little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: a kitchen to myself

Harvest and lists

20170219_122613You probably won’t be startled to learn that I’m a list maker. Some lists bring me joy (condiments, books, Christmas shopping), some give me a sense of order (chores, morning and evening tasks, cheap family meals), others either stem or generate a rising sense of panic depending on how long they are, their timeframe and my general state of mind (things to do, people to get in touch with, jobs to be done in the house or garden, groceries).

20170219_210119I usually list vertically, then scatter extra items around the page as I run out of room, but sometimes I mind map. I did that for parenting tricks, and it’s the list I like best on a fridge covered in the damn things. I used Wunderlist when I was running a business and I keep a task list at work, although it’s out of date within minutes and so long I have no hope of ever completing it. I usually cross things out as I complete them, but the other day I tried a line of Twink (the ribbon sort that runs out in a smooth white line), and that was more satisfying than I expected.

I’ve got a week of leave (well, with a day of work in the middle and an edit that has to be done in the first couple of days) starting tomorrow, and I thought a list might save me from the scurry of things in my head. I thought I could have a short, elegant list of things to do each day — exercise, eat something from the garden, read, write — but then it grew (see people, garden, do chores, prep for dinner) and then I added on random household chores I haven’t done for a year and for some reason thought I would enjoy packing into four short days of leave (wash the windows, organise the pantry) and then it didn’t really feel like a holiday any more.

20170219_210137So, I stuck that list on the fridge and wrote a short one for tomorrow, cleaned out the chook house, did the washing, wrote a grocery list, mended some clothes, lost my nut a few times, watered the glasshouse and drank too much coffee.

But another thread ran through the day, and I’m trying desperately to hang on to it because it felt calmer, more life-giving, better for body and soul. The Cat and I spent a happy hour this morning harvesting. We picked tomatoes, mint and broad beans, kale, zucchini and lettuce, and an armful of sweetpeas and roses — a gorgeous heap of colour and potential. The Cat was enthusiastic and excited, I was quietly smug, the kitchen smelled delicious.

I stuck the flowers in a jar and cooked the vegetables through the day. Lunch was tomato salad with mint and the last crumbs of a taut sheep’s feta, a lettuce salad* softened with pear and apple cider vinegar dressing, broad beans blanched and double-podded, then fried with bacon, some scraps of bread, a little leftover chicken. For dinner, I made a gratin with slices of zucchini in stock and a layer of oiled breadcrumbs on top. In a bowl with rice, it was a garden-storecupboard marriage of surprising grace and charm.

So, the lists did their thing, but the harvest helped more. Spontaneity within bounds, and all that.

  • One of the lettuces was a Venetian heirloom number, curiously strong-leaved, verging on tough, and with a slightly bitter edge. The other was some leafy thing I let go in the glasshouse.

Putting things together

20170123_122043I’ve done boot camp, Christmas, Trump, summer holidays, the return to work, gardening, adventures with children, movies, books, terrific whiskey, and a sleepover for 11-year-olds. Yesterday it rained and I had a cold, so I lit the fire, made hot drinks and retreated to the sofa. I wouldn’t describe it as restful, exactly — the children were tired and scrappy and stuck indoors — but it was a necessary grinding to a halt, of sorts.

It’s often hard to know what will save a day, but in this case, it was minestrone. I don’t always like minestrone, but this was a light, summery number with enough savour and steamy heat to restore just enough wellbeing for me to get to bed.

20170123_122942Ian made it, so I don’t know the fine details of the recipe, but here’s what I think he got right. The vegetables were sliced at angles, thin enough to fit well on the spoon, but large enough to offer definite taste and something distinct in each mouthful. There weren’t too many carrots, giving a layer of sweetness but not overwhelming the fundamental earthiness of the dish. The cooking started with bacon and ended with strong, fresh chard from the garden. I had extra tomatoes in my bowl, and a scattering of feta. The pasta was rigatoni, thick and knubbly. There were broad beans from our garden. The zucchinis were young and flavourful, with firm, peppery skin. The stock was light and hot.

