Friday, February 16, 2007

For Lactose-Loving Eyes Only

I spent yesterday afternoon in the company of a bevy of long-lash'd ladies--a dream come true for bovinatics. These beautiful dairy queens, a Holstein-Friesian breed, were an olfactory repreive after Wednesday's pig trip. Ryan, Porky's son and the cow's keeper, leases the land from his family and has built up his own herd over the past decade. He milks twice a day, at dawn and about half past-three. It takes about ten minutes per cow, each of the 200 or so rendering about 20 liters a day. The machines taking in the milk ("cups") make a muted grumble, with the soothing, mechanised pulse of an airplane cabin circulating air. The dairy, although old-fashioned, is maticulously clean. Well, there is cow shit everywhere. But it smells...nice. Grassy and hot.

The milk is pumped through pipes through a cooler to a tank, where it is collected every two days. At every pick-up, the milk is graded for quality and nutrition content. Ryan produces the reciept with pride: because of the care he takes in selecting breeding, as well as the health and hygine of his "girls," the numbers are high and low in all the right places, well better than the national average.
He also shows me a poster with the 40-odd bulls available as breeding studs up in Hamilton. "This is the Penthouse of bulls," he explains. They do look hunky. Unlike Playmates, however, their semen stats are listed alongside: protein counts, fertility levels...not sexy, but necessary to find the right donor for your herd. Ryan spends about $23 a shot for sperm, keeping about a quarter of the calves born (about 45 per year). The females are kept, the males sold once weaned, at about 12 weeks. It's a lot of math, and I hear helping 200 multi-ton women succesfully go through labor is no walk in the park, either.

As the cows mill around, lining up to milk, Ryan hi-hos and hi-yahs them into place with a firm gentleness that's echoed in the manner of confidence and affection he maintains as he speaks about each cow. He points out his favorite. She's mostly black, with a chill demenor. She moseys to the end of the milking chamber with a lazy grace that makes me think of...well, a cow. It's pleasant to watch, like a Golden Retreiver settling into her favorite worn spot on the floor. When Ryan, up to his elbows in plastic gloves and shit-covered sleeve guards, moves quickly to spray sanitizer on her udders and slip the cups on to begin milking, she barely flicks her tail. Even so, I steer clear. Cows can seem docile to the point of dumb, but they aren't stupid: the previous day, when I'd tried putting on the cups, the relationship wasn't as good. I was nervous, they were nervous, and at about five feet above my head was a cow-butt, ready to fountain out digested grass. After one go, I gave the reins back to Ryan.

These days in New Zealand, Ryan thinks it's a good time to get into dairy farming. There's constant challenge in it, and the technology, he figures, has never been better. He talks about the math and business of the weather, the play of proper rotation and soil care in feeding his herd, how he can surf twice a day if he'd like and still make a mean living, and overall, the freedom a dairy farmer has as their own boss on a day-to-day basis. Granted, the large grain of salt in the room is the intensity of a cow's udder bursting with milk twice a day, starting at dawn, and your responsibility to it. Also, the dairy industry is paid in American dollars and with the NZ dollar strong against it, transport costs up and large corporations buying up most of the milk at their prices, the margin for profit isn't what it used to be. However, if you're looking for a life that puts you at the base of a volcanic mountain, grants you coastal access to a sweeping horizon of sea, and lets you hang out with sweet ladies on a daily basis, then it's heavenly. Standing at the edge of his land, the sun setting golden and gorgeous on the Tasman Sea, Ryan stops at a paddock gate to wax poetic. "Every day I wake up and feel this good," he says.

And it's true. I smell weird and there's cow crap on my big rubber boots, but my heart is exploding at how gorgeous everything is. The air tastes like salt and the land lays in giant folds of velveteen grass, black sand creeping up from the seashore. A few minutes later, we head back to the house for red wine with his partner Meaghan and my friends Hayley and Co. "You know, though, I'd really like to have a vineyard," Ryan says, "Have your wine drunk all over the world..." I can't help but laugh. I guess the grass IS always greener.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Porky and his Pigs

Today I was fortunate enough to visit a small-scale, three-generation family farm. I got to hang out with an inordinate amount of pigs. They don't lie: pigs STINK. It's a smell that stays with you all day. Porky, my appropriately nicknamed host, was gracious and knowledgable, and not shy in his advocacy for omnivorism. He showed me how he milks his herd of goats, and his son Ryan showed me how he milks his cows. I milked one each, which was a first!

The chef event of the day was a pig slaughter. It was a terrifically difficult but facinating experience to watch. However, I feel it's inappropriate to document it on this site. I'm setting up a separate page with photos and information, and will post the address shortly. I encourage everyone who feels up to it to take a look. Again, it is NOT at all for the faint of heart.

