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.

October Book Promotions

Whether you’re heading into autumn or coming into spring, October is a great month for reading. (Okay, EVERY month is a great month for reading!) This month, I’m participating in a pair of promotions with other authors, so if you like fantasy, get ready to go wild, because there are some fabulous reads here.

The first is a selection of free Fantasy books for Children and Teens. The selection includes The Dragon Slayer’s Son and a whole bunch of other great books. Definitely worth checking out!

The second is a fabulous group of fantasy books ranging from teen to adult titles that includes Fatecarver. Check out the list. Who knows? You may find your new favourite author here!

The Organised Gardener

Garden map and to-do lists
Garden map and to-do lists

We’re in the middle of the spring school holidays. This two-week block of time off of the day job is always a busy gardening time. There are garden beds to prepare, vegetable seedlings to plant out, seeds to start, seedlings to pot up, and of course the weeds are running rampant everywhere. There’s never enough time to do it all.

This is the time where panic sets in—I’ll never have plants in the ground in time, the weeds will take over all the vegetables I planted earlier in the spring, the birds will eat all my pea plants before they get going, hail or frost will kill tender plants … I have a thousand worries at this point in the gardening year.

This is the time of year when my garden plan is absolutely essential. In mid-August, when I plant the first vegetable seeds, I create a garden map and a week by week to-do list. Every task—planting seeds, preparing garden beds, potting up seedlings, installing or fixing irrigation lines, netting crops, etc—is added to the list on the appropriate weekend from August to mid-November when I finally plant out the last vegetables. Each weekend, I need only worry about the items on the list for that weekend. I can ignore the burgeoning weeds in one place, and the swaths of winter-feral garden in another, because I know that those areas are on the list—I’ve got a plan that will make sure that by the time a plant is ready to go into the garden, the garden will be ready for it.

Of course, sometimes things get out of hand—a week of warm wet weather might speed up weed growth, or an unexpected frost might nail some tender plants and require replanting. I’m always adjusting the list, adding things or shifting tasks from one week to another, but having the plan means I can stop panicking. It means I don’t prepare a bed so early, that it needs to be weeded again before I can plant in it. It means I don’t forget to do an important task at the right time. It means that, if I spend a weekend hiking, I know exactly what I need to accomplish in the evenings during the following week in order to catch up on the work.

In short, it means I can relax and enjoy springtime—enjoy the work, rather than stress about it.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my stacks of lists and hyper-organised garden schedule. But here in the thick of springtime planting, I’m extremely thankful for the part of me that insists on organisation.

Sunshine in a Teacup

I woke up to the sound of rain today. Not an unwelcome sound—the seedlings in the garden will appreciate it. Still, a rainy day inspires a certain amount of decadent self-care to banish the mental chill (even if it is perfectly comfortable indoors). 

My decadence this morning came in the form of pulling out a Sunday teacup for my coffee. 

We bought two of these cups at Driving Creek Railway in the Coromandel a few years ago—a Christmas gift to ourselves, and a real splurge. They’ve become our special occasion coffee mugs—used on Sunday mornings and Christmas Day only. In my mind, they’re associated with relaxation, holiday, and decadence.

So on this rainy morning, with a day of intense work on the next novel ahead of me (and no sunny-day excuses to get me out of it), I thought I needed a little motivation in the form of a special vessel for my coffee. A tiny thing, but it has made my day sunny, despite the rain outside.

Inspiring Landscapes

When I was writing my Dragon Defence League series books, I delighted in placing my characters in some of my favourite places in New Zealand—the mountains of Fiordland, Kahurangi National Park, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, and many others.

But New Zealand’s landscapes infuse my latest book, Fatecarver, even though it is set in a purely fantasy world.

While I was writing Fatecarver, I kept imagining specific places in New Zealand. I sat on a peak near Arthur’s Pass and imagined my characters there. I scribbled down descriptions of real views, storms, trees, and hikes to use in the book.

I took the New Zealand landscapes and mixed and mingled them with favourite places in the United States, Panama, Peru and Bolivia until the Fatecarver world included elements of a lifetime of adventures. 

Many of my fellow authors are adventurers like me. We take inspiration for our writing from dramatic landscapes and other settings we’ve experienced. The landscape becomes a character in its own right, thwarting other characters’ plans, throwing up challenges, or providing aid at a critical moment. Just like real landscapes do.

Natural landscapes play a huge role in my own real life adventures—it’s only natural to include them in my fictional ones.

Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

Lichens Rule

Not long ago, I spent a glorious sunny day wandering around Cass Field Station while my husband met with some students there. It was nice to take a solo walk and go at my own pace, stopping at whatever plants, bugs or rocks caught my fancy.

Once nice find was this beautiful lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum.

Lichens are strange organisms comprised of an alga living within a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection and nutrients for the alga.

R. geographicum is an alpine/subalpine lichen and, like many lichens, is sensitive to air pollution, thriving only where the air is clean. It is not, however, a fragile organism.

In 2005, R. geographicum was one of two lichens launched into space. The lichens were exposed to 14.6 days of open space—vacuum, wide temperature fluctuations, intense UV light and cosmic radiation. Upon return, R. geographicum showed little harm from the experience.

Not only is R. geographicum tough, some individuals in the Arctic are estimated to be 8,600 years old, making them the oldest living organisms on Earth. Their longevity and predictable growth rate make them useful tools for determining when glaciers retreated from an area.

But I didn’t know all this about R. geographicum when I found it on the rocks at Cass. I simply admired its beautiful mottled colours and soft texture. 

