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“Through falling leaves I pick my way slowly”

Rural far north New Zealand, 2014

Growing up in a small rural area was a privilege for which I will always be grateful. I spent nearly 18 years living in a beautiful valley with a river below the house, surrounded by farms (see above), with the bush close by and my school by the beach a mere 10 minutes away. At night all you could hear was the chirp of insects, the distinctive call of the morepork (a small native owl), and occasionally the faint revving of an engine as someone carved doughnuts in the gravel down by the cattle saleyards. We drank rainwater out of a tank, ate homegrown vegetables and home-killed meat, and felt lucky that we got to eat McDonald’s once a year when we passed through Whangarei, a full two hours drive from home.

I’ve now lived more of my life in cities than I ever did in the country, but green places with clean air and bright starry skies will always be my spiritual home. Because of this, I was delighted when a Facebook friend recently nominated me to upload one photo of nature every day for seven days. It was a great excuse to trawl through old photos, re-live some beautiful moments, and I quickly found a large collection of favourites to share. In fact, after my seven days were up I voluntarily extended the challenge to 30 days so that I could upload 23 more photos. Most of the photos I selected have never featured on this blog, so I have put together the top 16 here and I hope that you enjoy them.

In case you’re wondering, the title of this post is the opening lyrics of Wayne Mason’s song “Nature”. This gentle, lyrical pop song went to number one in the New Zealand charts in 1969 and was later voted the best New Zealand song of the 20th century. Little Wayne was only 19 when he wrote “Nature”, and he says that he wrote it “in an hour on the front porch of my mum’s house, looking out on a beautiful day with trees and stuff. Bees were buzzing and my heart was fluttering” (source: here). This is probably the most wholesome thing that a member of a band has ever said about their hit song, but really, this is exactly why most of us are drawn to nature, at least some of the time – for its buzz and its flutter and our deeply-felt response to such purity. We could all use a little peace in these chaotic times.

Butcher Bird in Maleny, Sunshine Coast, Australia, 2012

Above: Butcher Bird in Maleny, Sunshine Coast, 2012

Stormy sky, rainbow and cranes in Brisbane Australia, 2013

Above: Stormy skies in Brisbane, Australia 2013

The cave at Te Henga, Bethells Beach, Auckland 2014

Above: The cave at Te Henga (Bethells Beach), 2014

Lupins at the Wintergarden, Auckland 2010

Above: Lupins at the Auckland Wintergarden, 2010

Rice fields in Pai, northern Thailand, 2011

Above: Rice fields in Pai, northern Thailand, 2011

Genghis the ginger cat 2008

Above: Genghis (the Irreplaceable), our wonderful ginger cat, Auckland, 2008

Beautiful Taipa Beach in Far North New Zealand, 2009

Above: Taipa Beach, Far North New Zealand, 2009

Shadows at the Wintergarden, Auckland 2010

Above: Spiky shadows at the Auckland Wintergarden, 2010

Waterlillies in Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City, 2011

Above: Waterlilies in Ho Chi Minh City, 2011

Ta Som Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia 2011

Above: Ta Som Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2011

Beautiful far north New Zealand, 2009

Above: Beautiful Far North New Zealand, 2009

Tropical holiday in Phi Phi Islands, Thailand 2010

Above: At Phi Phi Islands, Thailand 2010

Rural far north New Zealand 2014

Above: Just another rural sunrise, Far North New Zealand, 2014

Sleepy Koala at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, 2014

Above: Sleepy koala at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Brisbane 2014

Bonsai inside the Citadel, Hue, Vietnam, 2011

Above: Bonsai inside the Citadel, Hue, Vietnam, 2011

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Winter Salad | Pickled Fennel, Grapefruit, Avocado

Pickled fennel, grapefruit and avocado - winter detox salad 3

So it’s been a little quiet on the blog for the last couple of months. My usual excuses for a blogging-hiatus run on the predictable theme of work/life overload, but in this case, I am pleased to say that I have been otherwise occupied with a holiday in South America.

