Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Pair of New Zealand Food Traditions

So I'll start with the sure crowd-pleaser and leave the blood and (eel) guts for later.

Kiwis love their sweets and have a long tradition of home baking. In fact, many of the older New Zealand cookbooks were heavily weighted in favor of recipes for baked goods. Just the fact that the main national cookbook is produced by Edmonds, a flour company, tells you something. Things have changed, of course, as they have changed globally, and more baked goods are purchased now than baked at home. In addition to manufactured supermarket versions of Kiwi favorites like thickly frosted ginger slices (slices are bar cookies here) and crispy, World War 1-evoking Anzac biscuits (cookies), all the local cafes have a standard selection of the classics, some better than others.

One of the types of biscuit you see everywhere is called an Afghan, pictured above. Although chocolate is not my usual choice, I had a really good version from the same place in Raetihi where we enjoyed the best pies we've had here and that got my attention. It's a not-too-sweet, buttery, melt-in-your mouth, cocoa-flavored shortbread cookie with a satisfying crunch from the surprise ingredient, cornflakes, and a smooth frosting. It's super-simple and it's likely you have all the ingredients on hand.

Here is the recipe, adapted from a book the Wanganui High School food technology department head gave me in thanks for my presentations to her classes on my work (which only a few students slept through and prompted insightful questions like, "Do you drive a cadillac?" "How much money did you make on the cookbook?" and "How much is a pair of Nikes in America?" To be fair, there were a few other more topical questions, too.)

The book is "The ABC of Kiwi Food: Afghans, Barbecues and Chocolate Fish" by Jane Hingston. It is quite amusing and enlightening, but falls short at explaining why the Afghan is called the Afghan. Theories include that the cookie looks like the terrain of Afghanistan, that it looks like a type of woolen hat known as an Afghan (check them out at, or that it is named after the Afghans who controlled camel trains in Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. None seem very plausible to me but I have nothing better to offer.

Whatever they're called, they're really very good.

Afghan Biscuits (Cookies) - adapted from "The ABC of Kiwi Food," which is almost exactly the version in the "Edmonds Cookery Book."

For biscuits:
200 g (7 ounces or 1 stick plus 6 T) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 cup cocoa
2 cups cornflakes

For icing:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa
1 teaspoon butter
about 2 tablespoons boiling water
Walnuts, if desired

For biscuits: Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F). Lightly grease cookie sheet or line with nonstick paper or liner. Beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Sift together flour and cocoa and beat into butter mixture. Beat in cornflakes. (It is OK if they get crushed, just not completely pulverized.) Roll small walnut-sized balls of mixture in your hands and flatten slightly on cookies sheet. (They don't spread, so you can put them fairly close together.) Bake for 12 -15 minutes until just set. Cool before icing.

For icing: Sift together confectioners' sugar and cocoa in a small bowl. Add butter and then whisk in enough water to create a soft, smooth icing. Quickly spread icing over cooled cookies, decorating each with a walnut half if desired. Makes about 30 2-inch cookies.

Now for the eel. (As I mentioned on Facebook, the photos below should be avoided by vegetarians and the squeamish.)

A couple weeks ago, Alex and a few buddies (mates as they call them here) went eeling. Eels, known a bit confusingly as "tuna" in Te Reo Maori, are a big part of the food culture in New Zealand, particularly in our region on the Whanganui River and particularly for the Maori. Any museum with Maori artefacts will feature woven flax eel traps and there's a beautiful stained glass window in the Wanganui District Council building of an eel trap in the river.
But enough about history and tradition, we got our very own modern-day eel fishermen pictured below: Mark to the left; Lachie, eel and fishing expert in the middle;and Alex. Not pictured is Toby. They caught four eel that afternoon, of which they kept two. I had promised Alex I would cook what he caught and selected the smaller one to keep. (It was also quite still and dead while the larger one Lachie is holding was still twitching a bit, much to the delight of his mom - not.) Cooking was the easy part. First, it had to be skinned and gutted and all that stuff. I vaguely remembered something about nailing the eel to a post and cutting the skin around the neck and pulling hard. We did something like that. Unfortunately, I was mostly on my own since Mark had been violently ill the night before and was recovering in the bedroom. I figured that seeing an eel-skinning was not the best remedy for his tender tummy. (To be honest, despite his professional ability to deal with all sorts of human body stuff, he's not the best when it comes to dealing with dead animal bodies, so probably wouldn't have been much use anyway.)

