Thursday, March 30, 2006

Out and about in Wellywood

Din asked for more on Wellington food. I must admit that I have never been to the Capital’s top restaurant (or what was at the top of the heap last time I looked) Logan Brown. My friends don’t do top shelf dining and for me trips ‘home’ are about spending quality time with family and friends. But due to the legendary café culture of the capital city (hey alliteration!) a decent meal and an above average cup of coffee is easy to find. Like anywhere else – follow your nose, check out the demographics of the clientele and assess the vibe before even glancing at the menu.

I regularly go to Chow in Tory Street. But this time I found myself on Sunday night at the quaint Lighthouse cinema in Petone. Though probably a small city in its own right, Petone is 10 minutes up the motorway from downtown Wellington. The Lighthouse seats you on custombuilt couches for 2. Very cute. I can imagine this is fodder for many first dates, particularly as you can sip some wine at the same time. Though for me the small size of the cinema, means that you sit a little too close to the screen.

But back to Chow, which on this particularly chilly night in near deserted Petone conveniently has a new sister restaurant just around the corner from the theatre. Let me tell you that downtown Petone on a Sunday night is not a very exciting place to find yourself but Chow is usually a winner. A funky bar/restaurant that serves modern Chinese in small or large plates. Great to go with a few people so you can get a wider variety of dishes. This time I had vego spring rolls and gyozas – which weren’t as good as I had remembered (excuse my lack of modesty, I thinks mine taste so much better especially as they are only fried on one side unlike Chow’s fully fried offerings), but the pumpkin and cashew nut salad was delicious. The Petone restaurant was quiet, so much so that the young staff appeared slightly comatosed. The city restaurant is always lively, detouring you to wait and at the bar and have a cocktail. They also have a cabaret attached that offers some light relief on a dull night.

Just around the corner from the Tory Street Chow is a local coffee haunt Caffe L'Affare, great for a daytime coffee. My only gripe is this is yet another queue, pay, wait joint (ie: no table service), but at least the decor gives you something to look at while you are hanging out.

If you are not sure where to head out for the night in Wellington a safe bet is generally the bars and restaurants that populate Courtney Place and nearby Streets (Tory, Blair etc). It's also one of the few places in the town that has a nightlife after midnight. Just don’t combine eating and drinking with the urban bungy experience (opposite the ubiquitous Irish pub).

Up Cuba Street are two of my standards – Olive and the Matterhorn. Olive is in a double width building a couple of blocks up from the Cuba Mall. It’s a simple café, specializing in “Pacific rim cuisine” using organic produce as much as possible. Good for brunch, lunch or a simple dinner. Reasonable and tasty. Though, at least during the day, you have to queue up to order and pay at the counter.

The Matterhorn however stunned me with great service. A waiter who knows how to do their job stands out in Wellington like a sore thumb and this cool bar/restaurant had at least 2 (and cute as, at that!). The staff were very helpful with Fussy Bitch’s Even Fussier Sister and liased with the chef to create her a vegan delight. When it came to selecting a wine each by the glass, they offered tasters and guidance with the unfamiliar wine list. Even better the food tasted great – my fish (one of those kiwi ones who’s name I have now forgotten) “rubbed with bruised aromatic herbs on caper crushed new potatoes & oregano dusted eggplant fries” was moist and flavoursome. All in all, a delightful experience on another of those grey Wellington nights.

One last words on good staff. Thanks to the lovely woman running Eva Dixon’s for giving us free coffees with our lunch. Very sweet compensation for lucking upon a café full of rather noisy geriatrics out for a group lunch. The hostess with the mostess found us a quieter spot and made sure we were looked after. What's more we had table service! I had a better than average vego brunch (from memory called the ‘vegetarian bugger’, younger sibling of the ‘big bugger’ breakfast). This little suburban café has ousted Edwards Jones as my favourite lunch stop en route to the airport.

The downside:

Melbourne, food wise, can spoil you when it comes to eating and drinking. Just let go of your foodie expectations and enjoy it for what it is.

For the dairy intolerant always ask if the dish contains any of the dreaded moo juice. I have found it turning up unlisted in the most innocuous meals, such as in a napoli sauce.

I have yet to have a good Thai meal in Wellington. Some of the Indian restaurants are also dubious.

Forget the prawns. They aren’t local and tend to be frozen and tasteless. Opt for some local crayfish instead.


Matterhorn: 106 Cuba Street, Wellington ph:384 3359 menu and info.