20170123_122034The Rabbit was home sick today, so I had another quiet day. He made a Lego lawnmower — my role was to find the pieces and offer moral support. We succeeded, but only just. I left my work phone on, which was a mistake.

20170123_121854I reheated some of the minestrone for lunch, something I would avoid with a less robust pasta. Still, it needed a bit of tarting up for a new day, so I sliced in a couple of dusky Nigella tomatoes, a few shredded leaves of chard, some leaves of purple basil from the glasshouse. Feta again, of course.

The sun came out after that. We went to the gardens, kicked a ball, flew a kite. The Rabbit rescued his toy bandicoot from the animal rescue boat. We put ourselves together, not perfectly, but from what we had.

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Each of us, together

20161126_192610Well, that was a week. Ian went to Kaikōura to cover post-earthquake things, and all manner of bollocks descended on me at work.

Home was good, though — our new after-school childcare person is a footballer, so the boys are well thrilled. He is also a jolly good cleaner, so I am well thrilled too. The boys are used to being journo kids — they missed their dad, but flicked straight into helping-out, getting-on-with-it mode.

I kind of enjoyed the quiet and calm of the week, but realised within half an hour of Ian being home that the volume in the house had quadrupled and I had slowed to snail’s pace. I guess we had all been managing and looking after each other and that was good, but we need Ian to relax us and let things go. It was a good reminder of the ways we balance each other, of the dance we do as opposites.

The boys were pretty scratchy, but by the time we had eaten bento, driven round the harbour, played soccer, made a sandcastle, conducted watery experiments on the sandcastle, snuggled on the sand, driven round the best inlet in the city, seen baby stilts and a kingfisher and got home, we seemed to have made it back into ourselves again.

20161126_192514And then we each found our own peace. Ian tidied up and did chores. I planted 40 zucchini seedlings out, picked a salad of baby leaves and flowers, and cut back some lupins and sorrel that had gone to seed. The Cat watched soccer videos. And the Rabbit made things.

He started by cutting back sorrel, but was interrupted by his bowels, which we only knew about because he left the bathroom in a less than ideal state. Then Ian found him in the workshop with a large piece of wood in the vice with the words “side 1” written on it. “What are you doing?” Ian asked. “Making a run for the guinea pigs,” said Rabbit.

Later, we were having dinner. Ian was drinking wine, eating pasta and talking to me. I was drinking wine, eating pasta and reading a book. The Cat was calculating the value of our car relative to the weekly income of a professional footballer (low). The Rabbit was drawing circles and cutting cardboard. Five minutes later, he had finished a set of traffic lights.

20161126_190707“What’s your plan for the lights?” we asked. “I’ll shine a torch on them,” he said. Damned if it doesn’t work, too.

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Keeping warm

Yeah, so I might spend all winter writing about heating sources.

When we get up in the morning, the house is not particularly warm. We put a fan heater on in the kitchen and start a coffee pot going on the stove. Ian puts away the dishes and I make school lunches. We coax the boys out of bed and go through a great deal of unnecessary rigmarole to extract breakfast orders from them. Somewhere in there, we eat our own breakfasts and have showers and make beds and clear the table and let the chooks out.

So, when the boys have made their way to the kitchen — bleary-eyed, soft-skinned, looking for cuddles — they fight over the heater. They both want to sit right in front of it, which means that they are completely in the way as Ian and I do all that other stuff above, and they want equal shares of any radiating warmth. It’s not a big heater, so there’s a lot of disagreement about where the midline is and who’s been there the longest and whether small or young or big people have more need for heat. NONE OF WHICH MAKES BREAKFAST HAPPEN FASTER. The other day, we ended up drawing a line on the floor with a toy snake, and still they argued.

Our next strategy was to put the heater under the table and tell them that it would warm the room and they could sit in their chairs and eat breakfast like, well, adults, I suppose. You can probably guess how that went.

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Focus

While I was cooking dinner, the Rabbit came into the kitchen and collected a pair of scissors. He made some modifications to his hut, then I lost track of what he was doing. I caught sight of several bits of paper and the stapler, and I told him how to spell “home” and “work”.