We nailed.

We sliced. Mark (the younger one, not the father one) and Alex were actually quite good helpers.

We speared and skinned. (We gutted too - but I'll spare you that photographic image.)

Then we marinated - in olive oil, red wine vinegar, lots of garlic, salt and pepper, and bay leaves. (This is not a traditional Maori recipe, needless to say - they most often smoke the eel whole, no skinning required. I should have thought of that -- but then I don't have a smoker.) And then we grilled - or barbecued as the Kiwis would say. It was really quite delicious and I recommend the basic but very good marinade above for any substantial white-fleshed fish you plan to grill. I don't, however, recommend skinning and gutting your own eel.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Weekend in Auckland

A couple weekends ago, we spent a great two and half days in Auckland -- which, like many big cities, is much-maligned by the natives who don't live there. Our neighbor, Jeanette, upon hearing that we were headed there for the long Queen's Birthday weekend, said, "Oh, are you picking up someone else at the airport?" Sally, the lone Auckland-lover among our Kiwi friends, recommended we check out the multicultural Saturday morning market in South Auckland and then, hedging a little, said, "Maybe I should find someone to go with you." A patient of Mark's warned us specifically against going to that area, recounting the story of someone who was axed to death at the market fairly recently. We decided to skip the market, but we found a lot to enjoy in the city. Auckland definitely doesn't have the spectacular setting of Wellington, but there are some very pretty spots and lots to do.

Highlights that were not photographed included our Saturday visit to Kelly Tarlton's cool aquarium and Antartic expedition exploratorium where we saw a fascinating ray show (who knew the huge shark-related animals would come up to their minder like a dog?), took a mini-tank ride in among the penguins, and walked through a recreation of Scott's Antarctic headquarters. Following that, we had good Japanese food on the hip Parnell shopping drag where we did a bit of window and real shopping too. We treated ourselves to an anniversay present of this very cool lampshade for our bedroom at home. We figure, after 12 years, an overhead lamp in that room would be nice. A nice plus is that it's made from sustainable materials by a cool artist who lives not too far from us in the Taranaki region.

For the foodies (including me), I wish I'd had my camera at the very good dinner we enjoyed Sunday night at a restaurant called Euro, one of the kitchens under chef Simon Gault (who I coincidentally heard on national radio today), which had just a bit of the molecular gastronomy thing going on. The food was well-conceived, interesting, and well-made -- not something we've experienced too much here I'm afraid. We particularly enjoyed the calamari salad with dates, lemon, and arugula (great sweet-tart balance), the herb gnocchi with pork and anchovy rillettes and wild mushrooms, and Alex made his way through his entire portion of duck with citrus sauce with raisin couscous and chive and pink peppercorn butter -- despite having had a really long day and a big bowl of seafood chowder to start.

On the fanciful side, components like red pepper tapioca pearls of "couscous" with Mark's fish of the day and Japanese mustard ice cream with a starter of crab and avocado ravioli added interest without overwhelming a dish with strangeness. Strangeness did completely envelop my dessert, entitled "Spoons of 2011," but I can handle that in the last course. It was four spoons filled with architectural elegance and unexpected juxtaposed flavors and textures including feijoa and lime sorbet with pineapple jelly, a smooth oval yogurt skin ("egg") encapsulating gorgonzola and honey, and guava fizz candy crystals with another capsule (this time a "sphere") made from honey, and then lychee tea frothed with lemon "air," more like a foam. [A culinary non-highlight of the weekend, unfortunately, was that I finally ate a NZ crayfish (koura) at a different restaurant. It was underwhelming - particularly as I misguidedly ordered it smothered in gloppy sauce.]