Pickled fennel, avocado and grapefruit - winter detox salad

I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to write that! I started this blog five years ago when we left New Zealand and embarked on a three-month trip around South East Asia before arriving in Australia. Since then we haven’t really travelled at all. Sure, there have been multiple trips back to New Zealand (which I generally hesitate to refer to as holidays), a quick jaunt to Rarotonga for my sister’s wedding in 2011 and a few short breaks around Australia, but we hadn’t actually travelled for longer than 10 days or visited a new country for five long years. I’m trying (and probably failing) to avoid sounding brattish here – the travel that we’ve done is still a whole lot more than many people get to do – but there’s just nothing like being lifted out of the everyday into a completely new culture to really shake things around in your head. Asia shook me well and good but that was a long time ago. With the added excuse of needing to celebrate a significant birthday in a significant way, finally and joyfully, we booked our flights and went.

Winter detox salad with pickled fennel, avocado and grapefruit

Travel posts will come in due course but I don’t feel like writing yet. There’s a bit more digestion to be done and some photo-rescuing to do as well (I had a memory-card problem over there). Meanwhile, there is this salad, which is exactly what I want to eat right now. It feels cleansing, detoxifying and energising, and let’s face it, holiday diets rarely boast such virtuous properties. Now that we’re back and battling some winter lurgies its time to balance things out again. This beautiful salad tastes as vibrant and life-enhancing as it looks and will be equally as good for reviving a jaded winter palate as for boosting a travel-weary immune system. Le deseo salud y felicidad!

Pickled fennel, grapefruit and avocado - winter detox salad 2

Winter Detox Salad with Pickled Fennel & Grapefruit

Very slightly adapted from Sarah Britton My New Roots

For the pickled fennel:
1 large fennel bulb
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp maple syrup or runny honey
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 cup water
1 small orange, preferably organic
5 whole star anise
1 Tbsp fresh ginger, very finely chopped

For the salad:
1/4 head small red cabbage
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1-2 pinches sea salt, to taste
1 grapefruit (pink or regular) and/or 1 orange
1 avocado

To serve:
Italian parsley (leaves picked whole), crushed pink peppercorns (optional), more olive oil

The pickled fennel needs to sit, undisturbed in the fridge for 24 hours before it is eaten, so prepare this the day before you wish to eat your salad. Slice the fennel very thinly, ideally using a mandolin or otherwise a very sharp knife. Slice the orange (leave the peel on) into thin slices about 3mm thick. Place two slices of orange in the base of a clean 1 litre jar and top with one-fifth of the prepared fennel. You may want to press the fennel down firmly using a wooden spoon or spatula. Scatter over a little of the chopped ginger and one star anise, then continue to stack orange, fennel, ginger and anise until you reach the top of the jar.

Combine the vinegar, maple syrup or honey, salt and water in a jug and stir well to dissolve the salt. Pour the brine into the jar, ensuring that the contents are completely covered, discarding any excess brine. Press the top layer gently with a spoon to help release any large air bubbles, then screw the lid on the jar and place in the fridge for 24 hours. The fennel should be fine to eat for up to three weeks. It is fantastic with cheese and crackers as well as salad.

To prepare the salad, use a mandolin or sharp knife to slice the cabbage thinly. Place the cabbage in a bowl and add the olive oil, a pinch of salt and a tablespoon of pickled fennel brine from the jar. Toss to combine. Slice the rind off the grapefruit or orange and segment the flesh. Peel and slice the avocado.

Arrange the cabbage, grapefruit, avocado and pickled fennel on a plate. Add some parsley leaves and crushed peppercorns for colour and another drizzle of olive oil if desired.

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Saturday Soup | Pumpkin, Coconut, Lemongrass

Thai Pumpkin Soup - with coconut, lemongrass, ginger and chilli

Saturday mornings always meant soup during the winters of my childhood. Mum would get the pot boiling early, using bowls of split peas that had been soaking overnight, huge pumpkins that practically required an axe to split and tear-inducing onions that misted up her glasses. She always made an enormous pot of soup which, bulked out with bread and scones, would feed our family of six for the whole weekend and sometimes longer.

My favourite soup was Scotch Broth, deeply flavoured with mutton bones and thick with barley. I also loved Mum’s Pumpkin Soup (a staple option), a pale Choko and Potato Soup (made very rarely), and a delicious smoked fish soup made with tomatoes and potato which appeared once or twice each year. Stick or immersion blenders weren’t available back then, so Mum used a large mouli (hand mill) whenever she wanted to make a smooth, blended soup.