Lemon Crepes with Sugar

In New Zealand, the first tree everyone plants in their yard is usually a lemon tree. Next to follow is usually a grapefruit tree, and then almost literally anything else you fancy, because the climate is celestial. One morning I woke to find Hayley making this for breakfast. She explained it was a traditional NZ meal. I was afraid I was still dreaming but no, it was delightfully true.

3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
3/4 oz butter, melted
a pinch of salt
extra butter, for greasing the pan

Cook crepes, then sprinkle with sugar and squeeze lemon juice all over them.

Side note. An afternoon walk to a public fountain forced me to wonder: is this traditional NZ soup?

Potatoes with Mint

Mint grows prolifically world-wide, and potatoes (in season in NZ, but delicious from winter storage in NYC) can't be beat year-round. Hayley introduced me to a New Zealand classic salad recipe that got "two utensils up!" from her son Sam.

Potato Salad with Mint
8-12 baby new potatoes, washed well, cubed, and cooked 'til soft
handful of mint, leaves finely minced
2 tablespoons of butter or to taste
salt to taste

Toss the hot potatoes in a bowl with butter. Scatter mint and toss again. Serve with salt (and pepper) to taste.
We ate ours with fresh boiled corn and raw spinach as a side.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Birthday Feast(s)!

I imagine many of us make Quesadillas the same way: a bit of olive oil on a pan, a few torillas, some cheese and an assortment of veggies tucked deliciously inside. Our twist for the debut of "quesadillas in New Zealand" (mind you, this is a country lacking, by and large, in black beans) was to add a couple of Kiwi-style filling flares.

Kumera (white sweet potato), cubed and boiled until just soft, then fried with cumin, salt and pepper
Avocado, tomato and cucumber, treated with salt and vinegar
Raw onion (a NZ favorite) and tomatoes

My lovely hostess Hayley and her gentlemen Sam & Eben also made a wonderful chocolate log birthday cake. The recipe is brilliantly easy and low on the sugar-butter-oil quota. It's super fast to make, and, as Eben showed us, even a four-year-old can do it!

Chocolate Log

3 eggs
125 g (4 oz) sugar
Beat until thick.

2 tablespoon cocoa powder (unsweetened is best)
1 tablespoon boiling water

75g (3 oz) flour, sifted with
1 tablespoon baking powder
Mix. Melt and add:
25 g (1 oz) butter

Line an 8x8" cooking pan with foil. Bake at 375*F for 10-12 minutes, until knife comes out clean. When cooked, turn into wax paper sifted with icing sugar. Spread with jam and roll right away while warm.

If it suits you, once the cake cools you add frosting to make it look like a proper log covered in bark. We just ate it straight up with the jam and it was delish, particularly because it had a singing candle on it.

What to Eat during a Near-Death Experience

The last day I had as a 23-year-old, I attempted a summit climb of New Plymouth's volcano, Mt. Taranaki. It's important to prepare for a big climb. But I did not. I haven't hiked anything in about a decade. I got lost in a cloud, fell down a cliff, lost my hat (found it again!), and fell asleep with drool on my face in a public place. I DID, however, pack an excellent lunch. Hurrah for being raised in the Midwest, where everything is FLAT.

1 generous helping of pasta, loaded with seasonal veggies, a portion of cheese, olive oil&lightly salted
2 apples
1 spare sandwich of spinach, tomato and cheddar
1 helping cashews from your thoughtful sister as a birthday gift
1 handy chocolate bar
1/2 handful of butterscotch candies to give away to fellow hikers so they don't forget you if and when you get lost

In all regards besides the cumulative 20minutes where I was sure I was a goner, the mountain was beautiful. More beautiful, however, is the sensation of eating a proper dose of carbohydrates when throughly exhuasted halfway up a steep and ashy landscape, overlooking the sea and sky, and feeling your blood rush with sudden energy as your body digests a proper lunch. Mm'm mmm good!

Maori Feast in Rotorua

I spent about 18 hours in the city of Rotorua. I was able to cram in a visit to a geothermic public park full of smoking mud craters, bike to and hike through a redwood forest, and eat with the Mitai family, a Rotoruan Maori tribe who make a mean Hangi.

