Oh Christmas Tree!

This time last year, I wrote a blog post about Christmas trees and our family’s unorthodox take on them. I argued that, while our trees may not look like the traditional pine tree, they embody the spirit of the season.

This year’s tree is no exception. After years of suggesting we build the tree out of LEGO, the kids finally agreed. For over a week, the living room floor was a construction zone, strewn with LEGO bricks, mini-figures and gears. The two-metre-tall central structure took two evenings of negotiation, planning and construction. Then there were the branches—marvels of LEGO engineering.

Then came the whimsy—that took the longest. A combination staircase/ ladder/ escalator/ elevator winds upward from level to level. A waterwheel turns lazily on the eighth floor. Gravity takes a holiday as a kayaker paddles straight up, trailing his pet shark on a lead beside him, and emergency personnel (including the undead) carry an injured person up the side of a column. Mini-figures evoke Escher on a section of staircase. A large ship juts from both sides of the trunk, as though the tree grew into place around it. A man fishes from the ninth floor. Motorised gears turn a fantasy clock, spin a merry-go-round, drive a hammer in a dwarven workshop, and spin a star. Under the lowest branches, a kiosk sells tickets to visit the tree.

And all that is before ornaments were added.

Now, mini-figures greet Santa Claus, and a giant butterfly takes flight from the top of the tree. Snowflakes, baubles, and our eclectic mix of homemade ornaments (including the Christmas tardigrade, quite a few insects, and possibly the only Trichonympha ornament on the planet) add to the seasonal cheer. To the Christmas purist, I’m certain our tree is an abomination.

But … evenings of family fun, laughter and creativity—the Christmas season doesn’t get any better. 

See the tree in action:

 

Obsessive Gardening Strikes Again

It’s done! I finally finished planting out vegetables this past weekend. At both houses. And though I said I wasn’t going to, I ended up with nearly full gardens on both properties (never mind how I managed to start so many seeds in the first place…). 

Of course, I justified it with the observation that plants won’t grow well in the new garden—neither the weeds nor the vegetables—so it’s not like that garden will be too much work (yeah, right). 

And it would be a shame not to plant in the old garden one last time and reap the harvest from fifteen years of work on that patch of land (even if I won’t get to harvest it all). It was only logical to plant two full gardens, right?

Logical only if you’re a problem gardener like me. Once again, I’ve proven I have no self-control when it comes to plants. I can already hear my justifications for excessive gardening next year … The soil is so bad at the new place, I’ll have to over plant just to get enough vegetables to eat. I’ll just plant green manures and till them in to improve the soil. I don’t know which varieties will do well in the new garden, so I’ll have to plant lots of different ones … I’m sure I’ll come up with plenty of other justifications, too. It’s hopeless, really. If you put me in an apartment on the twenty-third floor, I’d find some way to grow excessive plants.

At least I know I’m not alone. Just look at the number of gardening blogs out there. And the number of people I see in the garden centres loading up their cars with bags of potting mix and potted plants. And in a few months, the multitude of gate sales of excess vegetables. And the number of people who post proud pictures of their first tomatoes or strawberries of the season on social media. There’s a whole community of obsessive gardeners out there. Come on, pick up your hoe, spading fork, or trowel and join us. We’re always partying in the garden, and there’s usually great food afterwards.

Footstool Everlasting

Few items from my childhood survive today. No surprise. At age 49, having moved nearly a dozen times as an adult, and ending up half a world away from my hometown, it’s surprising anything remains.

My footstool, however, not only remains, but is still in daily use.

I don’t recall how old I was when it was given to me, but I don’t think I could have been more than four or five.

My grandmother painted it, and I seem to recall some other family member—a great uncle perhaps—had built it years before. So it wasn’t new when I got it, only newly painted with my name and one of my favourite animals. I doubt Grandma ever suspected I’d grow up to get a master’s degree in entomology (and chances are she wouldn’t have encouraged it had she suspected). But I was clearly already headed that way as a preschooler.

