Summer Idyll

I have been extremely lackadaisical about writing my blog over the Christmas period. Perhaps it was all the cooking and general busyness. Perhaps it was the aftermath of eating and napping. I have become like one of the cats: sunning my belly on the deck and snoozing away the afternoon.

Even though there were only four of us, Christmas lunch with my parents was still pretty complex. Homemade pies with beef cheek slow-cooked in red wine. Ham triple-glazed in cranberry sauce and manuka honey. Corn on the cob. Potato & egg salad. Coleslaw of red cabbage, kale, carrot, celery, and sunflower seeds. Another salad of rocket, parmesan & pear, tossed in garlic salt & balsamic vinaigrette. And then we followed that with fruit salad, ice cream, and pavlova with cream and strawberries. A good (if elaborate) summer lunch. And then cheese and crackers, which became my dinner as well.

I deliberately bought the smallest ham I could find (and free-range, of course). It was 1.6kg (about 4lbs), so we’re still left with quite a bit of ham in the fridge. My husband will no doubt do what he can to make it into sandwiches, and perhaps it will find its want into an omelette or soup, but at least it’s a much more manageable size than the ham we gave away. The leftover salad was taken care of within 24 hours, and there was no leftover dessert. There’s still a lot of cheese, and booze, and chocolate, but everything will dwindle with time. The napping may also have been an side-effect of the ongoing snacking.

After lunch, for some reason my family felt motivated enough to drive out to the lighthouse on the Manukau Heads. None of us had ever been there. Only thing is, it’s a long, narrow and windy road, and it turns out that the gate to the lighthouse reserve closes at 5pm – at least that’s what the sign said. So by the time we’d picked our way up the peninsula we never did get to see the lighthouse, but I look pictures of the landscape just to entertain myself. The feathery grass, the pitted sand bank, the rough moss and bracken. It was quite beautiful in its own way. Rugged and windswept – part of an older world.

It is frankly a miracle to be able to spend both Christmas and Boxing Day with my husband, and neither of us have to work. We went down to the beach on Boxing Day (where I slipped over on a rock pool and sliced my hand open on the barnacles). The beach was virtually empty, which I guess meant that everyone else was out shopping. We wandered around the point at low tide and found a freshwater spring and a small cave. My husband made jokes about hunting for signs of “sea-squatch”. We found oysters and tiny crayfish, but left them alone. It was an idyllic way to spend a quiet, lazy day.

Now… back to that ham.

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Florentines

One of the things I have to write today is a recipe. It’s a recipe that I kind of made up, so it I don’t write it down I’ll forget the whole thing.

Here’s the deal: we’re doing Secret Santa at my workplace this year. The girl I drew out is one of our part-timers – very nice, bright, young, and into her horses. She’s also moving out of home to go to university, and was diagnosed as coeliac this year, which has made her life a bit more complicated. I don’t know enough about horses to be able to buy a horse-owner something useful on a $10 limit, so I figured I’d give her some gluten-free treats along with a recipe so that she can make them herself. Because gluten-free food is expensive, and young people moving out on their own into the world need to know how to feed themselves.

Sounds straightforward, right? Well, I wanted the baking to be fresh (hint: I’m actually very unprepared for Christmas) so I decided to make it the day before I needed it. I had settled on making Florentines, because the flavors of chocolate and fruit are very Christmassy, and because I thought these lacy Italian confections would be easy to make… Turns out that they’re not. Not at all.

I got up very early so that I could get them done before work. I found a recipe on the internet, but my first batch turned out as huge, chewy puddles. I thought I might be able to save them by putting them back in the oven for a couple minutes to crisp up some more. And then it turns out that the line between chewy and burnt is very fine. I did another batch, now starting to run late for work, and slammed them in the oven. Then I put my work clothes in the dryer, sorted out my lunch, and climbed in the shower with lightning speed. Luckily my husband got up and wandered blearily into the bathroom.

“Baking smells good,” he yawned.

… “Oh crap!” I yelled from the shower. “They’re still in the oven!”