After a good 15–20 minutes, he came in looking upset. “I’ve stuffed it up”, he said. He’d made a book and written “Rabbit’s homework” on the cover, but he had done it so that either the text was upside-down or the staple was at the bottom.

Trying to be helpful, I suggested several solutions: using the book with the staple at the bottom, changing the name to “Rabbit’s upside-down homework”, etc — overly complicated ideas which Rabbit swiftly let me know would NOT DO AT ALL.

Tapping into my Better Self (International Women’s Day at work again), I stopped what I was doing and got down to his level. “Well,” I said, “let’s look at all the things you’ve achieved. You found some paper, you stapled it together and you wrote a cover. I’m sure you can solve this problem.”

His face brightened immediately and he said, “Of course! I’ll just take the staple out and put it in the other end.”

Sometimes it’s the smallest things.

Tomato and feta salad

P1090736I really should wait until I have photos, but how about I just write the damn post and promise to take photos next time I make this little beauty? (Edit: done.)

Tomatoes are my go-to feel-better food. Mum said that as a small child all I would eat was boiled potatoes chopped up with tomatoes. Now I turn to thick tomato sauces, vine tomatoes roasted with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and olives, shakshuka, that sort of thing. They cure sadness, lethargy, over-indulgence, bugs and illnesses, stress, grumpiness, the lot.

And with the weather warming up, the nights lengthening and barbecue season starting, I’m hauling out my long-term favourite: tomato salad. This recipe is adapted from Stephanie Alexander’s; it’s easy, quick, cheerful and life-giving. Get into it! I can’t find her recipe online, but it’s in this book.

P1090733Tomato and feta salad

tomatoes (various shapes, colours and sizes if possible)
red or spring onion
olive oil
feta
salt and pepper
lemon zest
fresh basil

P1090724You know this is basically an assembly job, right? I make this on a flat plate or platter with a raised rim to catch the juices. I’m a ceramics fiend, so I have a few to choose from — just use something that makes you happy. This dish is all about the happy.

P1090725To cut the tomatoes, you will need a small, sharp, serrated knife. You will also need to remove the stalky bits. If you’re okay with those two requirements, my friend, I’m coming for dinner. This is a good opportunity to get a little bit creative and cut different kinds of tomatoes into different shapes — slices, wedges, dice, whatever. I would prefer that you are consistent within varieties, i.e., all the cherry tomatoes should be cut the same way, as should all the romas. But they can be different from each other. Also, don’t do anything too fancy. I’m a bit fussy about knife work in the kitchen. I know, I know, y’all thought I was really relaxed and not in the least bit uptight or picky. Being an editor and all. Sorry to burst that bubble. When you’ve sliced the tomatoes, jumble them on the plate, more or less in a single layer.

P1090727That’s the hard bit done. Now very finely slice a small amount of red onion or a larger amount of spring onion and scatter it over the tomatoes. I like red onion, but I cannot stand large slices of it. I don’t know why people do that. You’re eating a nice salad or a deeply satisfying salmon and cream cheese bagel and then there’s these enormous half moons of sharp onion in your mouth. It’s horrible. I would use about one-sixth or less of a red onion (a wedge) or pretty much a whole small spring onion. I have to say that I like the spring onion more at the moment. I think it’s really lovely with the feta.

P1090728Next, pour some olive oil over the tomatoes and onion. Praise the lord, I have no strong feelings about the quality or type of olive oil, but keep a light hand and get the olive oil on before the rest of the ingredients. It provides a nice base for everything else to adhere to, and I think it starts to mollify the onion a bit.

P1090730Then it’s just a matter or scattering on some (or a lot of, if I’m in charge) feta, freshly ground salt and pepper, lemon zest and ripped-up basil. Let it sit for a little while, perhaps, then eat.

P1090732I don’t think the prettiness of this salad can be overstated. And it just gets prettier as you add each ingredient. It’s good as leftovers too, although it won’t last beyond the next day.