I remember using the stool as a table, back when my legs fit neatly underneath it. I remember setting up tea parties on it, doing artwork on it, turning it upside down and pretending it was a boat, setting it on its side to form a battlement for some imaginary fortress.

When I was a teen, it served to give me access to the top shelf in my closet and as a handy homework table.

The stool moved with me when I left home. My husband has employed it in the bottling of beer, and my kids remember standing on it to work at the kitchen counter or workshop bench. Today, I’m the only one in the family who still needs a footstool, but it continues to come in handy as a low computer stand for those of us who like to work on the floor.

After more than fifty years, the footstool is as solid as ever, and just as functional as it was the day it was built. The paint is sadly worn, gone completely from the often-banged edges and corners.

But someday, when I can no longer sit cross-legged on the floor to work on the computer, perhaps I’ll repaint it for one of my grandchildren, so it can have another life as a boat, battlement and art table.

Vilma’s Eggplant–better late than never

I’ve blogged about Vilma’s Eggplant in the past, but it’s worth repeating a recipe this good.

This year’s eggplants took a long time to get going, and it’s only now that summer is over that they’re really giving well. But it’s never too late for Vilma’s Marinated Eggplant. This stuff could make an eggplant lover out of anyone.

Vilma was the sister of our host mother during Peace Corps training in Costa Rica. She was loud and fiery-tempered, and regularly stayed with our host family when she was fighting with her partner.

When she was with us, she cooked—glorious Italian food she’d learned to make from her partner. Her food was a flavourful gift in a house where vegetables were usually boiled to death and served plain. 

One of the most wonderful things Vilma made was thinly sliced eggplant marinated in garlicky vinegar. She’d leave a jar of it in the fridge when she left, and we would savour it for a week on our sandwiches or with our mushy, flavourless boiled vegetables.

I foolishly never asked Vilma for the recipe, but a bit of trial and error was all it took to recreate Vilma’s marinated eggplant. 

This recipe mostly fills a quart-sized jar. It keeps for a long time in the fridge and makes a lovely addition to sandwiches. Serve it on crackers for party appetisers—it’s not the prettiest food, but after one bite, none of your guests will care.

2 small to medium eggplants
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Peel eggplants and slice very thin (1-2 mm). Steam until the slices are tender and limp (but not falling apart completely). Whisk all the other ingredients together in a small bowl, and toss them gently with the hot steamed eggplant. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving (the longer the better, as the eggplant will soak up more marinade).

Stand Together, Every Day

It has been a difficult few days for all of us here in Christchurch. Shock. Horror. Sadness. Fear. Anger. We have been through so many emotions, it’s hard to know what we are feeling at any given moment.

But one emotion has come to the fore—love. 

Even before we understood the full scope of the horror unleashed in our midst, ordinary people were mobilising to help. Within hours, there were community Facebook groups organising walking buddies and rides for those who felt unsafe on the streets. Other pages were organising meals for the families of victims. Donations poured in on multiple Give-a-little pages (when I went to one of them to donate, less than 48 hours after the attack, the total was already well over $3 million). The NZ Red Cross quickly announced they had plenty of blood after being inundated with donors. People from all over the city left flowers at the police cordons outside the mosques.

Everywhere, people stood together in love.

It’s something Christchurch is good at. We’ve had a lot of practice coming together in the face of adversity in recent years.

It’s tempting to focus on this outpouring of support, to acknowledge the love, and reject the attacker as the enemy. It’s tempting to look at the last three days and pat ourselves on the back for how we’ve responded.

But no matter how good we are at standing together in adversity, the fact is, we’re not good at standing together in the normal times.

We still speak of the Muslim community as though it is separate from the rest of the community. And it is. We need to ask ourselves why. What unacknowledged biases keep us apart? What unacknowledged prejudice prevents us from reaching out to one another in friendship in the good times? Why do we use our differences as an excuse to stay separate, rather than as an encouragement to enrich our lives by learning from one another?

