Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Vegetable soup

Our bodies are amazing at telling us what they need. When we need rest, we're tired. When we need water, we become thirsty. For nourishment, we become hungry, and so on.

Sometimes our bodies send us very specific signs in the form of cravings. For example, my body tells me that it needs coffee at precisely 9:45 am each day. It knows that I will only let it have one good cup of coffee per day and so it waits excitedly for mid-morning - so much so that my colleagues even set their morning routines by it. (It also tells me that it needs chocolate, cake and/or chocolate cake when 3:30-itis strikes each day and is rarely satisfied by the apple it is offered instead, but c'est la vie.)

But sometimes our bodies resort to extreme measures if we ignore its little signals along the way. For some reason, my body has decided that the lurgy that sidelined me a month ago is not quite finished yet and I probably need more rest than I thought, so it's thrown in a head cold to remind me who's boss. While working from home today, I suddenly had a craving for my ultimate comfort food: vegetable soup. This thick soup has always been my family's cure for winter lurgies or cold weekends. You can make it as thick as you like and with whatever ingredients you have available. It's highly nutritious and makes a huge amount so you can either feed an army, if you have one, or freeze it in small portions and reheat as required.

Vegetable soup

Chop up any or all combinations of whatever fresh vegetables you have on hand and add to a 5L pot of boiling water. I usually start with a pack of vegetable soup mix. Today I also added 1 cup of chicken stock.
  • 1 pack vegetable soup mix
  • 4-5 litres water
  • 1-2 onions
  • 2-3 carrots
  • 2-3 potatoes
  • stalks of 1/2 a celery
  • green leaves of 1/2 a silverbeet, shredded
  • 400 g can of lentils, drained (chickpeas or cannelini beans also work well)
  • handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 500 g orzo, risa or maccheroni pasta
There's really no method to the madness of this vegetable soup other than to put firmer vegetables (carrots, onions, celery) in the pot first and progressively add the softer ones (silverbeet, parsley) while it is boiling, then finish with the pasta.
  • Boil gently for about an hour or until vegetables are soft. Stir occasionally to prevent vegetables sticking to the bottom of the pot.
  • Add pasta about 5 minutes before serving and cook until al dente. (It will continue to cook in its own heat.)
  • Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese to serve.
  • Freeze leftover soup in meal or snack sized containers and defrost/reheat as required.
Vegetable soup

    Wednesday, 21 August 2013

    WOAP lunch: Vivant!

    I wrapped up my Wellington on a Plate campaign today with a two course lunch at Vivant! Restaurant & Bar in the Ibis Wellington Hotel on Featherston Street. My friend and I decided to share four different dishes from the $15 two course menu: an entree, two mains and a dessert. There is also a burger available.

    We shared garlic and pepper-marinated prawns on fresh green salad, drizzled with homemade lemon aioli as an entree. The prawns and aioli were highlights in what was otherwise a pretty standard salad.

    Green salad and prawns
    We decided to split our mains into two courses. We began with Parkvale mushroom and vegetable pasta tossed in creamy sundried tomato pesto sauce with grated parmesan. There was definitely enough here for two. In fact, the servings for all courses were substantial, which is great to see.

    Vegetarian pasta
    Our second main was a minute steak sandwich with grilled onion, cheese and salad on Cottage Lane ciabatta served with sweet Cajun chunky chips. The chips were very heavily seasoned and I'm not sure there is ever an excuse for plastic cheese, but I did enjoy the minute steak and the ciabatta was really good.

    Minute steak sandwich
    And, just when we didn't think we had room for any more food, it was time for dessert. We chose the warmed homemade chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream. The beautifully presented brownie and sauce were a lovely way to finish our shared meal.

    Mmmm, chocolate brownie

    Our warm welcome was followed up by friendly service. Being very busy in the restaurant, lunch took just over an hour, although this was probably because we split our meal over three courses. I was surprised that the hotel charges a 1.5% credit card surcharge so fished out some cash. Another satisfying meal that was good value.

    Monday, 19 August 2013

    WOAP lunch: Astoria

    Wellington on a Plate continues this week. Today's lunch was at Astoria, a bustling café in Midland Park on Lambton Quay. The $15 lunch menu has two courses. There is also a burger option available.

