetables. Though our new garden is quite young, and the soil is truly terrible, we’re still harvesting good food, and I’m thankful for what we are able to produce.
  • I’m especially thankful this year for my husband and children, who have approached all of this year’s many stressors with good humour, fortitude, and a willingness to pitch in and do what needs to be done.
  • I am more than usually grateful this year for technology which has made the pandemic far less isolating than it would otherwise have been.
  • As always, I’m thankful for the proximity of beach, river and mountain. This year, even more than other years, the natural world has been a solace, and I’m thankful to have relatively wild areas within walking distance.
  • The luxury of time. There’s no question that being in lockdown in a cold shed was awful. I look back on those months and wonder how we survived with our good humour intact. At the same time, having that intense time to spend with close family was something wonderful. We invented stupid games to pass the time and stay warm, we went on looooooong walks together, we sat and talked over the state of the world. I am grateful to have had that time.

There are dozens of other things I could put on my list—big things and little. It’s a year in which thankfulness has been a gift all of its own. I am thankful to be thankful for so much, in spite of the crazy year it’s been.

What are you thankful for?