Have fun!

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Peasant soup

P1080936It’s one of those scrambly afternoons today (soccer), so I’m going to be making peasant soup. That’s my name for it. Jamie Oliver wrote the recipe I base it on, and he calls it “Leek and Chickpea Soup”, which is either a more or a less descriptive name depending on your leaning towards connotation or denotation. You can probably figure which way I tilt.

P1080934Anyway, it’s a terrific soup and at the moment everyone in the house seems to be on board. I often find a meal that I think everyone likes, but, with time, preferences for variations emerge and so I can end up making three different tweaks of the same meal, which is a big pain in the arse. And, yes, they could all cope with the same version (apart from the allergy issues), but what can I say, I’m a sucker for an appreciative bunch of eaters, often to my own detriment.

This is another of those earthy protein and greens type soups. You can blend it to varying degrees or leave it unmushed. I used to blend because that’s what Jamie says to do, but now I blend half for the boys and leave the adult version straight. I find the textural ying/yang of al dente potatoes, round chickpeas with their slippy skins, melty leeks and hot, sweet broth deeply satisfying — the blended version tastes good but is more boring.

As opposed to an actual proper recipe, I’m going to live-blog this one. If that turns out to be a DISASTER, I’ll bail and update once everyone is fed. There may be typos. Fair warning.

5.25pm It would be good to get started now. We got home at five after soccer practice. The Rabbit was tired and hungry and the Cat was tired, hungry, hysterical and thirsty. A drink, some food and the iPad seems to have solved most of those problems FOR NOW. Preemptively, I am going to have a drink and unpack the lunch boxes.

5.30pm Am actually going to start now. First empty lunch boxes, then light the fire.

5.49pm Fire is going well, lamps are on, curtains are pulled, screen time is in final lap, compost is out, animals are fed, bedroom heaters are on. I CANNOT BELIEVE A UNICORN DID NOT MAKE DINNER WHILE I WAS DOING ALL THAT. DOES THAT MEAN I HAVE TO DO IT? Briefly scan what is left of my brain for other chores that need to be done first.

5.51pm Right, will get out ingredients.

5.55pm Have bread, parmesan, yoghurt, leeks, chickpeas, potatoes, salt, pepper, stock, olive oil and garlic. Forgot to have a drink. Doing that now.

5.57pm Boil kettle and peel potatoes. I’m not going to give you quantities. It’s too hard. I do what I need to do in this household, but if I had my way, there’d be less potato and more leek and chickpea.

5.58pm Ian is home and I hand over responsibility for children.

6.07pm Potatoes are chopped and in a pot to boil. You want them in chunks. Small enough to fit on your spoon, but not so small that they’ll fall apart if you boil them five minutes too long.

6.08pm Ian wants to help. I tell him he’s on accompaniments. That’d be oily toast and yummy things. Actually, he just reads this over my shoulder and gets to work. Don’t you, darl?

6.11pm I’ve drained a can of chickpeas and Ian has poured a glass of red. Cheers!

6.17pm Washing leeks is annoying. Nevertheless, do that, then slice then thinly and sweat them in olive oil with sliced garlic and a bit of salt. That’s what I’m doing now.

The children are at the end of screen time and getting ratty. Ian is starting on the bread.

The potatoes are boiling, so I turn them down.

6.23pm Drain potatoes. Decide to move half the leeks to the rinsed-out potato pot so that I can cook the boys’ soup separately and therefore adjust potato/chickpea quantities for their respective audiences.

6.26pm Ian has oiled the bread and put it under the grill. The Rabbit is doing train work. The Cat is dragging out his screen time by deciding to do something too difficult and time-consuming for this point in the evening. The leeks are all sliced and starting to cook.

6.32pm Ian has been commandeered to play hallway soccer. The bread is out and the leeks are a juicy tangle. The garlic is in, more for the big people than for the small. I add the potatoes and chickpeas to each pan, pour on some stock and take a deep breath.

