Greetings from Wellington! It’s been a while, dear reader, I hope you’re still there.
And just like that, I’ve been in New Zealand for a month.
There have been picnics and wine tasting on Waiheke Island, cake on the beach in Paihia and hiking through dripping rainforests to Cathedral Cove. I have watched the sun rise over the ocean twice now, turned the clocks forward to welcome in summer – which starts in October! My body clock is confused – and I nearly burst with excitement as I skipped around Hobbiton.
It’s been simultaneously amazing and normal, life changing and everyday! On any given day I might see the clearest turquoise water glittering in the sun, then go home to do my laundry. We ate a traditional Maori hangi – racks of vegetables, chicken and pork were buried in the ground with hot smoking coals and slowly roasted – and I filled my plate high with this smokey feast, but I’ve also eaten hash browns off the tray hot from the oven, drunk wine out of the bottle, and scoffed cheesecake, slightly drunk, at midnight. There are shades of normality amidst the magic.
I’ve met people from all over the world who become your best friend within a matter of hours with whom you share all sorts of intimate secrets, and then they disappear days later to continue their journeys. Life on the road embodies that limbo territory of isolated locations without internet, signal and only the cows and sheep for company, and hauling your life around on your back every day.
Hostel living epitomises that temporal phase. Everyday you rummage through your suitcase for clothes and underwear, you traipse to the bathroom with your wash bag and run back to the dorm because you forgot your towel, and every night you fall asleep to the soundtrack of other peoples’ snores, talking in their sleep or other less agreeable noises. (Not that I can exclude myself from this, I laughed myself awake a few weeks ago and lay there in the dark utterly mortified). It’s a community of endless people to talk to, with whom to jostle around the kitchen as you make dinner, and to avoid when you want to make a phone call.
No matter how gross or gorgeous the communal kitchen is, it’s a mind-over-matter issue when you want to cook for yourself. There’s no secret that I am a lazy cook. In fact, it’s practically a topic I dwell on (such as here and here, and heck here too) but I have learnt new meaning to that expression since living in hostels. Dinner for most people is usually instant noodles. If they want to splash out they’ll try a hand at pasta. Otherwise it’s eggs, toast, or peanut butter sandwiches.
Most kitchens come with a basket of free store-cupboard items such as salt, pepper, spices, oil, peanut butter, Marmite, tea and coffee. Everything else you collect yourself, accumulating in a bright red canvas bag found at the national supermarket New World. In my own red bag I have a jar of olives, dried pasta, tomatoes, avocados, eggs, jam (of course), two sweet potatoes (kūmara as it’s known here) and lime juice (limes are unbelievably expensive – $40 a kilo?! What is this madness).
You never know what you will rustle up. Usually it’s terrible and eating is an endurance rather than a pleasure (see my ingredients list above) but sometimes, you sit down with a fried egg on toast which is slathered in Marmite, some avocado squeezed with lemon, and pan fried mushrooms tossed with wilting parsley from the back of the fridge, and everything is under-seasoned as no one can find the salt, yet somehow everything binds. The salty, punchy Marmite acts as a seasoning for the dish, and when you finally burst the egg yolk it soaks into the buttery mushroom juices and lemon ready to be mopped up with toast. As you can tell, I haven’t eaten many satisfactory home-cooked meals in the last month.
I’ve found cooking for one to be a trial, no surprises there, and if anyone suggests dinner out at last minute, even Nandos, I’m the first to get my coat. Aside from my lazy, grossly extravagant tendencies though, I’ve found a solution that will get me back into the kitchen. That is cooking for a crowd.
In Rotorua I sipped wine as I chopped colourful kūmara, mango and courgette for a curry for four. My friends provided the wine and the dessert, and we ate the sweet coconut curry on fluffy rice, meanwhile helping ourselves to more wine. In Auckland, I roasted beetroot, carrot and more kūmara with thyme, whisked together finely chopped parsley, lemon zest and olive oil, and fried eggs in olive oil. The vegetables were piled on plates with crumbled goats cheese and sweetly caramelised onions, topped with eggs and herby gremolata. When you have friends to share your food, cooking once again becomes a pleasure and nothing keeps you out of the kitchen.
Kūmara hash with goats cheese and fried eggs
In New Zealand sweet potatoes come in the common orange colour, and purple. I was devastated to find the flesh isn’t purple, it’s normal potato colour, and even worse, you need to peel them for this recipe. Using a range of sweet potatoes keeps this dish colourful though.
This recipe is easily adaptable – use whatever vegetables and herbs you can find or afford, and try feta instead of goats cheese.
2 large sweet potatoes
250g goats cheese
Zest of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 220°C/430°F. Peel and slice the onion into wedges. Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan and once hot add the onion. Toss in the hot oil for five minutes then lower the heat and leave to sizzle gently. Keep checking on them regularly as you don’t want them to darken.
- Peel all the root vegetables, leaving the beetroot until last as it will stain your hands pink. Chop everything into bite-sized dice. Put the beetroot and carrots in a separate tray and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and sprigs of thyme. Slide it into the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes before you add the rest of the vegetables.
- Meanwhile, make the gremolata. Finely chop the parsley leaves and put in a bowl with half the lemon zest and a good glug of olive oil. Season with salt and taste. Gradually add more lemon and oil until you reach the flavour and consistency you wish. I like mine with lots of lemon and only a little oil.
- Add the sweet potato to the baking tray and continue to roast for another 20-25 minutes.
- When the vegetables are nearly ready, sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar over the onions and mix together with a couple of pinches of salt. They should be soft and a little sticky. Remove from the heat.
- In another frying pan warm some olive oil and crack in your eggs. Baste with the oil to cook all the egg white.
- Crumble the goats cheese. Remove the woody thyme sprigs from the vegetables and stir in the onions. Pile the hash on four plates and scatter with goats cheese. Top each with a fried egg and drizzle with gremolata.