face of the forest

Discoveries from the forest floor and beyond.

How I met the fisherman

by amy – December 11, 2015 in Words

Sunset in Island Bay

I was slightly reluctant to stop at No. 8 Recyclers on my way home from dropping Florian off at work that morning, but as I saw it approaching on my right, I resigned myself to forge ahead with the plan, and pulled over across the street. It was an overcast day, which gave me pause. I’m always conscious of the weather when I’m contemplating a bold move. If the weather is favorable, it gives me a feeling of good luck. Good weather makes people more agreeable, too. Maybe the weather wasn’t quite right today. Or maybe I was just trying to use it as an excuse.

I went inside. I didn’t see the old man at the desk when I entered, so in order to justify my arrival to no one in particular, I turned to browse a rack of terracotta pots on my right. Well, if the old man wasn’t there, I might as well poke around and see if I could find something to make my visit worthwhile. Some might call this secondhand warehouse a junkyard; others might call it a treasure trove. It made me feel like I was inside the hull of a big wooden ship that had washed ashore in Lyall Bay. It was bigger than a barn, and full of undiscovered gems. Sure, everything was covered in a thick layer of grime and grease and dust, but that didn’t deter the true treasure hunter.

The more I went there, the more intrigued I became. I lost myself in those tall aisles, rummaging through containers of assorted nails, screws, bolts, buckets of hinges, doorknobs, rusty handsaws missing teeth, shelves of candelabras and rotary phones, a bin of dusty burlap bags next to a stack of old picture frames. Opposite this mess, the other side of the building was carefully lined with beautiful old French doors and windows of every style. There were big back doors that opened onto a timber yard, allowing a breeze to waft through the dusty high-ceilinged cave. read more

Sólstafir – Ótta

by amy – December 1, 2015 in Music

ottaOnce upon a night, I discovered the brilliance of this album. There is a soulful, nostalgic feeling to it. A feeling of reaching back to one’s origins.

Sólstafir is an Icelandic band. Their name means crepuscular rays in Icelandic, referring to those rays of sunlight piercing through dark clouds that you often see near dusk. Ótta is an album revolving around an old Icelandic system of timekeeping called Eykt, a monastic system that divided the day into eight parts of three hours each. Accordingly, there are eight songs on the album, one to represent each eyktar. It starts at midnight with the opening track, Lágnætti (low night). Ótta, the second track, refers to the time between 3-6 a.m.

The cover is a black and white photo of an old man with white hair. He’s positioned on the left side of the photo, and behind him is the sea, with big rocks jutting out of the shore, shrouded in mist. The wind sweeps the man’s hair to the left as he looks in that direction. His face is somewhat haggard. It bears the creases of time. His expression is quite unreadable. He’s wearing black, nondescript clothing. He could be from any time. The photo well conveys the timeless feeling of this album. It speaks of a connection between a particular kind of landscape and the person who belongs there.

Twilight shore

The vocalist has a strong presence in all the songs, his raspy voice often belting forth Icelandic like a driving wind. Or, I imagine that maybe he is shouting into the wind in order to be heard, using the force of both wind and voice to direct the music that accompanies him. Icelandic being a Germanic language of a Nordic flavor, it has that ancient feeling that hearkens back to the Vikings. Language has always intrigued me for being intertwined with the culture and history of a place. The sound of a language, the words themselves but also their intonation, convey a feeling of the geography and character of the land. Iceland is a land of mystery to me, to which this album lends further mystery, and invites one to feel and hear its nature through the elements. For this reason, without having to understand the words being spoken, Sólstafir’s music is powerful in providing an Icelandic immersion.

While the vocals tend to drive the songs at their most energetic points, they don’t epitomize the album. Long instrumental interludes also occur. The album opens gently with piano and violin (or strings of similar nature). Elsewhere, later, a banjo enters. These stringed instruments come back again and again throughout the album to twine beautifully with the guitars, drums and vocals. There are time changes that rise and fall like tides. Times of noise and wind and rain, then quiet times of contemplation and reflection. These moods transition naturally. There is a consistent energy that builds and subsides, always seeming to flow from the same source. The drums and guitars will often interrupt a slow intro with a strong and steady tremolo rhythm, gathering momentum to launch brilliant crescendos that eventually wane back into silence.