P10809336.36pm Lids on for ten minutes. A word about the stock. I just used powdered, okay. THEORETICALLY, I understand that homemade chicken or vegetable stock would be ideal here, simmered with loving care for an hour or so, the chicken — had there been one — organic, free-range, the centrepiece of a calm and delicious roast meal. But, clearly, we’re not in those realms tonight. We’re never in those realms when I make the soup. If you’re in those realms or are one of those horrendously organised people who not only has homemade stock in your freezer but can also remember which pottle it’s in and how long ago you made it, then bless you and go right ahead and use it.

I have more chopping to do.

6.40pm Oh, and put some pepper in that soup. And turn it down to a gentle simmer.

P10809316.49pm Table is set, soup is done. I’ve put out little bowls of olives, sundried tomatoes, some leftover tuna, cucumber and a bit of avocado. I take photos and realise how much crap lives semi-permanently on our table. Time to blend and serve. Also yoghurt and parmesan.

P10809376.59pm Everyone is eating. Of COURSE I got soup on my top when I blended it. It looks good though. The soup.

If you have lemons, add a squeeze of lemon juice. That’s life advice right there, not just for this recipe.

An island, a mother, the rain

family portraitIf this blog could be said to have any kind of theme, it might be mothering. Or rain. This year, as with the last, it looks like my Mothers’ Day post is doing the combo, not that it rained on the day, but that it takes a day or two of settling and the clouds to open before I can sit down and write it out. At the opening of the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival last week, Witi Ihimaera asked us how we might define New Zealand Literature, and all I could think of was that in a New Zealand book it will usually rain somewhere along the line. More on that in another post.

It’s a lamps and fire and rain on the windows kind of day here, some gold still in the trees, the house firm and old and quiet. It’s a pondering sort of day, and I do like to ponder.

Mothers’ Day was a bit *different* this year. I woke to the alarm at 6.20am, which is about my least favourite way to wake up, then had breakfast on my own. When I opened the cupboard to get the coffee, I found a postcard of Paris from Ian, who was away for work. I’m a total sucker for that sort of thing: coffee, Paris, loving words in black ink, an empty kitchen, a solitary breakfast — it was a pretty zen start to the day.

It became more of a scramble at 8.15am when I had to get the boys out of bed and out the door by 8.30am, but thank god they were going to my sister because I could shove a pack of crumpets and a pile of fruit in a lunchbox with no qualms whatsoever. The Cat gave me a card covered in soccer drawings (a number 10 jersey with my name on it, a soccer pitch with me scoring a goal, a Barça shirt, etc), with the message that I should “keep being awesome”. I put the card in the cupboard next to the postcard and I see them whenever I’m looking for coffee or honey or butter.

I dropped the boys, collected my father and took him to a talk on tramping in New Zealand. Afterwards, I found my sister, her partner, their baby and my boys playing soccer in the park. The sun was warm, the grass was wet, everyone was in good cheer. The Squirrel-baby is learning how to hug; he reaches towards you with his arms out and leans on whatever bit of your body he lands against. It’s basically the most excellent thing ever.

P1010791.JPGThe afternoon was more soccer, the library, a quick walk in the Gardens. We got home a little too late, with too many chores to do, dinner to make and everyone losing it at 5.30pm. Ian sent messages from Stewart Island, where he was tracking —of all people — Prince Harry. He managed to spend some time at the place where Mum’s ashes are, and I was caught out by the thought of him being there, of the Mothers’ Day I wish I could have, of the pull of that beautiful, honest, gentle place.

P1030017.JPGSpaghetti with prawns and peas smoothed most of the feathers, a glass of wine a few more, cuddles most of the rest. But my dear old Cat was still a bit spiky. It took all evening, but he finally told me that he was feeling bad because he’d realised that I’d only done things they liked on Mothers’ Day, not the things I would probably like to do. I held him close and told him about how happy it makes me to see him and his brother doing the things they enjoy, about the struggle it is to get dinner on the table when I’m tired and my children are fighting, about how touched I was that he’d thought about what the day might have been like for me.

He hugged me back, tight and warm, and that was the best of the day, right there.

 

 

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