    Astoria is usually very full and I was wary about getting a table for six during a busy lunch hour, but was assured that we wouldn't need to book as their staff keep tables moving efficiently. I got there a few minutes earlier anyway and was really impressed with the service. Although the café wasn't so full today, staff quickly pushed two tables together and reserved them for our group while I waited for everybody outside. Fantastic!

    The two courses are served together on a large plate, with a mug of roasted pumpkin soup with Lot Eight olive oil and herb and parmesan croutons to begin with. As a huge pumpkin soup fan, I was keen to try this. The soup was steaming hot and I needed to let it cool awhile before eating it so I began with the burger instead and came back to the soup later. The croutons soaked into the soup, making it thicker and leaving a very sweet flavour. Lovely!

    The main course is Island Bay Butchery sloppy joes on a soft Astoria bap with housemade coleslaw and pickles. This was my first experience with sloppy joes and, given that I'm not the most coordinated burger eater in the best of times, I wasn't sure where to begin so did my usual hack job of deconstructing the burger and eating it bit by bit. This meant that I got to appreciate each of the individual ingredients. The housemade toasted bap was very good.

    Pumpkin soup and sloppy joes
    A great tasting lunch that's good value for money.

    Sunday, 18 August 2013

    Taste Street night market

    Wellington on a Plate doesn't let a few shakes spoil the show. We have just got back from the Taste Street night market in the Moore Wilson's car park. We already had some shopping to do and know that Moore Wilson's Fresh and Variety departments are hard to resist in the best of times. The event promised over 30 artisan food stalls, each with dishes costing less than $6. What's not to like?

    I was glad to find House of Dumplings in among the crowd and began with a selection of pan fried dumplings.

    Pork, chicken and beef dumplings with Mum's special sauce
    I managed to track down where the pizza I could see others eating came from. 58 Base Limited was making fresh thin crust pizza in little ovens and selling them by the slice, just like you buy in Italy.

    I bought some delicious French treats from French Cancan to have later - dark chocolate lava cake with raspberry coulis and an almond croissant. I also took away some galaktoboureko (Greek custard cake) from Elysian Foods and ate these at home where I finally got some peace and quiet.

    Fresh marghetira pizza
    French delights
    And then I conceded defeat.

    I really did want to enjoy this event, as I like to support local businesses who make quality, fresh food. But, to be honest, I found the organisation to be nothing short of shambolic. To start off with, the event is simply too big for the venue. The crowds were ridiculous. The surrounding streets were teeming with people all edging their way into the building well before the start time, which would seem great for business but was actually havoc, even for someone who enjoys a bit of chaos every now and then. It was all too much for my partner, who escaped to KFC. It appears he wasn't the only one; I heard people on my way out saying, "I didn't eat anything - let's go somewhere else" or, "It was too busy so I couldn't get any food."

    It seems like every stand was responsible for providing their own signage. That's fine, but they needed to be hung from the roof of the car park instead of propped up behind tables. There was no way of seeing what stand was hiding at the end of the seemingly endless queues until you'd shoved your way through the crowd to get close enough ... then it was back into the queue to order and wait for your food or just try and negotiate a path around the baby buggies and people trying to find a quiet spot to eat. Although there were tables in various places when people could stop and eat, they only added to the congestion.

    Sadly, I'd give this event a miss next year unless it was held at a bigger venue with better access and parking. The idea was good but a lot more planning is required to make it an enjoyable experience.

    Friday, 16 August 2013

    We all scream for ice cream

    Wellington is currently experiencing a phenomenon known as sprinter, that time between seasons when the weather doesn't quite know if it's spring or winter or perhaps something else completely. But no matter what time of the year, Wellingtonions love their ice cream, gelato and sorbet. Ruth Pretty knows this and has bravely set up a pop-up ice cream stand for Wellington on a Plate. Winter? Not around here.

    $5 gets you a double scoop of ice cream or sorbet goodness. Today's flavours were Vanilla Bean, Whittakers 70% Dark Chocolate, Raspberry, Kahlua Cappuccino, Roasted Pineapple and Kaffir Lime, Chunky Ginger, Passionfruit Sorbet ... what a list! We circulated it around the office and ended the week with an ice cream lunch.