We had started Sunday with the generous breakfast buffet at our hotel, CityLife, which we do recommend for anyone traveling en famille. We had a spacious two-bedroom suite and kitchen and there was a nice indoor and chlorine-free pool, The hotel is walking distance to the water and the Sky Tower among other attractions. Mark had found a good deal via (the "last-minute bargain" website here) with breakfast, valet parking, and a family ticket to Kelly Tarlton included. It wasn't their fault that, even 10 stories up, I couldn't sleep Saturday night because of boisterous rugby fans who were up after 3 am watching some big game in another time zone.

We were happy to see that it would be a cool but sunny day so we headed to the ferry dock to take a trip to Rangitoto Island, the largest and most recently erupted of the volancoes in Auckland's harbour. (The next day, at the museum, we sat through a simulation of Rangitoto erupting again in modern-day Auckland. A bit freaky.) Due to some confusion re: changing seasonal schedules, we did not catch the earliest ferry and so we had to speed-hike up and down the lumpy, black volcanic trails, stopping only briefly to shoot a few views back onto the city and take a very quick side trip into the lava caves. We made it back to the ferry, luckily, or we would have had to wait another four hours.

We saw these guys as we ferried out to Rangitoto.
View from Rangitoto back onto Auckland.Many sailboats in this city.
The black volcanic rock formations of the island.
We got back to the city in time to grab a bite at a design-your-own-burrito type of Mexican place, which made Nikko's weekend - he misses Moe's so. Then we expanded our horizons by squeezing in with the boisterous crowd revved up to see some big motocross finals race in a closed off city parking lot.

Some young fans.
After that, we headed over to the Sky Tower, tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere at 328 metres and known by all sorts of lovely names, including one that gives the Cialis-emblazoned sail in the photo above, a whole 'nother spin, shall we say. You can -- it being New Zealand after all -- jump off the tower, as this woman was doing; walk around the tower on a Sky Walk, as the orange-suited people are doing; or just walk over conveniently placed windows in the floor with a straightshot view of the far-below sidewalk- which was enough thrills for us.

This young man was probably between the ages of Nikko and Alex and the jump guy must have spent at least 10 minutes talking him into the jump. We didn't blame him.

After the previously mentioned fine dinner at Euro, we crashed into deep and heavy slumber with no loud rugby fans lamenting their team's loss to disturb us this night. The next day we headed to the Auckland Museum, known for its fine collection of Maori artifacts.

The floor of war memorabilia included some real cool airplanes that reminded me of Dad's models. So this photo is for you, HRM.

Alex with a moa, the main source of land-based meat food for the first Pacific Island settlers. It was eaten to extinction.

And, since you can't really take photos of real kiwis, I figured this would have to do.

The ancient version of penguins did get this big, apparently.

The botanic gardens arond the museum were beautiful with stately palm trees.

We wrapped up our Auckland visit with a drive out to one of the beaches, Mission Bay, where we sat at a sidewalk cafe and had good pizza and a few drinks and people-watched before enjoying a final ice cream and a stroll on the beach.

View of Rangitoto, the dormant volcano we had climbed, from Mission Beach.

Yes, we decided, Auckland is more than just a place to drop off and pick up visiting relatives.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Reflections on Cooking at Hospice

I had coffee a couple of weeks ago with Valda, the kitchen manager and volunteer coordinator at the hospice in Wanganui where I have been helping out doing some volunteer cooking shifts.

She told me that she had recently watched a movie (American, of course) called “Two Weeks,” about a dying woman and her family. In one scene the woman desperately wants to eat her favorite meal of ribs and her family tries to dissuade her because there’s no way she can digest it. She insists that they make it and then sits down at the table. She takes a bite and chews it, savoring the flavor and texture, before spitting it out and then repeating the procedure. Around the table, the rest of her family slowly catches on and does the same.

We were discussing Valda’s input for a booklet I’m working on with one of the hospice physicians, Dr. Marion Taylor, who has long wanted to put together a guide for patients and their families about food and eating near the end of life. It is a topic -- like so many others at this time in a person’s life -- fraught with issues both physical and emotional. “Food is one of the staffs of life,” Valda said, “and when people feel like they can eat it, it begins to normalize their experience. When people can eat, it is comforting to them and their family. It’s not just about the food.”