The atmosphere created on this album is impeccable. A folk feeling is conjured by the banjo. Heavily distorted guitar paired with the distant crashing of a cymbal routinely combine to create a misty atmosphere, thanks to the delicate handling of the production. Violin or keyboard melodies ease through the fog to lend soul, sincerity and longing. A beautiful combination.

On Rismál, the drums shine and twinkle through a white fog of distortion, calling on the organic sound of a tambourine to accent the cymbal. If the twinkling were sunlight, it might lend meaning to the title, which means sunrise. There is an awesome part in Nón (noon) where a knife-edged lead guitar rises up out of the sea and dances for an instant with the ghost of heavy metal.

Ótta shines like the burning flame of an old candle that refuses to die. Through the timeless veil of wind and fog and sea, it reminisces of a time forgotten. It’s humble and heartfelt, almost balladic. It’s an ode to the heartland and the homeland. An offering.

The Birthday Bordeaux

by amy – October 16, 2015 in Words

It’s a sunny morning and I’m seated outside as usual with a cup of tea, a boule of bread baking in the oven. I had enough wine last night to give me a very slight hangover, and now I’m nursing it with the tea, a banana, and sunshine. It was a Bordeaux; a birthday Bordeaux. Florian had looked up the best French chef in Wellington, winner of competitions, and found his little restaurant called Jano.

jano bistro

Jano Bistro in Wellington, New Zealand

As we approached by night, it barely looked like a place of business. It was a petite little cottage with a pointed roof and warm yellow light spilling out its windows onto a covered front porch. The signage was understated.

“Florian?” The hostess glanced up from the reservation and welcomed us with a warm smile. She took our coats, then led us up a narrow set of stairs to the second floor. There we found wooden floors and private booths. The room was well lit, but the light was gentle, and so were the colors it caressed. A brick chimney added a rustic feeling.  read more

The Big Purple Pancake!

by amy – October 13, 2015 in Cooking

This is it. This is what you’ve been waiting for.
Welcome… to The Big Purple Pancake.

the big purple pancakeSo there I was. It was late, late morning. Other people were way past their morning coffee and muffins, pastries, porridge, whatever it is that you people eat for breakfast. But not I. I hadn’t eaten in over 12 hours. I was skeletal, not to mention hungry. Hungry as hell. I needed a meal that was more like brunch. read more

Crusty Pan Pizza

by amy – October 1, 2015 in Cooking

One day I felt like pizza.

Do you ever get that craving? But I didn’t want to make just any old pizza. I wanted that Pan Pizza kind like the one I remember from Pizza Hut, the one with a thick, puffy crust with a crunchy, buttery exterior that collapses onto a soft, pillowy interior when you bite into it. This, believe it or not, is a crust you can achieve at home. And you can do it in a cast iron skillet.Crusty Pan Pizza

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The Devil in the White City: Book Review

by amy – September 21, 2015 in Words

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.

Erik Larson’s prologue well captures the spirit of this tale. His words are a better introduction than I could hope to write in order to inspire any would-be readers. Though it reads like a novel, this is a book of history that immerses the reader in a time and place long forgotten. It tells in parallel the biography of two fascinating, ambitious, and clever men: the architect Daniel Burnham and a psychopathic killer who went by the alias H. H. Holmes, among many others.

The author clarifies straight away that this is not a book of fiction. Anything appearing between quotation marks comes from an original letter or document. The bibliography is extensive, indicating that this book probably required years of research. He goes into some detail in the epilogue about his in-depth search for original sources. It’s worthwhile to acknowledge Larson’s devotion to the facts, because the story told is one that amazes and confounds.
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The wind and the sea

by amy – September 13, 2015 in Words

an angry sea

The wind blows something fierce here. Especially in Island Bay, where the coast is exposed to what the locals call the ‘Southerly.’ The Southerly is a strong gale that funnels into the bay from the south, sometimes lasting for days.