Olive café: 170 Cuba Street, Wellington ph: 802 5266

Chow Petone : 306 Jackson St, Petone ph:589 8585
Chow Tory: 45 Tory St, Wellington ph:382 8585 menu and info

Eva Dixon's Place: cnr Camperdown & Darlington Rds, Miramar ph: 388 8058

Caffe L'Affare: 27 College St, Wellington details

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Saturday, March 25, 2006


a few of my favourite things (Stephanie aint going in the box, she's coming with me!)


Thursday, March 23, 2006

another kettle of fish (kiwi style)

On a sunny day in Wellington there is only one place to be – having lunch at the Chocolate Fish Café. Nestled adjacent to a harbour side beach is an eclectic little eatery where the bulk of the tables are situated across the winding road from the actual café. Waiters wear fluoro safety vests and the traffic politely idles while handfuls of lattes are ferried across the street.

But I digress. I have not emphasised enough the miracle of the first sentence
“On a sunny day in Wellington”
Stay in the capital of New Zealand for a week, any time of year, and you will experience every season. Early autumn is usually a more optimistic time, climactically speaking, to visit the city but you will likely have the joys of both intense cancer causing rays and hail in the same week. Sometimes in the same day. And lets not waste our breath talking about the legendary wind.

Anyway – I’ll just say, a sunny day in Wellington sparkles. The mountains punctuating the landscape stand majestic, the water sits calm on the harbour and instant happiness descends. Grab it now, don’t be complacent (like we are here in Melbourne), run with it and have an outdoor feast.

I was royally anointed with such a day, the one after I arrived. After wandering through an outdoor exhibition on the waterfront, I took my mother “around the bays” to the Chocolate Fish Café, located in the aptly named bit of coast known as Scorching Bay. At noon on a weekday you have half a chance to get both a car park and a seat in the sun. But only just. This town heavily weighted with public servants has a culture that allows doing lunch al fresco, just 10 minutes drive from the city centre. In my brief stint working for a government department I soon learnt that with a manila folder under your arm a café visit instantly became a “meeting” regardless of the ensuing nature of the conversation.

The menu gave a wide variety of choices from breakfast, to things in bread, to soup or other local favourites. There was one dish that leapt out at me, something that I never see in a trendy Melbourne café – kedgeree, so smoked fish with curried rice it was.

The dish arrived garnished with thin shards of deep fried sweet potato and wedges of boiled egg. Though lavishly tainted with turmeric, overall it was only mildly spiced. There were chunks of smoked fish (something local – smoked fish is widely available in this city, beyond just cod, trout and eel), salty but not overdone, studding the rice. All in all, it was a satisfying dish.

Even better, like all the cafés I frequented in the city, lashings of ginger beer was on offer. A new addition was the Hardy Boys Dry, which was crisp and not so sweet. A perfect non-alcoholic drink on a hot day.

PS: you can buy a chocolate fish at the CFC for (NZ) 50c but dog biscuits for your pooch are free! I got the feeling the owners prefer the pitter patter of paws than little feet.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I'll be back in a bit

Off to the Land of the Long Red Kumara.

Looking forward to:

Fresh air
Green hills
Getting my funny accent back
Dinner at Chow’s (funky modern Chinese in Wellington)
Is it whitebait season yet?

But most of all acquainting myself with this culinary marvel.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

goodbye yellow kitchen

Tiles versus glass splashbacks?
Granite, marble or laminate bench tops?
Favourite colour combos for the kitchen?

What I want is storage, a dishwasher (at last!), a decent gas stove top and an electric oven.

I have a very limited kitchen that will be a 3 x 1 metre (excluding the intersecting space of the corner (900 x 900mm) “L”. The way it has been configured, thus far involves a pantry (1000mm), dishwasher (600mm), fridge (700mm), drawers (400mm), sink (700mm), space to open corner cupboard (2 x 300mm) and, sadly, only enough room for a 600mm oven. Plus some above bench cupboards. Being vertically challenged, 95% of above bench space is not easily in reach to me.

Unfortunately, budget is more limited than I’d like (I’m changing the space, getting a new bathroom and those kinds of things too) – so that means the glass and the marble/granite are likely to be out unless someone has a compelling reason to keep them. This isn’t going to be a “dream kitchen” but will be a big step up from this:

yes this is the kitchen I moved into 8 years ago!

It is amazing what you can produce with the most basic tools, fresh ingredients will always triumph over limited technology.