So that was another batch of bitter, blackened sugar that landed in the bin, and by now I was all out of almonds. My husband chuckled that this was so like me – getting up specially early to do some crazy scheme and then forgetting it halfway through and letting it burn. I pretended to be offended, but he’s quite right. The Secret Santa gifts were supposed to be in today, but they’re not being handed out until Thursday so there was no getting around it. I’d have to stop by the supermarket after work and get some more ingredients in order to give it another go.

Sitting in the car at the supermarket after work, I decided to research a few more recipes to see if I could figure out how to make the Florentines a bit crunchier and less puddley. I bought some different ingredients. What the heck – I was swiftly running out of time to get this right! It called for some experimentation now.

Thankfully, what I ended up with actually worked!… Eventually… At midnight… Well, it wouldn’t be Christmas if I wasn’t sweating through some mad, tangled cookery in the wee hours of the morning. This is my Christmas every year. And unfortunately (considering Christmas seems to entail weeks upon weeks of eating garbage) sweets are totally my turf. It’s not the holidays until I’ve sweated out a bucket of handmade tiramisu, a sack of nougat, various filled chocolates, and 5 tons of amazing fudge. And all of this occurs at midnight, after work. Hell, you try getting chocolate to set when the house is 30 degrees celsius and we have 95% humidity!

Anyway, here’s the recipe I ended up with:

GLUTEN-FREE FLORENTINES

  • 4 Tbls Butter
  • 3 heaped Tbl Brown Sugar
  • 4 Tbls Cornflour
  • 4 Tbsl Slivered Almonds
  • 4 Tbls Sliced Almonds
  • 3 Tbls Dried Cranberries (roughly chopped)
  • 2 Tbls Mixed Peel
  • 4 Tbls Gluten-Free Cornflakes
  • 1/2 cup Dark Cooking Chocolate

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Cover a wide baking sheet with baking paper and set aside.

Gently melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat. Add the brown sugar and stir over the heat until well blended. When the mixture begins to simmer, remove it from the heat and sift in the cornflour. Beat well until no lumps are visible.

Add the nuts, fruit and cornflakes to the sugar mixture. Mix well to blend.

Using a teaspoon, spoon small amounts of the mixture on the baking sheet. Leave lots of room between them, as the cookies with spread a lot. Flatten out each ball of mixture with the back of the spoon until they are as thin as possible.

Bake in the preheated oven for around 8 minutes. Remove from the oven when they are golden brown. Keep close watch, as they can burn very quickly.

While the cookies are still soft and buttery, use a knife to separate them on the baking sheet and shape them how you want. Remember that they will harden to crispy, so work quickly. Allow the cookies to cool and harden on the baking sheet.

Melt the chocolate according to the pack’s instructions, remembering to keep it away from water or steam. Use a spoon to drizzle the melted chocolate over the Florentines, and leave somewhere cool to set.

 

 

 

 

 

Pohutukawa

I knew it was coming, but it’s still wonderful to see the first flush of red on the drive up to the section. The pohutukawa trees are starting to bloom. It’s not enough to photograph yet, but in another week it will be a brilliant Christmas display all along the winding country roads. There are some benefits to spending summer in Auckland after all.

My husband has actually been doing the lion’s share of the outdoor work this week – mowing the long grass at the section, which has taken several days. I joined him for a bit so that we could move the water tank and get it ready to fill with water, but this proved to be a much more difficult task than anticipated. Although the giant plastic tank is light enough that it could be pushed off the delivery truck by just myself and the truck driver, it has settled into the ground in the intervening months, and stubbornly refused to budge. In the end, moving it required the gentle assistance of my car. We got it done though.

Once again, I’m spending my quiet hours working on my application for that job – or rather studying the position description so that I can cover all of the major points in the interview. I so want to get this role, it may be a disappointing Christmas if it doesn’t come about.

I’ll keep you posted. Of course.

