Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Letter From Peter Huck in New Zealand

My friend Peter Huck, journalist and windswept adventurer, recently moved away from Los Angeles with his other half, the lovely Barbara Drake, to beautiful New Zealand. They are living in a tiny apartment in Auckland with a very, very small kitchen. Since their excellent and mostly vegetarian dinner parties were such a feature of my social life here, and sadly missed, I asked Peter to think about writing a monthly letter from down under as a kind of mirror to my own efforts and experiences here. This is the first of such entries.

Dateline: Auckland, New Zealand; January 20, 2010

Intrigued that I cook in an even smaller kitchen – a narrow, well-appointed galley betwixt a toilet and a shower; perhaps an eighth of the space in a 19.6 by 11.5 foot apartment, formally a motel room - than the one he graces in Los Feliz, Jonathan has invited me to file an occasional culinary piece from New Zealand, where I returned, after two decades working as a journalist in Los Angeles, to pursue an off-the-grid house project in the Coromandel Peninsula. This post is a tour d’horizon of my new life in Godzone; I’ll get into specifics down the road.

I interpret “culinary” in the widest sense. I am just as interested in learning where food comes from, how it is grown, and the sometimes controversial issues surrounding its production, as I am in cooking and eating. In some respects New Zealand is a huge farm. Agriculture is innovative and entrepreneurial – there are no subsidies – but surprisingly resistant, given the country’s pristine environmental hype, to sustainable, organic methods. Still, for those who look there are plenty of delights.

My life is split between Auckland and Coromandel, a three-hour drive around the rim of a spectacular maritime inlet, the Firth of Thames, then up the Pacific Coast Highway, the Antipodean version, a sometimes one-lane blacktop that twists from sea level to some 1,500 feet, then back again.

I’m now in Auckland, living with my girlfriend Barbara Drake (left, with "pet" Magpie) on the slopes of Mt Albert, one of 49 extinct volcanic “stumps” that litter the narrow isthmus between the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is a maritime city with volatile sub-tropical weather and fertile soil; perfect for fresh sea fish and home grown vegetables - we can hardly keep up with the fecundity of our two tiny plots that keep on giving: silver beet, cabbage, lettuce, rocket [arugula], rhubarb, courgettes, tarragon, thyme, sorrel, nasturtiums, basil, oregano, cilantro and parsley.

Our life is lived in a series of boxes: our city flat, where cooking is a combination of cuisine and choreography; our ‘95 Subaru wagon; two packed-to-the-door storage facilities; and a pair of ancient caravans – one with an almost completed lean-to or sleep-out, largely built from recycled material sourced from community demo yards – on our 27-acre conservation block of regenerating rainforest.

It is a lifestyle – frequent journeys between tiny living spaces – that dictates what we eat. We live on a very cheap budget. Our homegrown veggies are supplemented by organic produce, including fruit, from highway honesty stalls and community gardens in Auckland and Coromandel. Eating well means hooking into food networks, where barter sometimes replaces payment. We also buy fresh fish more or less direct from the boat at various harbours between the city and our land, along with specialist items – cheese, honey, olive oil, wine, condiments or bread – from grassroots producers. We don’t shun supermarkets – rural life hasn’t dented my caffeine habit - but they’re peripheral.

Thus, the Tarakihi depicted in the picture taken in our caravan, as dusk falls on the Hauraki Gulf and a Morepork, or native owl, starts calling on our block, is that day’s catch, bought from the Coromandel fish ‘n’ chip shop. Our meal, cooked by Barbara on a two-ring gas stove in candlelight, included French beans from the weekly farmers’ market, organic chilli sauce from the sleepy community of Papa Aroha, olive oil from one of our neighbours, garlic from another, toasted kelp harvested from New Zealand’s beaches [five times the length of the US West Coast], plus new potatoes and a 2007 “cleanskin” [end-of-vintage wine, sans label] Gisborne merlot from the local store.

Like the US, New Zealand is rediscovering the delights of home grown produce. Gardening networks, including community gardens where some food is free, are emerging. Ironically, for a nation where farm produce is the major export [and sometimes cheaper in Trader Joe’s than it is in an Auckland supermarket], and “clean and green” a national catchphrase [and, as the Guardian pointed out, sometimes a hollow one; more on that at a later date], kiwis rank third on the 2009 OECD obesity list, after the US and Mexico, a consequence of a generation weaned on processed and fast foods. I’ll be exploring these themes, and local cuisine, on future posts.

©2010 Peter Huck

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cooking from The Books 2

Two Thousand Nine was a banner year in my very personal and loving relationship with cookbooks. It started with the Poleyn and Ruhlman book on Charcuterie, a gift to me Christmas 2008 and I have cured around 5 Bresaolas with salts from Detroit since. Ratio the very good book by Michael Ruhlman followed sometime later in '09, and has been a useful addition to my food library, packaged by Scribner just as tastefully as a volume I have on Confucius by the same publisher. Ruhlman's choux pastry ratio is a great hit on both coasts when I have used it to make chocolate eclairs.

In the spring months of 2009, when new condensed editions of Diana Kennedy's treatises on Mexican Cooking were published, so much changed. Every obscure herb, chile and pork cut mentioned in Kennedy's recipes are readily available in the carnicerias and markets of Los Angeles. Familiar to our neighbors to the south these ingredients helped to realize delicious, fragrant and exotic recipes and bring them to life. Here could assemble foods from a cuisine that was the legacy of at least three grand, and ancient civilizations and do it authentically. Delicious food resulted and my barber, The Best In The West, was amazed that I know what epazote is. I think if you want to cook Mexican food authentically you should keep a copy of From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients if no other book on the subject.

The largest local national or ethnic entity in my village apart from Latin Guatemalans and Salvadorans, is Armenian. Markets catering to Armenian tastes brim with tahini from Lebanon, locally made Persian style kashk, specially packaged herbs and fruits and Armenian Vodkas and Turkish Rakias. So, I'll admit that stepping out of the Franglo model has stricken me with the middle-eastern food bug. I first bought Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Cooking in a diminutive paperback many years ago and found it fascinating. The New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking is current and updated and marvelous. Her Jewish Cookbook is exhaustive, and her coffee table beauty, Arabesque, is just a joy. Claudia Roden's book page at Amazon is here. I frequently cook from Roden's books. Therein, perfect, unintentional diet recipes for weight conscious individuals such as myself. Look for recipes that include quinces or eggplant, they are simple to make, but refreshingly complex on the palate.

I have bought many more helpful cookery books this year but in keeping with my trend the favorite cookbook of 2009 is Kamal Al-Faqih’s Classic Lebanese Cooking. Clear, helpful and nicely presented, I expect to use this book much in the future. The Cuisine of Lebanon is probably the most ornate and complex in the middle east and always a joy to taste. Written by a Washington D.C caterer and restaurateur who has moved into my locale, I will be watching out for his pointers and tips for a more fragrant and beautiful 2010. Kate Colquhoun's Taste was also one of the most all round enjoyable reads of 2009 and dispels the American myth of British cooking being primitive.

By the way Santa dropped off The Fat Duck Cookbook for Christmas 2009 and all I can say is WOW, what a read!