It seems almost everyone else has been here before. So why don’t you tell me about it.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Another fishy Thursday

My day off is meant to provide a leisurely afternoon to play with food. But that doesn’t seem to be so at the moment. The ongoing Thursday renovation conferences have taken over the space I had hoped to inhabit with things culinary. There is the expected stress over quotes. The dilemma of tiles versus glass splash backs. The cutting up of measured to scale squares representing various appliances and a lot of swearing trying to find how to squeeze in a 900mm rather than the 600mm oven. You know, that kind of thing.

I am surprised it hasn’t driven me to drink.

Or chocolate.

So it's fish night again and by the time I have got off the phone, gone for a walk, communicated with my world…it’s after 8pm and dinner has not begun. This weeks quest involved flathead needing to be boned and food in my stomach before I fainted.

A meal in 15 minutes? No problem.

I managed to excise 2, gorgeous long fillets and this is what it became.

Flathead with a polenta-zaatar crust

Prepare fillets and pat dry. Give scraps to very attentive feline. Reserve bony bits to make fish stock.

Take some fine polenta, and add a generous tablespoon or so of zaatar (a Middle Eastern spice mix featuring thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and salt) and mix thoroughly.

Dip fillets into beaten egg, Let them drip a little, then roll in the polenta mix.

Cook in a medium-hot pan in a little unroasted sesame oil.

Serve with salad and/or roast vegetables, and some lemon wedges.


I plated it up beautifully, already to shoot but it was dark by then and by the time I had begun to juggle with lighting the protesting stomach couldn’t wait any longer. It really did look good enough to eat – and it was!

I’ve previously made this with 5 spice powder or garam marsala and some salt in the polenta. Both very yummy. The zataar had a stronger flavour that went well with the olives, rocket and fennel in the salad.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

scrambled eggs

When I glance back to childhood from this distance, it seemed like we had bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning. Well, I admit there were cornflakes sometimes – just the cereal, some tinned or home bottled peaches and lots of the syrup, no milk. There was some vegemite on toast (white, unsliced loaf from the local dairy*). But eggs featured heavily. I wasn’t keen on poached eggs but didn’t mind them boiled, not too gooey, with soldiers. But the best was my mum’s scrambled eggs. She did them in the pan, not the pot, with diced bacon fried first in some oil or butter, then the beaten eggs and milk would be poured in and stirred, stirred, stirred. She cooked them thoroughly, dry-ish but never rubbery.

There used to be a café on Brunswick St called Guernica. This was when it was still a typical bohemian café, before it became a restaurant, long before it’s demise. They said they named it after the painting, but didn’t the owners ever study history at school? It was kind of odd to name a place associated with food and happiness, after a massacre. But going way back, when it was a café that served breakfast, I went there one day and had eggs scrambled with sun dried tomato and spring onion, served in a croissant. At last, I found my post-bacon scrambled combo.

I ditched the croissant and began making it with a thick slice or two of the best grainy toast. It is at least 15 years since that breakfast at Guernica and it remains my stalwart scramble.

Scrambled Eggs – Beyond Guernica
(per person)
1 spring (green) onion
1 large sundries tomato, diced
2 organic eggs
Freshly ground sea salt and black pepper
The best sourdough seedy bread you can find (or whatever turns you one)
Some butter for the pan

Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Slice onions on the diagonal and sauté on low with a little butter for about a minute. Add the sun dried tomatoes, stir for another 30 seconds.

Get the toast happening.

Add the eggs to the pan, gently lifting away from the sides with a wooden spoon when it begins to set. Keep the heat low otherwise they tend to toughen. Keep stirring, til just as moist as you prefer.



Of course, if you want to take a photo of said breakfast, warm a plate before hand so you don’t end up with cold eggs on toast!

Variations: It takes a little longer, but diced red onions cooked slowly or even caramelised are pretty yummy. I usually add some garlic when I cook them that way. Eggs are a great medium to get to know herbs. Add some finely chopped fresh, green herbs to the eggs once they have just begun to set and stir through.

* For those not versed in Trans-Tasman lingo: A dairy is a milk bar (Aus) or corner store (UK). American visitors, please fill me in with your equivalent.

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Gluten-free spinach and fetta pie

I don’t often buy spinach. A macrobiotic friend had mutter dark bodings about oxalic acid once and after that I had dropped it off the bottom of the shopping list. But when I saw it at the market this week, something told me I just had to have it.

Spinach pie is a classic – but this one isn’t. For a start I rarely eat cheese, but every now and then will see how my body copes with a little sheep’s milk. This was one of those days, but I didn’t want to push the boundaries of my wayward gut by risking flour and dairy in the same meal.