 

Summer is Still Coming

It’s surely a sign that the hot weather is nearly upon us, but I’m craving fresh, cool and crunchy tastes at the moment. Plus it’s hard to find good Mexican food in New Zealand – and if my husband wasn’t home then I’m the sort of person who’d be eating Mexican food every other day. Still, after a sunny afternoon out weeding the garden and planting vegetables, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I sat down and ate all of this. But it’s mostly vegetables and fruit, so surely that makes it ok.

I also don’t usually write recipes, because I’m an “instinct cook” and tend to just make things up and improvise the quantities of things on the basis of how I feel on the day. It does make it hard to replicate my successes, but it also means that I’m never fully sure what will appear after I’ve spent some time in the kitchen – so that keeps it fun and interesting. “Yes, I tried adding nutmeg to that… no, it didn’t work.” There’s not really much you could do to muck up something like this though, and you could just add or subtract bits as needed. Got strawberries? Toss those guys in there! Don’t like avocado? No biggie. So here goes my version of a recipe:

Chicken fajitas. Chicken strips marinaded in lime juice, olive oil, salt, cilantro, chipotle, ground cumin, and liquid smoke. Then fried until golden. Then add sliced bell pepper, onions and remaining marinade to the same pan and reduce while the chicken rests. Wrap it all in soft tortillas.

Blackened corn pico de gallo. Grill a fresh corn cob with a little olive oil and salt, until the kernels start to char. Leave to cool, then slice off the kernels. Toss together with diced red onion, diced tomato, diced avocado, torn fresh cilantro, a little chili powder, and a little lime juice.

Watermelon salad. Slice strips of fresh watermelon and dice cucumber. Toss together with olive oil and lime juice, then add finely cut mint. Crumble through some feta, and finally sprinkle with a dash of garlic salt.

And that’s it. It took about an hour to marinade and about 30 minutes to do all the other prep and cooking. Plus my husband ate Mexican food with me, so that’s a bonus.

 

 

Germination

On the 6th day after planting them, there is definitely germination happening in my little seed pellets now. From the top, that’s Rocket (L), Stock (R), Black Turtle Beans (middle row), and Sunflowers (bottom). It’s quite bizarre how excited I am about this.

Part of this excitement actually comes from the fact that I’ve been wholly unable to find a seed packet for Black Turtle Beans in New Zealand… so I just bought a large bag of dry beans from the local grocery store and planted some of those. And sure enough, they are germinating. If I want a bumper crop of beans, I now have thousands more that I can plant for much the same price as buying a little seed packet of 10-20 beans at a garden store. Next I will try this with chickpeas and kidney beans and some different varieties of sunflowers. Maybe even peanuts. Why not?

After what has seemed like an impossibly busy work week (with so many more to come as summer progresses), I am relishing the chance to get back into planting.

 

Score

One of my grand schemes for the new section is to make use of the frost-less-ness of coastal Auckland and plant a tropical garden right outside the dining room. This is assuming that I can keep the wind away while it gets established.

As it happens, earlier this year I found a woman who occasionally lists tropical plants on Trade Me. When I went to pick up my last purchase from her, I discovered that she’s an elderly woman with cataracts and a vast, sprawling collection of tropicals that she grows in greenhouses and shade houses all over her property. They are all nominally for sale, but she only ever has time to list a few online. Upon discovering this treasure trove in South Auckland, I decided that the next time I visited her I would bring more cash.

So, on a very rainy Tuesday, that’s what I did.

We wandered around her garden until we were both soaked to the bone. She seemed to mind even less than I did. I came away with a large banana palm, a frangipani, a pineapple, a fig tree, taro, yacon, sugar cane, and tillandsia. I feel it has been a very successful Tuesday overall.

Now Wednesday will be a planting day. Not that I mind.

Roster

Why, oh why did I put myself on the roster for Sunday?

