Sunday, April 18, 2010

Green Envy

As if to underscore that this has so far been a strange and scary year, Los Angeles has been blessed with plenty of rain this spring. Spring time is when I usually begin reminiscing about that damp English climate I grew up with, with its sheets of fine silk-like rain and land-tinting gray clouds that would make even the most colorful environment look like a layered watercolor wash. I have not seen Southern California so verdantly clement at this time of year in recent memory and so my envy of those fortunate enough to live up on the Central Coast has abated for the time being, though I am sure by August it will nag me once again.

In my kitchen, comfort foods still make for a good dinner, and, chilis, ratatouilles and pork roasts are frequently on the menu. I've cured olives, and my first prosciutto, and also a couple of bresaolas this winter. Mediterranean and Mexican dishes have taken center stage over the those months, a quince and chicken dish with preserved lemons being one of my favorite ventures. But the most comforting dish turned out to be stuffed Hungarian style green peppers. My neighbor is fortunate enough to have a tray of organic fruits and vegetables delivered to her door each week and she will often share a few of them with me. First there was a cabbage which I steamed and peeled away the leaves to stuff with a meat and rice mixture. I made half a dozen for her, as a thank you gift, stuffed with bulgur and red peppers since she is doesn't eat meat. There have been small red potatoes and bananas, beautiful heads of broccoli, and a delicious acorn squash which I halved and roasted with oil and topped with mozzarella for another vegetarian friend who will eat nothing with a face. But the cabbage set to reminding me of stuffing green peppers. I bought four at the market at a ridiculous price. I made a mixture of a pound of ground pork and two pounds of ground beef and added chopped onions and garlic and a couple of eggs, some salt and pepper. Instead of long grain rice I had on hand some left over wild rice which worked extremely well as it doesn't hold as much water cooked and adds some husky texture to the mix. Well combined I topped and deseeded the peppers and densely stuffed them. To this point everything is raw save for the rice and I put the pepper hat back on. the four just about fit my large pot and I sarted them on the stove top with about an inch of water, covering them with a lid for a few minutes. aftr this I added chopped tomatoes from a can and tomato sauce from a couple more cans and added some chicken stock and paprika. After an hour of slow cooking they were ready and I cooled them to room temperature for reheating later in the day. This was most satisfying with a glass of dry riesling. Perhaps this dish will return in the summer. They say we are due for three days of rain this coming week.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Letter From New Zealand #3

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. I asked Peter to write a monthly letter from down under as a kind of mirror to my own efforts and experiences here. This is the third letter.

The godwits are leaving. Driving up the coast road, past Miranda, at the bottom of the Firth of Thames, on a glittering morning the other week, I chanced upon a middle-aged lady unpacking a large telescope from the trunk of her car. I offered to help and we set off across a field, fringed by mangroves lapped by a “king” high tide, towards a silver strand where a handful of people stood outside a small hide, staring at several hundred long-beaked birds, massed on a sandbar some hundred or so feet distant.

“We think the first batch will take off this weekend,” my birder friend, a volunteer at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, told me as I gazed through the scope at the bar-tailed godwits, which mostly appeared to be sleeping while standing. She described the extraordinary feats of the migratory waders – an iconic New Zealand bird most famous to non-tweeters from Robin Hyde’s 1938 novel, The Godwits Fly that each year set out from several New Zealand sites, plus others in Australasia, on an epic return flight, via the North Korean-Chinese border, to tundra nesting sites in Alaska, a 18,330-mile round trip. The Antipodeans use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Others godwits are found in Africa and Europe.

In 2007 a bar-tailed godwit, E7, tagged with a tiny satellite transmitter, flew 7,258 miles non-stop from Alaska across the Pacific back to Miranda in just nine days. I gleaned this from one of the world’s foremost godwit authorities, Keith Woodley, when I left the hide and stopped by the Centre, just down the road apiece.

Alas, the godwits’ future is clouded by uncertainly. Industrialization in the Yellow Sea region threatens ecosystems used as a major godwit pit stop, while in NZ environmentalists fear projected plans to mine gold tailings – and possibly release buried toxins, such as mercury - in the Firth of Thames will irrevocably damage a recovering habitat that godwits and other creatures depend on for their survival. 

Mining has become an emotive issue in New Zealand and nowhere more so than in the Coromandel, as reported by a protest group. The peninsula, where gold was found close to our rainforest block in 1852 [traces were noted in the 1820s], is an historic gold boom area – we recently found a shaft, probably an air vent, on our property, which lies several hundred yards distant from a scene of frenzied 19th century activity, described in Diggers, Hatters and Whores: The Story of the New Zealand Gold Rushes, Steven Eldred-Grigg’s lively and lavishly illustrated 2008 history, as miners followed reefs in the quartz veins - where nine prospective gold mining sites were recently identified by the government.

The National Government, which began secret talks with mining companies in 2006, two years before it was elected, has downplayed rising fears of environmental impacts, insisting that only 17,440 acres of land on the country’s conservational estate, including possibly in national parks, would be mined, although oil and gas exploration could also impact marine reserves.

This development, plus concerns about over-fishing – the government has just upped its catch quota for the endangered Southern bluefin tuna – dairy methane emissions that contribute to climate change, and a controversial scheme, discussed at International Whaling Commission talks, to allow Japan to continue its farcical “scientific” whale hunt, provided they reduce their catch over the next decade, have roused fears the nation’s “100% Pure” tourism PR will be exposed as greenwash, a line taken by the Economist

Fortunately, plans to factory farm dairy cows in the Mackenzie Basin appear to have been abandoned – for now anyway. Given that NZ has an international reputation for grass feed meat – >NZ Cuisine food writer Ray McVinnie describes industrialized cattle farms, such as the feed lots on I-5 north of LA, as “bovine concentration camps” - this should have been a no-brainer. Ditto an emphasis on organically grown produce. However, this approach appears to be anathema to corporate farming, and there are disturbing signs, notably a court decision to reverse a previous judgement against plans to use animals to develop health and medical products - NZ may join the GM camp. Disturbingly, two corporations, including NZ dairy giant Fonterra, hope to release GE grasses, a potential tipping point as seed dispersal would be impossible to control.    

Back at the grassroots there are signs that the burgeoning grow-your-own vegetables movement – we supplement our own backyard efforts with produce from an Auckland collective and roadside honesty stalls – have blunted profits from commercial horticulture, even as the average price for fruit and vegetables in January rose 4.8% according to Statistics New Zealand. Maybe commercial growers should take note and investigate organic options.

We’ll be enjoying some of our homegrown greens – fennel, basil, parsley, lettuce and argula – with some king fish steaks, our share of a fish caught on a hand line by a Coromandel friend, tonight. We’ve just returned to Auckland from the peninsula, after installing a 180-watt PV panel on our sleep-out, powering up a small fridge and some lights last Saturday – energy from the sun via two batteries – even as New Zealand joined other nations by switching off lights for Earth Hour. The trick in the future will be getting rid of the batteries and hooking up to the grid. But that’s another story.

©2010 Peter Huck