Wednesday, January 30, 2008

confessions of a kitchen hand

My parents’ original kitchen had a low bench, the perfect height for a child to learn the basics of cookery. It was the spot to mix eggs and sugar for cake batter with the electric hand beater or later the huge trusty Kenwood. The perfect height for making pastry or kneading bread. The right nook for placing the electric fry pay when cooking up a batch of pikelets or as a forerunner to a wok for making such 70’s savoury exotics as chop suey. It was where I liked to sit and swing my legs while watching the workings of the kitchen and ask those unending childhood questions that always began with “Why..?”

My familial apprenticeship complete, I moved to my first shared house equipped with my handwritten recipes and a toaster oven. A couple of houses later I’d finished my B.A. and quite unsurprisingly found myself unemployed. With a choice of being a waitress or a kitchen hand I opted for the latter. I’ve never done servility well and anyway tipping didn’t exist in the kind of establishments that I was likely to work in at the time. If I were to work hard, I’d prefer to get dirty and sweaty with a smile being entirely optional.

I found myself getting some plum shifts at a chaotic café run by a couple of refugees from the theatre. They had the romantic vision along the lines of “I’ve always fancied running a café” common to people who’d never worked in hospitality before in their lives. They were good women, working in the most grossly under funded area of the arts who wished to create a bohemian haven for their fellow travellers. Art adorned the walls, a soundproof door could be pulled across to make a performance space, there was often a joint to be shared in the storeroom and there was always a satisfying meal to be had for a pittance.

The kitchen was a moderate size and open for all to see behind a servery hatch. I’d start the shift prepping salads or whatever in the whirl of their day had not been completed a whisker before opening for dinner. The food was basic stuff – vats of homemade soup, large bakes, massive bowls of salad, huge cakes served in generous slices, a pudding with lashes of cream. There was no table service. Punters would line up behind the counter and be served on the spot. In the odd liquor licensing of the day there was no bar but Irish coffees were permitted – a mug of filter coffee with a dollop of whipped cream with a nip of whiskey poured over the top.

Once the food was on the counter – I’d toil at the sink washing dishes, serve when one of the owners wanted a break, clear the odd table and wash more dishes. With no true chef on the premises I cannot confess to learning how to correctly slice or dice or pick up any handy cooking techniques but I’m proud to say my mother had trained me well enough that if a health inspector happened to pop in while I was on duty, the café would never fail the test. Of the many odd jobs of my youth, this is one I remember dearly. My ill-suited employers were good bosses, nice people and what’s more – on Sunday nights I got to take home all the leftover cake as they were shut the next day.

Wellington is now a city of funky cafes and more espresso machines than people know what to do with. The home of my hospitality experience of the 80’s has long ceased to exist, the women sold the place after a couple of years to someone more suited to the task. It eventually changed its name and at some point between visits the place sunk without a trace. But it was a great concept and I'm sure it holds a place in the hearts and stomachs of those who frequented it.

Whenever I hear someone who enjoys eating and cooking look around their local haunt and utter, “I’d like to run a café”, I smile quietly to myself and ask if they’ve ever worked in such a place. The reply inevitably is negative followed by a big but – they eat out so much they know how restaurants are run/all their friends tell them they are such a great cook and they should open their own place one day/they are sure it couldn’t be that hard. I think of the two friends from the theatre who followed their vision, worked so hard as to knock a few years off their life expectancy (or in one owner’s case – pickled her liver to compensate) and left a legacy of memories for some of their customers and the odd kitchen hand they employed.

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Monday, January 28, 2008


Each morning, on this leisurely holiday weekend, I've looked at my keyboard in the hope that some food inspired words would pour from my fingertips. I wish I could put down this blog-related inactivity to an agenda packed with partying but alas it is the opposite. A dose of very annoying back pain and hot, muggy summer weather has curbed my appetite and interest in food, let alone creativity.

Apologies for the brief interruption.

In the meantime, here's a shot of the evening sky.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

science lab in the kitchen

How do you like you carrots? Raw, steamed, grated, glazed, juiced or as 'caviar'? Molecular gastronomy just aint my thing. I aim to keep my food as close to nature as possible, so shopping for ingredients at a chemistry supply store doesn't appeal. I must also admit a recipe that calls for highly accurate scales sends a shiver down my 'a pinch of this' and a 'handful of that' spine.

But as we are not all food nazi's - for your amusement and culinary enjoyment - here's a link for some DIY, El Bulli style carrot caviar from Instructables. While you are there check out how to make your own cookie (biscuit) cutters - nothing more fun than using power tools in the kitchen!

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

restaurant at the end of the universe

We took the ‘expensive’ room with a view of the lake. The other, though I now think would have been a whole lot quieter, was like a walk in cupboard with a double bed crammed into it. Our one night away from the relatives would have a view and enough room to swing a cat. Anyway, I’m a sucker for blue over a drab olive green any day.