I love the wind storms. Wind whipping every which way in short, furious gusts, throwing sheets of rain at the windows. There is no thunder and no lightning. But there is a sound that rolls like thunder, and I can never tell if it’s the wind or the sea.

The wind is a shapeshifter. Its favorite form is an invisible winged goblin that rushes around angrily. It flies through the trees and across roofs, revealing its location only by the things it brushes. It’s everywhere at once, chaotic and tormented. Unpredictable and violent. At night it’s an eery presence to hear outside the house, making one glad to be inside. It sounds like someone who is enraged to find something has been stolen, and is storming around looking for something on which to unleash its fury.

When the wind is angry, the sea is angry. Once, perplexed by the thunderous sound that filled the air, I went to the coast to see what was the source of the din: the wind or the water. I was sure I’d find the answer. Instead, I only became more confused the closer I got to the sea. At the water’s edge, there was no distinction between water and air. Both were everywhere. The waves crashed while the wind drove rain and sea-spray in all directions. The raucous noise of wind and water was perpetual and deafening.

I’m moved by the elements, and feel drawn to them because of their sheer power. Their magnitude has no finite size or scale. The tiny flame of a match, a gentle breeze, or a small stream moves and touches its environment with the same destructive potential as a forest fire, a hurricane, or a flood. I’m awed by the elements because they are not like me; they can grow to any size, without limits. And they are always in motion.

Roasted vegetables

by amy – September 7, 2015 in Cooking

Roasted vegI  may have stated previously that I’m fond of meals that require few dishes. This would be one of those dishes. It’s so versatile, and requires very little actual work besides cutting up the veg. This is a hands-off dish; the oven does it all. And the best part is the delicious flavor that roasting brings out in all the vegetables.

I love roasting a mélange of root vegetables. It’s probably hard to tell what’s in the photo, seeing as it’s blanketed in melted cheddar cheese (mm, cheese). I’ve put in large chunks of turnip, yellow potato, kumara (New Zealand’s sweet potato), brussel sprouts, onion and apple. You can use just about any veg you want to use up in your fridge. Just aim for vegetables of similar hardness, and cut them up about the same size. Root vegetables work well together like this, because they are often of similar hardness, and will all take about the same amount of time to cook. In a “softer” dish you could put zucchini and eggplant together, for example. The apple is one exception in my version here. I added it during the last half hour of baking, as it wasn’t a very hard variety of apple. But in retrospect, I could have dealt with it softening up more, allowing its sugar to carmelize to add another dimension! No matter what sort of vegetables you use, I highly recommend adding onion or garlic. These roast to perfection and will bring an extra magnitude of flavor to your dish.

Is there anything else to preparing this to go in the oven? Not really. If you want to keep it basic, just mix in a few spoons of olive oil to make sure everything is lightly coated, and perhaps a bit of salt and/or pepper.

oil & spice mixtureThat is, if you like to keep things basic. I like to spice up my olive oil before I mix it into the vegetables. In fact, I use this opportunity to do what I love most in the kitchen: perform some alchemy. I pour some oil (maybe a couple tablespoons) into a small bowl, and then I go to the pantry and the spice shelf and grab everything in sight that will take this dish to the next level, and give these plain veggies a real kick in the pants. The mix of spices is different each time, as I like to choose them spontaneously. Fresh herbs from the garden are great! Much better than their ground, bottled versions if you got ’em. For this dish I got to use some fresh rosemary from my garden. Wow, what a treat to have fresh herbs. I always add some salt and pepper, and if you like heat, add some cayenne or red chili flakes. Or hot sauce. As you can probably tell by now, you can put just about any kind of condiment, sauce or spice into the oil.