    My kind of menu
    I chose a scoop each of dark chocolate and raspberry on a waffle cone. The raspberry flavour was creamy and subtle but the really good stuff started when I got to the Whittaker's dark chocolate layer - a lovely, rich flavour that lingered well after I'd finished.

    Spoiled for choice
    It's great to see Ruth and her team in town. I'm too shy to take a selfie of my ice cream experience, even with prizes up for grabs, so Ruth agreed to pose for me instead.

    Chocolate and raspberry ice cream in a waffle cone
    The pop-up ice cream stand is in Midland Park on selected days during Wellington on a Plate and I hope they come back for summer. Check the event page for each day's flavours.

    Thursday, 15 August 2013

    WOAP lunch: Fork & Brewer

    Another day, another wonderful Wellington on a Plate lunch. Today, a group from work went to Fork & Brewer on Bond Street. The Fork's bar is a gigantic keg with awesome tap handles all around the edges. The place has had a makeover recently and the restaurant section revamped.

    The $25 two course set menu is accompanied by a house beer brewed on site and the options for each course makes it really hard to choose. An entree and a main? A main and a dessert? An entree and a dessert? Our group had various combinations of each while some went with the Burger Wellington option. I settled on a main and dessert with a glass of bronze medal award winning Storm Chaser, a deliciously smooth, dark wheat beer.

    The penne pasta tossed with Randwick bacon, leeks and Wairarapa olives, topped with (a teeny tiny bit of) Kapiti parmesan cheese made for a good main with flavours that went well together.

    Pasta topped with bacon, leeks and olives
    I finished lunch in the best possible way with the Whittaker's bitter chocolate and stout pot with chocolate shavings and Chantilly cream. Oh so smooth and creamy rich, it went well with the last of my beer. *contented sigh*

    Heaven in a cup
    A long, leisurely lunch resulted in a slightly less-than-productive afternoon for our group but a very happy office. :-)

    Wednesday, 14 August 2013

    "Your computer has a virus"

    We don't often get calls on our land line so it's usually pretty easy to guess who might be calling at certain times in the evening. The usual suspects are Sky TV (for the last time, eff off!) or yet another government insulation scheme. If they are unfortunate enough to get me on the phone, they'll either get a swift yet rude response or an instant hang-up. Actually, it's more likely to be one followed by the other. However, sometimes there are also callers from India who utter five heavily-accented infamous words: "your computer has a virus".

    Really? How thoughtful of you to call from the other side of the world to let us know! I'm sure you know how the next part of the conversation goes. These are the kinds of phone calls that inspire floods of "oh, I should have said ..." thoughts in the following hours. But enough of them have happened during the last couple of years to enable us to sharpen our wit and be quicker off the mark with some of our remarks. My partner is getting quite good at it. It's almost become a game among people I know: can you get the scammer to hang up on you, instead of the other way around? How did you do it? How long did you keep them on the phone for? And so on.

    Last night was a bit different. I put it out to the Twitterverse to come up with some responses to the Indian woman who called and had the pleasure of being shafted by my partner. She hung up before the tweets came through, but there were some great ideas for next time along with a few that we already know to work. Here's a selection of them:
    • "I've just got a pot boiling. Hold on while I turn the stove off" ... then leave the phone off the hook and count the minutes until they eventually hang up.
    • "I'm a bit busy right now. What's your number so I can call you back?" This one usually results in an instant hang-up.
    • "But I don't have a computer." Repeat as many times necessary. We do this while playing around on our laptops and with both of our smartphones within reach. It seems to confuse them; they insist that it is a very dangerous virus, even though we explain that we don't have any computers in the house.
    • Ask them exactly how they are accessing your computer, what operating system you're using and what your IP address is so you can confirm which computer has the problem. (Thanks @UpsideBackwards!)
    • Explain that it's very hard to believe as you are in the police internet fraud office. (Awesome stuff from @beerlytweeting.)
    Last night's winning line came after my partner questioned the caller's ability to sleep at night knowing that she is intentionally scamming innocent people with her lies. She tried to restart the script, then he scored the touchdown by asking, "haven't you got any morals?" Click!

