Day 77: New Zealand
Once again, I can’t find a country’s cuisine around Los Angeles, and once again, a wonderful family invites me into their home for a great meal. Tonight, that means New Zealand. The thanks here begin with Renee, who set all of this up (and made the very helpful decision to marry a New Zealander whose mother happens to be in town). Renee has been like a Swiss Army Knife in my life— always finding a way to fit in and be useful, no matter how odd the circumstance. It began when she used to work with my step mother, and the two of them becoming good friends. At her next job, she employed yours truly for a little while, then after that, by sheer coincidence, she hired my mother to do her landscaping. And now? She’s set up a home cooked New Zealand dinner for me— in her very own home no less. Maybe for her next trick, I’ll get into a terrible car crash, then wake up in a haze to find her pulling me from the flaming wreckage. But as for tonight, is there anything I can do to repay her? “Just don’t put up my picture.” Okay, Renee. I’ll see what I can do.
The evening begins by sitting casually in the kitchen with a glass of really enjoyable white wine from New Zealand. “Red wines aren’t very good in New Zealand. We always buy Australian reds,” says Renee’s mother-in-law Wendy, as Richard takes the rested lamb roast and starts carving. “We’re not having Māori cuisine tonight. Most people don’t eat like that in New Zealand.” The Māori are the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand, whose cuisine consists, originally, of cooking in the earth, a lot of kumara (sweet potato), various birds, fish and fernroot. “Eating the fernroot was a main cause of their poor life expectancy. The fern root wore down their teeth and caused them to starve,” she says.
“What’s a typical lunch in New Zealand?” I ask.
“Sandwiches,” says Wendy.
“So is there a difference between sandwiches here and over there?”
“They’re a lot bigger over here,” laughs Richard.
“But sometimes we will have beet root and hard boiled egg on our sandwiches as well,” adds Wendy.
“Yeah. People wouldn’t do that here,” says Lizzy, an old friend both Renee and myself who is eager to join tonight’s festivities.
A plate of “mouse traps” comes out as an appetizer while we continue chatting. A mouse trap is a piece of bread, toasted with tomato relish (home made in this case), cheese and bacon on it. If there’s a way for that not to be delicious, I have no idea how. Then Richard asks if I’ve ever had Marmite, the popular, dark black spread. Lizzy and I both say no, so he spreads some butter and Marmite on a piece of hot toast. “A lot of Yankees try this stuff and say they hate it, but it’s because they spread it on too thick, like peanut butter. You only need a little.” Even spread thin, this yeast based condiment is remarkably powerful and has a strong, salty taste— winning my favor very quickly.
Now it’s time for dinner, so I grab a plate and start serving myself roast lamb, roasted yams, a cooked carrot dish in an orange (both color and fruit) sauce and a side of creamy, cheesy, broccoli and peas, which is very reminiscent of a vegetable gratin. I pour gravy over the lamb, then top it with mint sauce and sit in eager anticipation, waiting to be joined by the rest of our dinner companions so we can start digging in. The rustic, home-style dishes are all excellent and go perfectly with Wendy’s tales of farm life, which included nursing a wounded duck back to health, then trying to see which farm animals it would end up taking to (sheep, it turns out). She and her husband have since then sold the farm, saying “It was great having the farm, but it was time to call it a day.” All the food continues to mix very well on the plate as I take a last bite, then get up for more lamb and green vegetable gratin. Finishing off the last few bites, I decide I’d like to work on a farm one day in New Zealand, just so I can fully appreciate a meal like this once the sun’s gone down.
“I tried to make a Pavlova,” Wendy says, referring to the New Zealand specialty dessert which bears similarity to a meringue with fruit, “but it didn’t work out. My sister-in-law is very good at it and she sent me her recipe, but while it may have been fine in New Zealand, it didn’t come out in the United States. So instead, we’re having apple crumble.” But oh, what an apple crumble it turned out to be. Tart, soft apples and crispy nuggets, then topped to taste with homemade whipped cream and fresh sliced kiwis. Adding fresh fruit to a hot baked dessert is actually a pretty brilliant idea and one I can totally get behind. We add fresh accents to savory, hot dishes, with a fresh basil, parsley or a squeeze of lemon, so it makes sense that it would work for desserts as well. I know that similar ideas have been executed in many desserts over the years, but with an apple crumble, it’s especially nice. Also present at the table are home made ginger crisps, which taste like really good butter cookies, but with a subtle, spiced finish.
So it is with a belly full of great, New Zealand-style food, that I sit back, sipping on a final taste of wine and feeling quite happy to be taken care of so wonderfully. I’m certainly an extremely spoiled and fortunate person at this moment, and one who is amazed to find that such great people are willing to take in a guy like me. So to Renee, Wendy and Richard, I simply can’t thank you enough— and tonight, I’m going home with a big, fat smile on my face.
Food Breakdown: Wine, 1 entrée, 2 appetizers, 3 sides
Distance From My House: 11.3 miles