Ginger, chilli, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, onion, coriander, kaffir lime, lime and pumpkin

The best Saturdays were those in the deep of winter when it was cold and wet. We would be shut up inside to avoid the damp, with the simmering soup fogging up the kitchen windows and a couple of lights on against the darkness. Fresh, hot soup on such a day has to be one my greatest culinary memories; a ritual cemented by years of weekly repetition.

Thai Pumpkin Soup with coconut, lime, turmeric and chilli

Here in Brisbane it is slowly, vaguely, finally getting cooler. Last Saturday I attempted a little witchcraft, trying to coax winter closer by making my own giant pot of soup. It was pumpkin, which was only right, and boldly spiced with Thai flavours including bright lemongrass, salty fish sauce, sour tamarind and hot chilli, all mellowed by cooling coconut milk. It was comforting and head-clearing all at once. True to tradition, we ate it for days.

Thai Pumpkin Soup with Lemongrass, Chilli and Coconut

A few notes for the cook: there is a long list of ingredients in this soup, but you can get away with fewer. The kaffir lime leaves are optional and the lemongrass too (if you must), but don’t try to skip the lime. A teaspoon of powdered turmeric is fine if you can’t get fresh, and the tamarind is also optional provided that you amp up the lime juice to add a sour note. The soup easily becomes vegan if you substitute vegetable stock for chicken and tamari for fish sauce.

The most tedious part of this recipe is preparing the ingredients. Once that’s done, the soup comes together very quickly, so it is worth having everything washed, chopped and ready to be thrown into the pot at exactly the right time.

And finally, fresh coriander is often quite gritty so I wash it thoroughly by filling a large bowl with water and swishing the leaves gently about. The grit quickly falls to the bottom of the bowl and a second rinse with clean water will remove any final particles. Spread the washed coriander on a clean tea towel to air dry before roughly chopping. And leftovers will store in a sealed container in the fridge for a couple of days.

Thai Pumpkin Soup with coconut, lemongrass, ginger and turmeric

Thai Pumpkin Soup

Adapted from Eat Drink Paleo

2 Tbsp coconut oil
2 onions, diced
2 stalks lemongrass, cut in thirds
2-3 long red chillis, deseeded and sliced
1 bunch fresh coriander, stalks removed and diced; leaves reserved
2cm piece fresh ginger root, peeled and finely diced
2cm piece turmeric root, peeled and finely diced (or 1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric)
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1.5kg pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2-3cm pieces
4 kaffir lime leaves
Peel from 1 fresh lime, removed in large strips
4 Tbsp fish sauce (or tamari)
2 tsp tamarind puree
2 litres chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
1 can (400ml) coconut milk or cream (reserve 50ml to serve)
Fresh lime juice and chopped fresh coriander leaves to serve

Once your ingredients are washed and chopped as directed, heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan over a medium-high heat. When the oil has melted and starts to shimmer, add the onions to the pan and sauté for 3-4 minutes until lightly softened (do not brown). Add the lemongrass, chilli, coriander stalks, ginger, turmeric and garlic to the pot, and sauté for another 3-4 minutes.

Add the pumpkin, kaffir lime leaves, lime peel, fish sauce, tamarind puree and chicken stock to the pot. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the pumpkin is soft.

Using tongs, remove the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and lime peel from the soup. Puree the soup until smooth, using a stick blender, regular blender or mouli, then add the coconut milk or cream. Taste, and adjust the flavours. I typically add extra fish sauce, extra tamarind puree and sometimes extra chilli (in the form of Tabasco Sauce) until the flavours are just right. Serve the soup with wedges of lime, a ripple of coconut milk and fistfuls of fresh coriander leaves.

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Finally, Cake | Persimmon, Walnuts & Whiskey

James Beard's recipe for Persimmon Bread

Finally, there is cake worth writing about. I’ve made six cakes in the last six weeks. Each of them disappointed in some way, but this one (rich with persimmon puree, laced with whiskey, studded with dates and walnuts), this is a Very Good Cake.

This is not a cake to be taken lightly. It’s not your typical sugary confection. For a start, it’s not covered in frothy icing (don’t even think about it) and its brown and nubbly interior isn’t exactly attractive. It’s not going to win #cakeoftheday for its looks, but it is completely above such frivolity anyway. It’s a seriously good cake and it deserves to be treated as such. In fact, even though I baked it in a cake tin, it’s not proper to call it “cake”. The recipe comes from the godfather of American cooking, James Beard, who called it Persimmon Bread. My grandmother would have called it Persimmon Loaf, and served it cut in thin slices lightly spread with butter (of course, Nana wins).