Side note: When I’m roasting just potatoes, which are capable of absorbing lots of flavor, I always grate or mince a few cloves of garlic into the oil, and add a dollop of grainy mustard. You know, the kind with whole grains of mustard in it. Any mustard will do for a nice kick of flavor.  The more mustard, the more kick. Garlic and mustard work so well for potatoes. I usually add paprika too, to give them that reddish dusting that looks so appealing once the ‘taters get all crusty and toasted on the outside. If you happen to have any tips on how I can add even more flavor to roasted potatoes, I’d be excited to know.

In this picture of the oil rub, I’ve set aside the apples to put into the roast later on. I put some of the oil mixture on them so they can start absorbing flavor even before they start cooking.

This dish takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours in the oven at about 350º F. I usually cover my dish with foil to make sure they hold the vegetables hold their moisture and don’t dry out. When it’s done, grate some cheese on top and put it under the broiler for a minute or two. And voilà! A warm, delicious, nutritious dinner. I had this the other night with some cured meats on the side. Can’t wait to do this again.

Upside-down cake in a cast iron pan

by amy – September 1, 2015 in Cooking

It’s late in the afternoon and your loving partner writes to say that sadly, he was a little late to work and missed out on Monday cake at the office. He’s sad and dejected, and more importantly, cakeless. What do you do?

Kiwi & Pineapple Upside-down Cake

You bake him a cake.

But it’s late in the day, and you’re already planning to cook dinner for when he arrives, tired, hungry, and wet from biking home in the rain. You need a solution, and you need it fast. Something sweet and ridiculously easy.

I’ve made upside-down cake once before. It was the classic one with pineapple circles and maraschino cherries in the middle. (That recipe was quite different!) But this time I didn’t have any pineapple rounds. And now we’re down under in Kiwiland (New Zealand). We also just acquired a big bag of kiwi fruit at the farmer’s market on Sunday. What could be more appropriate than kiwi cake?

Upside-down cake is a snap. I’m gonna show you how I made it in my cast iron skillet. Since I came into possession of this beautiful 8-inch pan, thanks to the generosity of a previous tenant at my house, I realized I knew very little about what could be done with such a pan. I searched “cast iron recipes” and a whole bunch of tantalizing ideas popped up, making me eager to try every single one. And what do you know? You can cook cake in a cast iron pan. Perfect. I leapt into action.
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Eggs Benaddiction: An Ode and a Guide to Poached Eggs

by amy – August 26, 2015 in Cooking
poached eggs

A hearty lunch made with poached eggs on crusty white bread with cream cheese, spinach, tuna, and aged gouda – and a couple leaves of fresh coriander.

Ok, so what I’m about to share is not really about Eggs Benedict per se, as the title suggests. It’s about my utter adoration of poached eggs.

Quick, easy, versatile and delicious, the poached egg makes for a light-to-hearty breakfast or lunch with just one small pan to wash.

Sure, if you have time and eggs to spare, a hollandaise sauce completes the true Eggs Benedict. (It’s a dish I love to no end, and one I always order when I’m eating out for breakfast or brunch. I’ve never had a bad Eggs Benny. In my mind, the scale for Benny’s starts from Really Good and goes to Mindblowingly Amazing.) But you don’t need hollandaise to make a great poached egg. read more

The hammock and the olive tree

by amy – August 25, 2015 in Words

cup-and-plateAs I sit on the grass on my front lawn, enjoying a light lunch and a cup of black tea with milk, the sun hits me pleasantly in the face. And another thing hits me. How did I get so lucky?

I wasn’t just lucky today, or yesterday, or part of last year. I’ve been lucky since the day I was born. But what is luck, really? A newborn baby has no knowledge that allows it to put value on the things it has. And even when you’re grown up, to feel lucky is a personal perspective rather than an objective fact. So, what does it mean to feel lucky? Why do I feel lucky? For me, it’s a feeling of being rich in many things: in family, in love, in having a nice home to live in. And it’s about freedoms that I enjoy, that I try not to take for granted. I’m truly free to choose my own path. I’ve also learned from history that I’m lucky to have been born in a free, democratic society. read more