After sitting at a picnic table outside the bar downing Monteith’s finest ale my rumbling tummy set us in search of food. The pub was the only choice in the area, so thankfully there would be no issue about who’d drive home. The whiff of tired oil from the deep fryer meant fish and chips (the only choice available to me on the bar menu) were a choice to be avoided, so we relocated to another picnic table on the opposite side of the hotel’s main door to the pricier restaurants. My aunt who lived in the region had mentioned crayfish and whitebait so my expectations were high, despite the malodorous chips. The former was sadly off the menu but for NZ$21 an entrée of whitebait could be had in a traditional egg fritter. While there was more omelettes to fish, it was a nostalgic taste of home. Whitebait for the uninitiated are small wormlike critters, caught in a fine net flung across a river. Being from fresh water they have a very mild flavour. Don’t confuse them with the dirty variety, sourced from Thailand that can sometimes be had in Melbourne, or the small fish variety that Aussies give the same name to.

The SE had ‘Pacific marinated fish’. White fish, swimming in lashings of coconut milk with cucumber, coriander and a dash of lime. More a soup the way it was served but pleasant none the less.

In between we had a jug of Radler and watched the sun ebb closer to the Marlborough Sounds. We requested at least a half hour between courses when we ordered and the kitchen honoured it, almost down to the minute.

For mains, not deterred by the menu description of a ‘tropical salsa’, I went for the fish of the day (red cod) pan fried, on coconut rice and a mango concoction of top. Surprisingly edible. I was concentrating on woofing it down, so now I have no memory of what the SE ate, something involving salmon I think.

Dessert was port – a generous serve filling a champagne flute and the remaining half of the peanut slab in my bag from the day before.

oops half way through before the pic was taken

The sunset was the best I’d seen for sometime, the sun not disappearing over the Sounds til well after 9pm. Crazy 'Ary's sunset bar in Gili Air would be able to scrape a living if their crimson skies lasted as long. New Zealand may not be the tropics but their latitude affords long summer nights.

The Lake Ferry Hotel, felt like the restaurant at the end of the universe but the food was passable (not so the bar food friends have warned me) and the service friendly, albeit unpaid (the amusing local wife of the English chef) who said “I’m just helping my husband out, he’ll start hollering for plates if no one clears the tables”). The accommodation though left a bit to be desired, with every sheet of flooring and door hinge squeaking, as it’s temporary residents made their way to the communal bathroom during the nights. The walls were also so thin that the room reverberated with the snoring coming from the next room (and that is no exaggeration).

After very little sleep we made our way to breakfast before it ended at 10am. The large communal table was set the night before (very noisily next to our room), offering a free continental with the tariff of the room. All that was left was the crust and final slice of the wholemeal bread, a few containers of honey, half a jug of milk and some cereal. Instant coffee, no juice – we decided it was time to head back to civilisation for a long black with something eggy.

Verdict: Try the seafood but the sunset is the biggest winner.

Lake Ferry Hotel
South Wairarapa Coast
Telephone 06 307 7831
Website (with little useful info but pretty pictures)

Link: More absurdities from the Lake Ferry Hotel at other rants

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

mushroom tarts

Last year the vego side of the family lucked onto whipping up some simple savoury tarts to adorn the non-meat end of the Christmas lunch table. In a part of the world where the weather is warm at this time of year, these little beauties are as popular as the roast.

While using whole portabella mushrooms would look pretty, for transporting over the long winding hill and easier eating I opted to slice the fungi. Having played with these a few times now, the longer you get to marinate the mushrooms in the garlicky oil, the better they will taste!

Simple mushroom tarts

1 large mushroom per tart
1/2 clove (or more) of garlic per mushroom
1 tablespoon of olive oil per mushroom
sea salt
black pepper
green herbs to garnish
puff pastry

Crush garlic and mix with olive oil in a flat bottomed dish. Add seasoning to taste. Slice mushrooms (or if leave whole you may need to add more oil to baste) and leave to marinate in the garlicky oil. Baste occasionally. Marinate for about an hour.

While the mushrooms are doing their thing, thaw required amount of sheets of puff pastry. You will get 4 tarts from a regular square of frozen pastry. Crank oven up to 200c.

Cut pastry into 4 even squares. Fold over edges to create a rim. Gently prick the inner square with a fork. Lay mushroom slices into the inner square and cook on a non-stick baking tray (or lined with baking paper or alfoil). Bake approximately 20 minutes til golden. Keep an eye on them while cooking.

Garnish with some chopped green herbs.

Can be eaten hot or cold. Goes well with a salad, especially some bitter leaves and a little acidity to cut through the fat in the pastry. Alternatively, lightly dress some rocket and place on top of the cooked tarts (with a shave of parmesan for the non-vegans).

fresh from the oven, waiting to cool before packing up for the journey

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

tasting New Zealand

Monteith’s Radler bier

It’s got to be hot for me to want a beer. Let’s be honest, when I say ‘beer’ it’s inevitably a shandy – a lager with just a dash of lemonade. I don’t know why as I am not that keen on sweet drinks but there is something about the lemony-ness that I enjoy. Hot days in Wellington are a rare thing. Surprisingly we had quite a string of these delightful days. The first of which found us in the small courtyard of a suburban brewery bar. The sun beat down on us and it was declared ‘beer o’clock’ but what to drink in this foreign land?