It is for this very reason that, although I was drawn to the idea of cooking at hospice as soon as I saw their ad calling for new kitchen volunteers, I was also nervous. How would I handle working with dying people and their understandably stressed-out families? What if I made things they didn’t like, couldn’t eat, or, heaven forbid, caused them physical distress after they ate?

Valda was nothing but reassuring at our first meeting and she impressed me immediately as someone I would like to be in charge of my last meal. She has a stylish, blunt-cut blonde bob with bangs and the wide chiseled cheekbones characteristic of her Eastern European heritage. But, unlike the similar faces I remember from my one visit to the just thawing USSR back in 1984, hers sends out open, friendly vibes. She comes across as thoroughly capable and calm, and it was no surprise to find out later that she worked as a massage therapist before attending culinary school. One has the sense her strong hands could massage and simmer away all the bad stuff.

When we chatted about the expectations of a hospice kitchen volunteer, Valda explained that the cooking was pretty straightforward: a main hot meal of lunch for up to five patients and one support person each, and then something light and re-warmable for tea (what they call supper here in New Zealand), which the nurses or care attendants can easily prepare for patients. Nothing fancy, she said, just solid home cooking. And if patients weren’t up for a full meal, as they often aren’t, some soup, jelly (jell-o), ice cream, or mashed potato, presented nicely. “You can put food on a plate or you can place food on a plate,” she said. “The small things really make a difference,” she continued: a nice napkin or a flower on the tray, a sprig of parsley on the plate. “Those are really groovy,” Valda said with a smile, using what I soon recognized as a favorite word.

On my first day, Valda was there to guide me through the routine. The morning starts with “sussing” out what’s in the fridge or quickly defrostable from the freezer and dreaming up a meal around those ingredients. Hospice staples include loads of potatoes, beef, pork, chicken, white fish, a variety of fresh vegetables and some canned, rice, a little pasta, and lots of cheddar cheese. That day she had defrosted some beef and suggested I make a beef curry, which I did, adding some canned tomatoes, onions, green pepper and kumara, the New Zealand sweet potato and another staple here since early Maori days . After checking in at the nurse’s station, we then visited each patient to see if that option suited them. For those who were eating, it sounded fine, although the news that it would be served over rice prompted one feisty patient to respond, “What do I look like? A Chinaman?” Valda took it in stride and appeased him by offering to serve his curry over mash.

That first curry is about as adventurous as I’ve gotten. The prevalence of Indian restaurants in New Zealand seems to make people more comfortable with curries, mildly spiced, than I anticipate a similar demographic would be in the States. Since then, I’ve stuck mostly to simple things like creamed chicken over mashed potatoes, pork braised with leeks and mushrooms, macaroni and cheese with ham and zucchini, and crumbed white fish on a bed of tomatoes, silver beet (our chard), and onions. Last Thursday I ventured a little outside the comfort zone and stuffed red, green, and yellow peppers with a steak sausage and vegetable filling. Most of the patients and their family members were game but, as the daughter of one said to me, “Never had it. Don’t know what it is, but I’ll try it.” I dolloped the top with a cheddar cheese sauce and served it with mash and plates were wiped clean.

I’ve learned a couple of things cooking at hospice. One is that a little bit of mash and cheddar will go a long way to making less familiar foods seem familiar here. Most of the patients are of Western European heritage, Pakeha in the Maori language, although I have also cooked for a number of Maori patients. The comfort food touchstones of each culture are, of course, different, but the appeal of potatoes and cheese sauce seems to cross cultures. Nurses have told me, though, that they have had Maori patients who crave a boil up: fatty pork bones slow-cooked with watercress or puha, another wild green. Another mentioned how a family brought in a patient’s favorite meal, roasted fish heads, another Maori classic. Comfort is what you know and what brings you back to happy times of your life.

Another realization is that, unlike at home, I shouldn’t get upset if the plates aren’t returned clean. Even when they want to eat, often patients can’t eat much and Valda taught me to serve very small portions so as not to overwhelm them. (They have these perfectly sized little oval ceramic dishes that make a small serving look generous.) Many of the patients apologize for not being able to eat very much and I’m always careful to assure them that I don’t take it personally and they should absolutely eat only what they want when they want it. I mean, you’re dying for heaven’s sake, I want to add. You don’t need to apologize to me.