This Hangi was made to cater to about 100 visitors, but this "barbeque in a pit" cooking style can be found family-sized at: and I highly recommend it. My vegetarian version included soft, smokey kumera (a white-fleshed sort of sweet pototato), as well as a stuffing made with poisonous orange berries, the toxins removed by the 24 hour subterranian cooking process. I'm told a lot of Hangi are made well on the beach and include fish; I liked the tubers in mine and can only imagine the delicious possibilities of stacks of parsnips, carrots, potatoes and onions.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Good Day from Flaxmill Bay

Every morning I wake up to this. Compounding my fortune is the abundance of FEIJOA, a funny little fruit that grows all over (local! fresh!) and is closely related (unproven but rumored) to the New Zealand "Christmas Tree", the Pohutukawa (poe hoo tu kawa). The feijoa fruit, which I can only describe as "passion-fruity" and "round and green", can be made into an excellent (if super-sweet) liquor, juice or dessert sauce. At Eggcentric Cafe, it's paired as a sauce on apricot-and-pumpkin-seed-topped carrot cake.

Funny Flowers

With plants as pretty as these, it's with regret that I have to announce none of them are edible. The pitcher plants, however, will eat YOU.
The strange one at the top (not my hand, the plant) is known as either monkey or kangaroo's tail. Earlier today, at a winery, I was told by the proprietor that the kangaroo derives its name from the inquiry "wot's that orange-colored rodent?"and the Aboriginal reply to the English-speaker, "Que? Can't hear you." Say that once fast and you'll figure it out. I don't think it's a true story, do you?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Orange Honey Almond Sauce

If the name doesn't sell you, let me fill you in a bit on bees. New Zealand and Australia, until recently, were the only two countries on the planet unaffected by a mite blight that has been striking (and snacking on) bee populations, wild and tamed. Alas, NZ's North, and now South, Islands were invaded. In a globally unprecedented action, South Island retaliated by moving their apiaries (boxes full of kept bees) up to North Island, allowing the predator insects to gnosh on the wild bee population until it there were none. Then the bad guys, starving to death, would either flee South Island or perish, making it safe to return the bee boxes back.

Honey in NZ is mainly Manuka, which is a rich and different (thicker, rougher, darker) flavor than our windsome little American wildflower make. So when I say "Make this orange honey almond sauce!" my recipe advice is to support NZ in these troubled buzzy times and try a midgen of manuka. (What the hell is a midgen? It's a bit more than a smidgen.)

If this recipe seems overwhelming (Saffron threads! Sherry vinegar!), don't worry. Sliced oranges with almonds and honey are great on top of salads, ice cream, yogurt or just together as friends in your mouth. You don't HAVE to make this whole dish. But Gold Star for You if you do. It's not a local meal, but it sure does make winter (yours, not mine!) snow taste sweeter.

Now here is a flower that comes from a tree near my "bach"(holiday home): will it get pollinated by bees, or will it be last of its kind? The drama never stops in NZ.

Orange Honey Almond Sauce
Preheat your oven to 400*F.

Meanwhile, in a large pan over medium high heat, fry 'til golden:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped

Push onions aside. Fry until savory;
2 garlic cloves
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped
2 cinnamon sticks

Mix onions back in. Lower heat slightly, and add to pan until carmelized (1-2 minutes):
2 tablespoons h

Eggcentric Cafe, Flaxmill Bay

The past week I've been living and working in Flaxmill Bay, about 10 minutes (and a ferry ride) from Whitianga, in the Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand. Dave and Denise, owners and head chefs of Eggcentric Cafe, have been my kind hosts--esp. with regards to Dave's kindnesses in sharing his recipes and expertise in making a delicious, creative menu. Every customer that leaves the place has (minimum) two positive adjectives to match their thank-you! This picture shows Dave's "Full Monty"--a brunch option featuring a split fried sausage that he says is awesome second only to a whale's tail rising out of the sea at sunset. Hey, he said it.
Peanut Chut

An example of Dave's kitchen genius at work is his use of this excellent chutney recipe. Derived from Tom Kline's Exploring Taste and Flavor, is an excellent side dip. Dave reckons the reason everyone loves it with his chicken is because it has a series of complex flavors--sweet and savory, salty and tangy--everything that makes your tongue say "woo hoo". I just like pounding it out with a mortar and pestle. If you have the patience, you won't be sorry to have this hanging out in your fridge for quick snackin'.

Over medium-high heat, fry up:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 red chilli, deseeded and minced
3 coriander (cilantro) roots or the bottom of the stem

Add and cook 3-4 minutes (until carmalized)
4 chopped shallots
4 tablespoons sugar
(if it's burning, add a little dash of water)

Add 2 tablespoons blanched peanuts, as well as water to dilute.
Remove from heat. In small batches, crush with a mortar and pestle.
To your mash, add:
1 tablespoon seasame oil
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
Juice of 1 lime

Garnish with 20 coriander leaves.
Dilute with water if necessary.