The unusually efficient barman told us to not worry – he’d bring us a sampler to the table and thus begun a pleasant relationship with the Radler. A fruity lager, with a hint of lemon and lime and just a dash of sweetness. I liked it so much that I sampled it on many occasions, to the point that “I’m Radled” became a constant cry.

Another Wellington surprise

When having a drink in the sun (Monteith’s Khandallah, St John’s Bar) at some point a barperson will appear with sunblock. You need it too, with sun that beats down stronger than the thermometer implies. A great twist on ‘drink responsibly”.

Schoc chocolates

Oh boy – I need to discover a new chocolate obsession like I need a hole in my head. I was a little nonplussed when I approached the cute cottage on the outskirts of Greytown offering ‘chocolate therapy’. I admit it, I am a chocolate snob and I really doubted that small town New Zealand would be able to deliver something other than sickly little callebaut knock offs. But just one look at the single country of origin tablets in varying percentages of cocoa mass (including one 100%) and a taste of the vast array of dairy-free 53% flavours and I was hooked. (Sure they do truffles and dairy milk ones as well).

Favourites included: Limechilli, Lemon and Cracked Black Pepper, Rose, Sea Salt and toasted coconut but really, I could eat the lot.

Oh dear – I’ve just discovered Schoc chocs are available in this part of the world.


Not up to Schoc standards but purely for nostalgia I gave into a Whittaker’s peanut slab now available in a dark, dairy-free version. At high school I could nibble a peanut slab through recess, stringing it out for 20 minutes. On the nostalgia trip I took over 24 hours to get through one. Thanks for the memories Whittaker’s.

Fish and Chips

It begun innocuously enough on day 2 when I popped in for a quick visit to see some friends who produced a bag of fish and chips for afternoon tea. Afternoon tea?! I had a little nibble of the very passable chips and a bit of fish from a place in Karori. Unfortunately a couple of days later, after helping another friend move house, all that was on offer on a public holiday in her neighbourhood was a much more inferior version. Strangely 1 serve of fish equalled 3 pieces, quite a common thing I was to discover. Despite Island Bay being by the sea, it’s fish is nothing to write home about. But worse was to come. I won’t even utter the name of the local ‘fisherman’s’ chain that I was taken to the next day. The salad bar comes in a boat and under such circumstances the old faithful fish and chips or burger was a marginally better option.

For a dairy-free, no-meat girl in NZ fish and chips becomes the default option. So many vegetarian dishes are laden with milk products, it is a nightmare. Fortunately the final dose of F&C, once more the only thing I could eat on a bar menu, came at the upmarket Martinborough Hotel, perfect chips and a good tartare sauce which I washed down with, you guessed it, a Radler.

Hopefully I’ll not have to face a plate of fish and chips again this year, or at least til my next trip home at Easter!

More smoked seafood than you can poke a stick at

New Zealand is smoked food heaven (though smoked tofu still isn’t readily available). In most good supermarkets there is a wide variety of seafood lovingly smoked – mussels, eel, kingfish, cod, NZ salmon and much more.  It always inspires me to make kedgeree.

I discovered Chow, a better than average chain of Asian restaurants which I have previously mentioned, has a great smoked fish salad which I managed to make a fair copy* of for New Years Eve, though the smoked eel rolls packed less of a punch.

On a less fishy note, another discovery at Chow was the Kaffe Eis sorbet served with saffron syrup. The passionfruit was a real stand out.

One last bit of food nostalgia

The Significant Eater did a valiant Tour of Duty, helping me with my family visit. I think after his recent effort I am to be replaced in the will. My parents are committed carnivores, while their surviving offspring are not. The SE however jumped at the chance to make them a roast with premium kiwi lamb. Scouring the ’70’s era cookbooks he came across a simple marinade of a scant amount of olive oil and red wine, then slowly cooked the lamb the next day at 160c. Complete with spuds, kumara, onions and pumpkin caramelising in the juices of the roast (us vegetarian girls cooked ours separately) he added the Italian touch of a heap of simple salads on the side. Mum knocked up some fresh mint sauce (mint, sugar, malt vinegar) while I resurrected a decades old skill by making the gravy - it was perfect and looked so good I only just resisted sticking my finger in for a taste. It turned our smooth and glossy, with a perfect lump-free texture and all that stirring was a pleasant, therapeutic almost, experience. It was a memorable meal.

* Kiwi New Years Eve Smoked Fish Salad

smoked Kingfish fillets (or similar firm fish)
a generous handful of Asian herbs eg: coriander, Vietnamese mint (or mint and basil)
rocket or salad mix
cucumber, sliced
cherry tomatoes
spring onion, sliced on the diagonal
red chilli, finely sliced

Toss together with a dressing made from fish sauce, lime juice and a little palm sugar.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

not long now

In the Qantas club in Wellington sipping a calming brandy. Will be off across the ditch in a short while, watching the rain on the window (the first in weeks, I can't complain).

Coming up the - the 'fush and chup' tour of the lower North Island.

Boarding now.

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