I actually have to get organised for the week ahead. Now that wedding season has started, I need to do a stocktake every week and make sure I order the right kind of booze and table linen and decorations for the week ahead. You know: boring shit. Mercury tea light votives and other vitally important shit. But I’ve also just worked 35 hours on my feet in 3 days and I’m thinking that doing the orders on Monday morning would still be okay… Except for the linen, that order has to be in by 2pm Sunday. And Coca-Cola, who need it by 5pm Sunday. And the coffee, and… oh fuck, I didn’t win the lottery this week so I really do have to go to work again.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if I could pay the mortgage by just growing my garden and raising a few chickens? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way (yet), so until that big lottery win comes my way I am stuck on the roster for Sunday.

Bloody Coke order better turn up on time this week.

 

Back to Work

The kitties did wake my up at 6:45, but I could tell there was no real urgency. My husband had already left for work, so he would have fed them early. This time, their snuggles and efforts to press wet noses against my ear were more for the sake of keeping warm than warding off the hunger pangs.

That’s one wedding down (out of two this weekend). It was a nice event overall but I am worn out and not looking forward to another long day. This is just a taste of Jan-Feb though, when we stack 4 or 5 weddings into every week and I become like a walking zombie.

I will hopefully have more to say in a couple of days, but in the meantime I’m just exhausted. My legs are sore (despite the knee brace and compression socks). My brain feels like it hasn’t slept in days (despite some decent sleep lately). If my thyroid was working properly then I wouldn’t feel so washed out, but we all have to take life as it comes.

Now. Back to work.

Lazy November

As anticipated, Tuesday was my day of rest. Or rather, my day of lots of sleep.

I woke up at 4am to a pile of purring, nuzzling kitties. I completely refused to get up and feed them at 4am, so there was two hours of furry cuddles before they gave up and woke up my husband instead. It was actually incredibly pleasant to have time to linger with the cats instead of being forced to get up for work. Except for the claws.

The cold wind had finally died away, so it was actually a stunning, warm, spring day. Too hot to be out in the garden really, so it probably wasn’t a bad thing that we just hung around the house. I’ve managed to coordinate my days off to match with my husband’s days off (not easy when we are both on random shifts through the week) so it’s also wonderful to have had so much “husband time” over the past couple of weeks. On an ordinary week we may hardly see one another – and live our separate lives like lonely flatmates. But we both really enjoy the time we spend together, so we cherish it.

We went for a walk on the beach in the afternoon, and spotted some jellyfish (which are apparently a big problem around Auckland at the moment, and probably a sign that the fish stocks are suffering). These ones are harmless though.

It’s hard to describe the real joy of the seasonal change towards summer. The air tastes different. Asparagus and strawberries are back in the shops. Fireworks go on sale tomorrow (for Guy Fawkes Day, because we’re all supposed to be stoked that 400 years ago we killed a bunch of Catholics who hated the Protestant King of England). Just the fact that we can have dinner outside is an unbelievable relief.

And all of the trees I’ve planted at the new section over the past few months are happy and gradually taking off. It really does make all that hard work seem worthwhile…

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Tired

Despite the fact that it’s October (nearly November) there’s been a southerly raging up the country this weekend and it’s been freezing cold. I don’t have much else to say about that.

The fact is, I’ve had three nights in a row with around 6 hours of sleep each night. It’s enough that I don’t fall over in a heap, but compounded it’s not enough to make me feel well or together anything other than exhausted. I have Tuesday off, so I will once again probably end up spending my day off sleeping rather than gardening or doing anything else productive. And I won’t feel much better by the end of it – it will be like I never slept at all. I used to have much more stamina for this kind of crap.

The doctors have decided that the lesions in my thyroid have changed a bit but it doesn’t look suspicious and probably isn’t cancer. This is good, but as I feared earlier, leaves me with a feeling of being wiped out and no real answers as to why. My doctor is trialing me on some new medication, which seems to be doing nothing at all, but I have to stay on it for two months before they can be sure. I’ve been going through a similar cycle of medical guesswork for about 7 years now. It sucks and so far has seemed to provide few answers and little relief. Since going on thyroid replacement hormones I stopped bleeding from my mucous membranes, so I guess there’s that.

I just wish I could feel awake again. Someday.