Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

rweissmugshotThis website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

Throwback Thursday: My Love Affair with Baking

Anyone who reads this blog, or knows me even a little, knows I love to bake. I love to eat baked goods, too, but I appreciate the fact I have two teenagers and don’t have to eat everything I bake by myself.

This love of baking isn’t new. Forty-five years ago, at the tender age of two, I was already supervising my mother’s baking, as evidenced by this photograph, in which I’m obviously making sure the cupcakes aren’t snitched by my brother before they’re properly cool.

My love of baked goods and baking led me, as an adult, to decide never to buy baked goods, but to bake if I wanted cookies or cake in the house. It has served well to keep my consumption down and my production up.

Pregnancy, and the attendant guilt trip laid on pregnant woman to eat healthily, prompted me to look for less sugary, less buttery options in my baked goods. I shifted to sweetening with fruit juices, and cutting way back on the fat in recipes. What I made during my pregnancies wasn’t bad, but I had enough nausea at the time that I can no longer even think about some of those ‘healthy’ baked goods without feeling ill.

Freed from pregnancy, my baking swung back toward the unhealthy side, but I’d learned some things from all that healthy baking. I used less sugar, and found that other flavours were enhanced by it. I used more whole grains–not because they were better for me, but because I had discovered they tasted better than white flour. I used more nuts, seeds and fruits, because they added variety, flavour, and texture. These days, I rarely make any of the recipes I made before pregnancy; I look at them and cringe at the ingredient lists.

So my baking has evolved. As I’m sure it will continue to evolve, under the changing needs and pressures of the family, for many years to come.

Geeky Pruning

The newly cleared path and scalped rosemary.

The job had been hanging over me for two years. Every time I went to trim the rosemary bushes by the side of the house, I found them being heavily used by insects and couldn’t bring myself to disturb them. I finally had to admit that there was never going to be a good time to prune them.

So this weekend, when I found I could no longer use the path between rosemary bushes and house, and the bushes were nearing two and a half metres tall, I decided it was time to prune.

Pruning the rosemary is never a fun job—the wood is hard as nails, and every branch seems to need a different size pruning tool than the last one. To make it worse, this time the job took twice as long as it might have, because I checked every branch for preying mantids and mantid egg cases.

I shifted six adult mantids to other plants and collected eleven egg cases by the time I was done. I’m sure I missed some, but I’ve tucked the egg cases into a cage to protect them over winter, and when they hatch out in springtime, I’ll release them back to the rosemary.

A bit geeky? Yeah, I suppose it is. But there was never any question about me being an entogeek. This way, I get my path back, and I get to keep my bugs. Everyone’s happy.

Making It Up as I Go

Last Friday, the stars aligned for a cheese and onion tart—I had pie dough already made, a batch of chevre that needed to be used, and plenty of eggs and shallots.

I couldn’t be bothered looking up a recipe, though I knew I’d posted one here before. Instead, I made it up as I went along.

I knew I wanted plenty of onions, and I wanted them sautéed slowly until they were browning. So I got them going.

I knew my normal quiche used three eggs, but I wasn’t going to use more than a splash of milk in this, so I whisked up four eggs and a glug from the milk bottle.

I like thyme with eggs and cheese, so I picked some and tossed it into the onions.

And cheese. Lots of that. I spread a thick layer of chevre on the bottom of the pie crust, topped it with my onions, and poured the eggs over it all.

What could go wrong?

Nothing, apparently. It was divine.

And that is the best part about cooking, I think—being inspired by wonderful ingredients, and following your own tastes to create delicious food.

Everyday Beautiful

I don’t need an excuse to make cake, but today’s icy southerly gales were an excellent excuse, regardless.

I chose to make a devil’s food cake. I generally don’t ice ‘everyday’ cakes–too much work, and none of us needs the extra sugar. This intensely dark cake, though, cried out for something to show off it’s colour.

I filled it with gooseberry jam, and then made up a simple powdered sugar/lemon juice icing to drizzle over the top. The icing was purely for decoration.

Because every day deserves something beautiful.

Lemongrass

I brought the lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) indoors last weekend. It’s not supposed to be able to handle freezing temperatures. It does, but it doesn’t like them. The one winter I left it outside, it died back to just a few well-protected shoots in the centre of the plant.

Thankfully, it doesn’t need much protection. My office is unheated at night, but it provides enough protection to keep the lemongrass alive.

We don’t use much lemongrass. Though its lemony flavour is nice, it doesn’t have the sourness of real lemon, so I find lemongrass tea too sweet.

However, we do occasionally use it in stir fries, marinades and salad dressings, where it imparts its lemony flavour alongside other, more sour ingredients. We were first introduced to its use in salad dressings by Yotam Ottolenghi’s wonderful cookbook Plenty (which I’ve mentioned before). His sweet winter slaw recipe calls for the following dressing:

100ml lime juice
1 lemongrass stalk, chopped
3 Tbsp maple syrup
2 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp chilli flakes
4 tbsp light olive oil or sunflower oil

Place all ingredients except the oil in a saucepan and boil for 5-10 minutes until thick and syrupy. Allow to cool, then strain. Whisk in the oil and toss with your salad.

It’s an excellent way to use lemongrass, pairing with salty, oily, and sour ingredients that enhance its flavour. It’s worth giving up office space to the plant, just for this dressing.

Pear Tart

Several kilos of beautiful pears in the house inspired pear tart for dessert last night. Taking inspiration from a few recipes, I came up with the following. It was lovely!

Peel, core, and slice 4 large pears.

Combine and sprinkle over the pears:
1/4c flour
3 Tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp cloves

Toss pears with flour mixture until evenly coated.

Make your favourite pie crust recipe—enough for a one-crust pie. Roll the crust into a large round (about 15 in/38 cm in diameter) and place on a baking sheet.

Arrange the pear slices in the middle of the crust, leaving about 5 cm/2 in around the edge. Bonus points if you can make a pretty spiral, but it tastes the same either way. Pour any remaining juice over the top, then fold the edge of the crust up and over the pears.

Bake at 190ºC (375ºF) for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool at least 15 minutes before cutting.

**Pears are incredibly sweet, and though this tart was divine, I like a little tartness in my tarts. Next time I will add some grated lemon peel to the filling or serve it with yogurt.

Colours of Autumn

Growing up in eastern North America, autumn meant colourful leaves, fading to brown, bare branches. Green fields gave way to gold, then brown.

So it was a lovely surprise to find when we first moved here that in Canterbury, the opposite is true. Summer has its green bits, but because there is little summer rainfall, the summer landscape is predominantly brown.

But with autumn come cooler temperatures and more rain. Grass begins to grow again. Plants that were dormant through summer sprout new leaves. Autumn is a time of lush green—a time of life, not death.

For certain, the days are shortening, and the growth won’t last. Soon there won’t be enough sunlight hours to fuel plant growth. But winters are mild, and the green will remain all the way through until spring.

Today I picked a basket of autumn crops for dinner—all in shades of green.