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.

Kitchen Disaster

A beautiful new kitchen is no proof against disasters.

Yesterday I baked a batch of chocolate cupcakes. I used a devils food cake recipe from Tartine. It’s an intensely decadent recipe that uses 1 1/4 cups of cocoa. The result is a dark, rich cake that could satisfy any chocolate craving.

The recipe makes two dozen cupcakes, and as I walked across the kitchen to put the trays into the oven, one of the trays slipped out of my hand. A dozen unbaked cupcakes flew through the air to splat on the floor and all down the kitchen table. 

I was so stunned, I didn’t even swear. Half my cupcakes had just been ruined, and there was cake batter splattered across the kitchen.

After a few moments I began to laugh. Then I took some photos before trying to salvage some of the batter and clean up the mess.

I managed to retrieve enough clean batter for six cupcakes, so all was not completely lost.

And I got a blog post out of it—always look for the silver lining …

And the cupcakes? Delicious!

A Shaky Decade

Today marks 10 years since we were shaken out of bed at 4.35 am by the M7.1 earthquake that started the Canterbury earthquake series. Those quakes ultimately took 185 lives and changed downtown Christchurch forever.

A decade on, the scars remain—half-crumbled buildings, hastily repaired roads, a generation of anxious children …

At the time of the first quake, I knew my relationship with the earth below my feet had changed, but I couldn’t know how lasting that change would be.

Ten years later, I’m still primed for earthquakes, sensitive to every vibration. If a big truck rumbles down the road, I have to pause until I’m sure it’s not a quake. Every distant train is a quake until proven otherwise. And large construction works set me on edge.

I have no trust in buildings any more, especially multi-storey ones. Just three days ago I was in Christchurch’s new central library, Tūranga, when I felt a tremor through my feet. Tūranga was constructed post-quake and includes the latest technology for earthquake resistance. Any vibrations I was feeling were likely coming from inside the building, not outside—someone running down the stairs, probably. I knew this, but it didn’t prevent the spike of adrenaline that zipped through my body.

I don’t trust my new house, either. The old one proved itself through quake after quake, riding the waves like a sturdy ship, coming through every quake virtually unscathed. The new house, though certainly scoring higher on any quake-worthiness measure than our 135 year-old villa did—is untested. Its foundation may crack, its bricks will almost certainly tumble in any large shake. Until I know for certain how it fares, I cannot trust it.

Any building I enter, I scan for earthquake hazards, safe places, and exits. Every track we hike, I consider rocks that could be shaken loose, hillsides likely to collapse. Anywhere I drive, I take note of power poles that could fall across my route home and waterways whose banks might slump, taking the road with them.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of another large quake—I know one will happen, and I’m okay with that—but I am still more on edge than I was ten years ago. I’m more aware of the earth underfoot, more wary of the danger of living on the Pacific Ring of Fire where Earth flexes her joints, more observant, more in-tune with the planet.

That’s not a bad thing.

So today I’ll listen for the pulse of the planet, double check I am prepared for another quake, and simply enjoy life in this beautiful place.

Kia kaha, Christchurch. 

Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Pumpkin Scones

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That may be so, but laziness is invention’s maternal grandmother.

I was lazy on Sunday morning. I wanted pumpkin muffins, but I didn’t want to have to grease and then wash the muffin tins.

So I made up a new scone recipe to satisfy my pumpkin cravings. The results were delicious and satisfying. Best of all, there was no greasing and washing of muffin tins. Here’s the recipe in case you’re feeling lazy too.

2 cups barley flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of cloves, nutmeg, ginger and salt
125 g (1/2 cup) butter
1 egg
1 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup brown sugar

Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, pumpkin, cream and brown sugar. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just moistened. Knead lightly and briefly until the dough comes together into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a round about 2 cm (3/4-inch) thick and cut into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake 11-12 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF) on fan bake.

*I added nothing to these scones, but they’d be excellent with dried cranberries incorporated into the dough. I expect that replacing half a cup of the barley flour with cornmeal would be a nice variation too.

Alpine Therapy

Last week was a difficult one for all of New Zealand. On Tuesday, four cases of Covid-19 cropped up outside of managed isolation facilities at the border. The virus was circulating in the community again.