James Beard's recipe for Persimmon Bread

I’ve had the idea of persimmon cake in my head for the past couple of  years. Persimmons are a fruit that I have learned to love, baking them into crumbles with apples and ginger, adding them to salads or simply eating them in thin, raw slices. In Australia, it is the crisp fuyu variety that is readily available in shops, but that was always fine with me – a traumatic childhood encounter with a squishy soft hachiya persimmon had left me suspicious of hachiya. This silly prejudice was challenged when I spotted a recipe for Gâteaux aux Kakis (Persimmon Bread) on David Lebovitz’s blog; an adaptation of a recipe created by James Beard in his definitive 1973 text Beard on Bread. The pedigree of the recipe was enough to peak my interest, but when David lamented that the French, just like Americans, don’t know what to do with hachiya persimmon, I felt a little sorry for this poor misunderstood fruit. David waxed lyrical about its flavour and I sensed a Very Good Cake in the making.

Persimmon Cake with Whiskey and Walnuts 6

It turns out that hachiya persimmons are quite difficult to track down. A few weeks ago I finally spotted their characteristically elongated shape at the market in an inconspicuous box labelled “Old Fashioned Persimmons”. They were dirt cheap, because clearly Australians don’t know what to do with them either. After purchasing three persimmons, I took them home to ripen. Hachiya persimmons must be eaten ripe. When under-ripe and firm, they taste horribly astringent but when fully ripe, their flesh turns to a sweet, silky jelly. Their colour deepens to a tomato-red, and they feel heavy and soft; says David: “like a water balloon about to burst” (don’t lose your nerve; just go with it). I discovered that hachiya persimmons dance to the tune of their own drum and a full two weeks later one of my three was finally ripe, one was almost ripe and the third was as hard as a rock. David and James’ recipe uses four ripe persimmons, so I was forced to find a different recipe which turned out to be boring and bland. This failure came hot on the heels of four weeks of cake-disasters, including an over-sweet plum cake and three attempts at a promising-but-not-delivering apple and lemon cake. I almost gave up this latest attempt at the Very Good Cake project but fortunately (for me and you) I tried again.

Persimmon Cake with Whiskey and Walnuts

The next time I bought persimmons I selected six. Four ripened almost immediately so we were in business. Beard’s recipe makes a surprisingly large quantity and is meant to be baked in two loaf tins. I only have one, so the remaining mixture went into a ringed cake tin which I tipped out, levelled off, flipped, and sprinkled with icing sugar for a quick dessert with friends. It was good, but nowhere near as good as the other one, baked in a loaf tin with the top deeply cracked and vaguely leathery in texture. I sliced my loaf and put it in the freezer, and two weeks later, morning tea at work is still the highlight of my day. Persimmon pulp freezes well too, and the fifth persimmon now sits in the freezer waiting to be joined by the sixth persimmon, which remains defiantly firm and inedible. This fruit might be freaky, fickle and hard to find, but please persist – it makes a loaf/bread/cake that is well worth writing about and even more worth eating.

Persimmon Cake with Whiskey and Walnuts

Persimmon Loaf with Whiskey & Walnuts

  • Servings: 2 loaf tins
  • Print
Very slightly adapted from David Lebovitz via James Beard

3 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2 cups sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup whiskey (bourbon or brandy can also be used, but I haven’t tried these)
2 cups persimmon puree (from about 4 ripe hachiya persimmons)
2 cups walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
2 cups dates, roughly chopped

Butter 2 loaf tins (or small round or ring cake tins) and line the bottoms with baking paper. Preheat the oven to180ºC / 350ºF.

First prepare the wet ingredients. Scrape the persimmon puree into a medium bowl and blitz with a stick blender to make a uniform puree (or leave it as is – it really doesn’t seem to make a difference). To the same bowl, add the whisky, melted and cooled butter, and lightly beaten eggs. Stir to combine.

Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and nutmeg into a large bowl (use your largest as the recipe makes  large quantity, and you will need room to stir). Add the sugar and whisk together with the other dry ingredients to combine.

Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the wet ingredients along with the chopped dates and walnuts. Stir together until fully combined. Do not over mix. Pour into the prepared tins and bake for approximately one hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.