OOOOOh my! Chocolate cookies

I dipped into Ottolenghi’s book, Sweet, again the other day. This time I made Chocolate O Cookies. 

All I can say is  OOOOOOh my!

These could possibly be the best chocolate cookies ever. They’re a lot of work, and the recipe only makes 20 cookies, but those 20 cookies are truly divine.

The cookies themselves are a rich chocolate shortbread—alone, they’re worth making. But the piece de resistance is the water ganache filling.

I’d never made a ganache like this before, and I have to say I was dubious at first—mixing chocolate and water is a no-no, right? To make matters worse, the ganache starts with a sugar syrup, which has always been a bit of an Achilles heel for me.

But somehow it worked, and the infusion of cinnamon, chilli and orange gives the ganache a complex richness that lifts it above any other ganache I’ve made.

I’ll definitely be making these again … and again … and again.

Incidentally, I had extra ganache, which I popped into the fridge and slathered on lemon cupcakes later in the week—an excellent bonus!

Here’s the ganache recipe:

1/2 cinnamon stick
shaved peel of 1/2 orange
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
90 ml boiling water
125 g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 tsp salt
50 g caster sugar
50 g liquid glucose (I used honey)
50 g butter, cut into 2 cm cubes

Place cinnamon, orange peel and chilli flakes in a small bowl and cover with the boiling water. Set aside for 30 minutes. After the water has been infusing for about 20 minutes, prepare the sugar syrup.

Place the chocolate, vanilla seeds and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the sugar and glucose in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted. Increase the heat and boil until the caramel turns a light amber colour (this doesn’t work if you use honey—it will already be amber. I boiled to about the soft ball stage), about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the infused water and aromatics. Return the liquid to a boil and then strain over the chocolate and vanilla. Discard the aromatics. Leave for 2-3 minutes until the chocolate has melted. Stir until smooth.

Add the butter, one piece at a time, stirring constantly until it is incorporated and smooth. Refrigerate 30 minutes to firm up.

Fatecarver–New YA Epic Fantasy

Fatecarver cover

With lockdown and everything, I completely forgot to announce that my new young adult epic fantasy, Fatecarver, is now available in both ebook and print formats!

Kalish had a plan. The gods had a different one.

Kalish expects to become her clan’s next fatecarver, channelling the wisdom of the gods into the storyscars of young women—tattooing their futures onto their skin.

But the gods have different plans for her.

Kalish’s own storyscar brands her a traitor.

Banished by her clan and rejected by those she loves, she sets out to find a new home, hoping to rewrite her own fate. But her storyscar is more complex than even the elders guessed, and her travels take her far beyond the understanding of her clan.

When she discovers a plot to destroy her people, she must decide: leave them to die, or save them by becoming the traitor they think she is.

Book 1 of this new young adult fantasy series takes you to a stunning landscape of harsh beauty and harsh consequences. Kalish’s journey of loss, love, and self-discovery is set against a backdrop of cultural conflict and religious taboos that challenge her sense of belonging. 

If you like action-packed fantasy, strong female characters and magic realism, you’ll love Fatecarver. Pick up your copy today and start your adventure!

Butterless Pumpkin Lockdown Cake

iced pumpkin cake

Lockdown grocery shopping is always a bit frustrating. Our local grocery store is calm and safe-feeling. There’s never a line out the door, and social distancing is relatively easy. The problem is the store is small (little choice in brands—you take what you can get), and the prices are high. Under normal circumstances I do my shopping at cheaper, larger stores in the city.

So during lockdown, I buy as few groceries as possible and limit expensive foods like cheese and butter.

Which is why last week’s baking challenge was an iced cake with no butter. 

I based the cake on a whole-grain pumpkin cake recipe from the King Arthur Flour Wholegrain Baking book. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup each of oil and butter, so I simply used a cup of oil instead. I’ve done this before with other cakes when I needed to make a cake for lactose intolerant friends, so I was confident it would work well. It did, and the cake turned out light and moist.

The icing was more of an issue. I wanted a nice thick icing, not a simple glaze. What I really wanted was a cream cheese frosting, but I had no cream cheese. To get the cream cheese frosting flavour, I used yogurt instead. I drained about a third of a cup of yogurt for a couple of hours to thicken it. Then I blended it a spoonful at a time, along with a teaspoon of vanilla, into 2 1/2 cups of icing sugar until I hit the consistency I wanted.

It wasn’t a butter icing—it still had the feel of a glaze more than a frosting—but it spread on thickly, oozing slightly over the edges of the cake and drying to a beautiful glossy sheen. Best of all, it had the lovely cultured tartness of a cream cheese frosting. All in all, a darned good icing on a fabulous cake.

And it didn’t cost me $7.95 for a block of butter. An excellent lockdown experiment!

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #21

masks
Masks ready to go for level 2 outings.

New Zealand outside of Auckland got the news we were hoping for yesterday. As of Wednesday, we will move to Covid alert level 2, which means we can all return to work and school. This level 2 is more restrictive than previous level 2s, because the Delta variant is so much more transmissible, but we’re all looking forward to the increase in freedoms.

A shout out to Auckland, which remains in level 4. You are all superstars! Hang in there, and thank you for your mahi. It can’t be easy, and my heart goes out to you all. Kia kaha!

Once again
We reach the end
Of lockdown’s
Boring grind.

We’re headed back
To work and school
For which we all
Have pined.

So vaccinate and
Wash your hands
And over all
Be kind.

Don’t forget
To don your mask
And wear a
Smile behind.