Auckland, where the cases occurred, was placed into alert level 3, with schools closed, and movement and business activity restricted. The rest of the country moved to alert level 2—not as strict, but in some ways more stressful, because we weren’t confined to the safety of our home and personal ‘bubble’. Once again, we navigated work and the rest of daily life knowing the virus could be lurking among us. Once again, we looked on every sniffle and cough with suspicion.

I’m proud to report that New Zealanders once again have stepped up to the challenge and are doing their part to stamp this new outbreak out so we can all return as quickly as possible to alert level 1. Still, stress levels were high in our household all week. So Saturday we took in some alpine therapy.

It was a shivery -3 degrees when we started up the Bealey Spur Track. We’d hiked the track many times when the kids were young, but never got far. On Saturday, we set a rapid, stress-relieving pace, reaching the Bealey Spur Hut (and the official end of the track) in just two hours. The peaks above called, so we carried on past the hut along Hut Spur, enjoying stunning views of the Waimakariri River below, and Mount Rolleston and Crow Glacier above. 

We relived memories of past hikes, tracing their routes along the ridges and through the valleys around us. We watched cars snake across the wide bed of the Waimakariri River, noting how easily the river could wipe out the road. We examined plants and fungi and slime moulds. We contemplated the uncertain future of Crow Glacier. 

And, yes, occasionally we discussed Covid-19, particularly as we descended, meeting dozens of people heading upward for their own alpine therapy. But somehow it was all easier to manage with tired legs and lungs filled with icy alpine air. 

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

Cinnamon Muffins

I’m still revelling in our glorious new kitchen—it’s such a pleasure to cook and bake in! It inspires creativity.

This morning I tried out a new recipe for cinnamon muffins, and I think I hit on a winner. They’re quick to make and taste delicious!

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs

Topping: 2 tsp sugar and 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Combine the flours, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the milk, oil and eggs in a separate bowl. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet, mixing only until combined. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon for the topping.

Fill greased cupcake tins with the batter. Sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mix over each muffin.

Bake 15-17 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). Allow to cool 5 minutes in the pans before turning them out.

Makes 16 muffins.

Caroll Hut, Arthur’s Pass National Park

Impressive old southern rātā along the track.

Just beyond Otira, the main highway snakes along, with the Otira River on one side and impossibly steep slopes on the other. A track takes off from Kelly Creek and shoots straight up. My husband said he’d often looked up at those slopes thinking, “Glad I’m not going up there.”

But that’s exactly where we went Friday. Eight hundred twenty-five vertical metres over a mere 2700 metres horizontal distance, if the topo map is to be believed. That’s an average slope of 17 degrees, which doesn’t seem like much, except that parts of the track are flat or go down, so many sections are practically ladders, and require hands and feet.

In spite of the steep grade, it’s not a difficult climb—tree roots and rocks provide plenty of hand and foot holds. And the slow climb upward affords plenty of time to gaze back up the valley towards Otira, watch a train rumble down the tracks below, enjoy a waterfall, examine the flora, and listen to the bellbirds. The forest is full of gems like southern rātā and mountain neinei (a tree that could only have come from Dr. Seuss’ imagination).

View towards the west coast from above Caroll Hut

You emerge above tree line to a gentle climb to Caroll Hut. A little further uphill, cresting Kelly’s Saddle, the view opens to the west coast, and you can see all the way to the Tasman Sea. 

It’s not a hike you’d want to do in bad weather, but Friday’s calm clear air was perfect. A lovely day out.

Loving Leftovers

We christened the new house last weekend with a celebration party for one of my husband’s students who just finished his PhD. As I suspected (hoped?), visitors gravitated to the kitchen, congregating beside platters of finger food under the warm glow of cafe lights. 

Food-wise, we went Mexican for this party—quesadillas, empanadas, corn chips, guacamole, salsa, bean dip, and biscochitos (anise-flavoured cookies from New Mexico, not Mexico, but …) for dessert. Great finger food and perfect or standing around the kitchen grazing all evening.

As usual, we made enough food for twice as many people as we invited. Now we’re blessed with party leftovers for lunch.

Yesterday I had a generous plate of homemade corn chips smothered in cheesy bean dip, salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Today I’m considering toast with beans and salsa (because we devoured all the chips and guacamole). Tomorrow, who knows what I’ll come up with? Plus, there are extra beans in the freezer for dinner later in the week. All that extra party prep pays off in easy, delicious meals afterwards.

A great excuse for a party!

Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!