This is what I came up with.

Gluten-free spinach and fetta pie

For the crust
Peel and grate potato, enough to cover whatever size pan, pie dish or casserole you are using. Squeeze out as much water as possible and push down into the base of your well oiled pan. Sprinkle a little olive oil on top. Bake uncovered at about 205c for about 25 minutes. Check that the edges don’t burn.

While cooking the crust prepare the ingredient.
Slice a large leek or a couple of medium sized one. Sauté in butter (butter really adds a creamy dimension to the dish). Do it slowly, be patient, it will take a while but you will have lovely, buttery leeks.
Pick over, de-stalk and thoroughly wash a bunch of spinach (more if you are making a bigger pie). Shake off the water and throw in a large pot, over a medium heat. You don’t need to add anything to the pot as there is always enough moisture clinging to the leaves to steam it. Toss with your tongs frequently, to get even cooking. This won’t take long, so don’t leave it unattended. When cooked, drain the spinach thoroughly and put aside.

Beat a couple of nice organic eggs. Once again, if you are making a large version, or you want it to be more quiche-like ie: eggy, throw in a few more. Add a pinch salt (the fetta is usually pretty salty so use a light hand), pepper and grate in a little nutmeg. Doesn’t that nutmeg smell wonderful! Whisk the eggs and seasoning together.

Assemble your pie fillings. Mix the leeks and spinach in a bowl and crumble in some fetta cheese. Stir through the beaten eggs – enough to generously coat the vegetables. By now your crust should be cooked. If you want a crispier crust leave it longer, but put some baking paper over it so the top doesn’t burn. Spoon the topping on the potato base and put into a moderate-warm oven (180-200c depending on the vagaries of your appliance.

So far so good!

I checked the oven after 15 minutes (I was guessing cooking time would take 25-35 minutes) but to my horror found the oven had turned itself off. It was one of those days, the plumbing was playing up and I’d had to turn the water off at the mains as well.

Oven reignited, I left it to cook. So sorry, no exact cooking time – presuming your oven is working, check at about 25 minutes and take it from there. It is done when the egg is set.

Despite the great ingredients, I was poised for disaster when I took it out of the oven. It smelt great, looked good and I was pleasantly surprised - tasted even better. The base was more soft than crunchy, but was a good foil to the saltiness of the fetta. The vegetable/egg/cheese mix was remarkably creamy. I have to say – it turned out a winner.

The only failure of the night was my food lack-of-styling and photography. In too much of a hurry as always. This doesn’t do the dish justice, looks more like scrambled eggs, but just use your imagination.

(promising to style and focus better next time :)

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

from the earth

I have been diligent and created some recipe links. Although each offering has yet to evolve into a uniform style, most are simple and easy to follow. I hope you can breathe deeply and smell the aromas as you browse.

My very first recipe was for rhubarb, a gorgeous winter ‘fruit’ that was a constant through my childhood. My mother’s garden, now neglected, still has some surviving plants hanging around the sides. Whenever I am back in New Zealand she stews me some. Though hers was always a no-nonsense simmering of rhubarb stalks washed, topped and tailed with a liberal amount of sugar. My version had the addition of apples, strawberries and rose water. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, we have just entered autumn. It is time to farewell the gorgeous stone fruits and see the return of tamarillos, passionfruit and my old friend rhubarb. I can’t wait!

As I buy organic produce, locally grown when possible, it keeps me in harmony with the seasons. The price of forgoing a winter tomato that tastes nothing like the fruit warm from the vine in summer, is the joy of rediscovering the flavours at the time of year that the fruit or vegetable naturally comes into its own. For a cook, to work with what is available at it’s prime, may restrict your repertoire, but ultimately rewards you with flavour. There is a strange freedom in working with seasonal food, necessity is as the say, the mother of invention.

For a generation of kitchen novices, who may only have experienced fresh produce bought from a supermarket, I can understand why so many people cook less now. To me the over chilled, early picked, out of season fruit and vegetables dispayed under the fluro glare, look unappetising. If you never had the opportunity to grow your own, or shop at a seasonal, outdoor market I am not sure how a good relationship with food is ever fostered, so disconnected with the source.

My local food hero, Stephanie Alexander certainly gets the concept. More than that, for years she has done something about it – starting the kitchen garden at Collingwood College. These are city kids, many of whom are raised in the towers of the nearby housing commission flats, growing their own fruit and vegetables and learning to cook them. Hopefully, that means there is a new generation of food loving individuals on its way - and that has to be a good thing, for all of us.


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