Although all of the patients at hospice are suffering from terminal illnesses, the nearness to the end varies widely. I cooked one Monday and came in a couple of days later to see three names wiped from the whiteboard and the kitchen door that opens into the main hallway closed because the undertakers were coming through. But that has happened less frequently than one might expect. Even though I don’t have a regular schedule, I have cooked over the last few months for a few repeat patients who have come in and out of hospice from home or hospital. One woman for whom I’ve cooked several times, was back in this week after having fallen badly at home. I know she loves broccoli and cheese sauce so I made sure to include those in my meal plan. The first time I cooked for her, I brought her meal and she said to me, “You know, I meant to ask this before, but would it be too much trouble to get a little cheese sauce to go all over this?” Sure, I said. Cancer I cannot cure, but cheese sauce I can whisk up in a jiffy.

Another patient just out of hospital after four weeks was craving an egg sandwich, his daughter told me. No problem, I said. Egg salad or fried egg? Fried with mayonnaise and sliced tomatoes. On white or wheat toast? White bread, not toasted, never toasted, she said, with a look of amusement. (Soft white bread, buttered, is a favorite of many Maori and, I found out later, whole loaves can be consumed this way in the middle of the night.) He loved it, ate it all up and gave me a big grin when I came to check if he wanted another.

It is these moments of pleasure that are a privilege to deliver and that’s what I focus on as I cook in the kitchen with its view of the peaceful green gardens with roses and herbs and a pond in which, last Thursday, some small dark birds were taking baths as two little girls ran across the lawn to the big primary-colored play structure. Mostly the door from the kitchen into the main hallway stays open and, as I cook, I can hear the quiet hum of nurses, doctors, and caregivers to’ing and fro’ing from the nurses’ station to the five patient rooms. They, in turn, can hear me clatter the pans, smell the onions sautéing, and the dish sterilizer whooshing. I hope the sounds and smells are comforting to patients but I wonder if, for some, the scents are unappealing or even nausea-provoking.

I have also learned that they might even be frustrating. A few weeks ago I chatted with one of the hospice’s repeat patients who lives alone and comes in from time to time for the doctors to see how he’s doing on his complicated cocktail of drugs and to give him a break from looking after himself. He is someone who loved his food, but, as his disease progresses, he has had to start being very careful about what he eats. “Suddenly you got to watch everything you bloody eat,” he said with a mixture of frustration and disgust. “It’s always all those things you love,” he added wistfully.

Food and eating at the end of life can be a source of both comfort and stress not only for the patients, but also their families. At the end, there is often little a partner or child can do but plump a pillow or escape into the kitchen to make a favorite dish. But all too often, the patient may not be able to eat the carefully prepared meal and the family member may feel sad and possibly even rejected. One patient went on so glowingly about a lunch I had made that his wife called in to speak to the cook. He really enjoyed your lunch, she explained, and she wasn’t sure if he’d prefer to also eat the meal I’d prepared for later in the day, although, she added, she had made a favorite of his to bring in. Oh what I made is nothing, just a little light snack, I assured her, I think he would love your beef ribs. I could almost hear an audible sign of relief.

Most of the patients are older and seem to have lived full lives, so I have not felt wrenched with the tragedy of untimely death as much as I expected. There was, last week, a much younger patient whose beautiful and composed wife graciously accepted a meal, but he was not eating. When I had popped quickly into the room to check on their lunch needs, all I could see of him was a long black ponytail hanging down his thin white back as he lay curled on the bed. I heard, over the weekend from a friend, that he had passed on and that he was a member of a very respected Maori family and had a leading role in the community. His tangi (Maori funeral or memorial service) was held on Friday and would be attended by hundreds, my friend said.

It is the husbands and wives and children of patients for whom I feel the most sorrow. They hover, patiently, waiting. Many of them don’t take advantage of the offer of food, but others accept gratefully and bring their trays back to the kitchen door with effusive thanks. The older women, especially I think, are not used to being cooked for. “What a treat,” one said to me recently when I brought her meal. “You’re spoiling me.”

It’s the least I can do, I usually reply, thinking that there isn’t enough mashed potatoes in the world to fill the hole a dear one leaves behind.