Facing these questions may be uncomfortable—the answers will reveal things we may not want to acknowledge about ourselves—but we must confront them. The man who attacked on Friday may not have been a New Zealander, but there is no question the same attitudes are present here. They are fed by our separateness, fed by our unwillingness to stand up against the little things—the racist comments, the perpetuated stereotypes, the marginalisation of those who may look different to ourselves. These little actions nurture hate. Only by vocally and visibly standing together in the good times can we prevent this from happening again.

Today, wherever you are in the world, step out of your comfort zone. Reach out to someone different from you—make a new acquaintance, a new friend. Shut down an off-colour joke. Push back against a racist comment. Show your love. 

Kia kaha katoa.

Stay strong. Stand together, every day.

Summer Soup 2019: proof we really are nuts

The family made our annual Summer Soup on Sunday. 

I think we definitively proved we have no self-control when it comes to gardening or cooking. In spite of me reducing my garden area this year, and despite the knowledge that our son is leaving home in a week (and won’t be around to eat this year’s soup), we managed to make even more than usual.

We filled all three of our big stock pots, and it took from 7.30 am to 9.00 pm to pick, chop, and process all that soup.

We had soup for dinner, I put a meal’s worth of soup in the fridge, and there are 28 beautiful quart jars full of soup lined up in the cupboard. 

Summer Soup is full of potatoes, carrots, soy, green beans, zucchini, tomato, sweet peppers, hot peppers, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beet root, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and celery. The only thing not from the garden is the salt. It’s a burst of summer goodness for the cold days of winter. It’s a quick and delicious meal when we all come home late. 

But it’s more than preserved vegetables. It’s a whole-family team building exercise. After a dozen years, it’s a family tradition. Each soup-making session brings back memories of early years, when the kids’ help was more of a hinderance. They took enormous pride in their work those years, reciting the vegetables they’d cut every time we opened a jar.

Now they’re both accomplished cooks, and their help allows us to go way overboard on soup-making. They’re less vocal about it now, but I think they’re still proud of their part in Summer Soup.

As I’ve mentioned before, anyone can make soup, but it takes a family to make Summer Soup.

Christmas Baking

When I was a kid, my mother would start her Christmas baking just after Thanksgiving. She’d bake dozens of kinds of cookies and freeze them. For weeks before the big day, there would be a big platter of cookies—a few of each of the types she’d made—out for eating. It was a child’s dream. I don’t remember her making anything but cookies for holiday desserts. We certainly didn’t need anything else, with all those cookies available.

Before moving to New Zealand, my holiday baking was similar (though with only one child eating cookies, I didn’t make quite so many as my mother did—she had three young cookie eaters). But it’s changed a lot since then.

Cookies are made with ingredients that store well—flour, butter, sugar, nuts—that’s great for winter baking, when fresh ingredients are hard to come by. But Christmas falls at the height of the summer fruit season here—it’s no wonder the traditional Christmas dessert here is pavlova—a meringue ring filled with fresh fruit (Unfortunately, I’m really not fond of meringue).

At the moment on our property, we are harvesting black currants, red currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries. With as much as 10 kilograms of fruit coming in every two days, much of that harvest goes into jam, sauces, chutney, or simply gets frozen for later use. But it would be a shame not to bake with that fruit, in favour of cookies, which I can make any time of the year.

So we’ve been enjoying strawberry shortcake, currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. For breakfast, we’ve been eating waffles smothered in fruit, and muffins studded with fruit. For snacks, and with every meal, we’ve been eating fresh fruit—whatever hasn’t gone into baking or the freezer.

Oh, there are cookies, too (why not?). But it’s the fruit I snitch while walking through the kitchen, and it’s the pie I crave for dessert.

Some day I’ll dispense with the cookies entirely … Maybe I’ll even learn to like pavlova.