    This sort of thing isn't new, though. Humans have been scamming each other since civilisation began and we shouldn't fantasise that it was any different in the past. However, the intricacy of these scamming rings is alarmingly sophisticated. Talking to a banking fraud analyst recently, I learned that these schemes are actually very complex international operations. They work in much the same way as the infamous Nigerian 419 email scams. The scammers are part of syndicates who buy the contact details of people from all around the world and categorise everyone according to their proven levels of gullibility. If you have proven yourself as being gormless enough to fall for Stage 1, you get promoted to the next level and your name moves up the scale of people who can be easily scammed. You'll find yourself dealing with further tiers of scammers, whose English becomes progressively better in direct inverse proportion to their behaviour, all the way to the top of the pyramid. By this stage, you will find your bank balance substantially lighter and the threats coming thick and fast. It's an extremely nasty business.

    Do you play the hang-up game with virus hoax callers? What sort of fun do you have with them and what's your record time for keeping them on the phone before they hang up?

    Monday, 12 August 2013

    WOAP lunch: Thunderbird Cafe

    We had a yummy Wellington on a Plate lunch at Thunderbird Cafe today. Thunderbird is a quirky café in Featherston Street that is known for great coffee, cheese scones and its funky decor. Their WOAP set menu is good value at $25 and includes two courses and a beverage.

    I'm glad I had booked a table earlier in the day as the café was full to bursting when we arrived, which is always a good sign. I chose an entree and main combination along with a nicely chilled glass of Cottier sauvignon blanc 2011. I felt very grown up drinking wine at lunchtime!

    My first course was Tuatara beer-battered squid with lemon and housemade remoulade. I'm not sure which type of beer went into the mountain of batter but I was able to rescue some slices of squid from the outer layer and dip it in the homemade remoulade. Very nice.

    Beer battered squid and a glass of sav
    I chose the free range Wairarapa pulled-pork sandwich with shredded cabbage, potato salad and housemade citrus herb BBQ sauce for my main course. The pork was really good and the sandwich was filling. I've come to really like Maori purple potatoes (taewa) on the few occasions I've tried them and they were great in the potato salad.

    Pulled pork sandwich with shredded cabbage and purple potato salad
    I rolled back to the office after lunch feeling contented and very full. It's a shame siestas are not commonplace in New Zealand as this afternoon would have been the perfect occasion for one.

    Friday, 9 August 2013

    Pop-up chocolate factory

    Wellington on a Plate got off to a fine start today. It's a great time to be living and working in Wellington with so much going around us. Despite every effort, I missed out on the festival events I wanted to go to so decided to indulge in a feast of lunches and social get-togethers with friends and colleagues.

    We started today by visiting the pop-up chocolate factory at Queens Wharf. I think one of the reasons I like pop-up shops so much is my fondness of spontaneity. I was delighted to see George from Bohemien Chocolates hosting this pop-up chocolate factory. I really enjoyed his chocolate class last year and now really really resolve to try tempering chocolate at home like I said I would all those months ago.
    Mmmm, chocolate
    $5 gets you some latex gloves and a sexy hairnet so you can make your own truffles. The truffles start out as blocks of dark ganache for you to shape with your hands and then roll in chopped almonds, cocoa, coconut or hundreds and thousands. There's one to guzzle on the spot and two to take away in a cellophane bag and make your colleagues jealous when you walk back into the office.
    Make your own truffles
    ... and the 'secret' ingredient in the ganache is delicious Heilala vanilla paste. Believe me, that stuff is magic!
    Chocolate treats for afternoon tea
    The pop-up chocolate factory is around for a week or so. Check out the event page for dates and times. It's a fun way to spend your lunch break.

    Thursday, 8 August 2013

    Planning to be spontaneous

    Like most people I know, I'm a busy person. Gosh, how society loves busyness! Ask someone (anyone) you haven't seen for a while what they've been up to and they'll busily explain how busy they've been, how busy they are right now and how busy they're going to be for the next wee while ... yes, it's reassuring to proclaim how busy we are. It's also a convenient, upfront blanket excuse for getting out of things we're not sure we want to do.

    Admittedly, my social calendar alternates between feast or famine. However, even during my busiest times I love getting random text messages saying "Coffee in an hour?" or "I'm in town today. How about lunch?" Absolutely! Spontaneous events are sometimes the most fun as they also feature the bonus element of surprise. (Yes, I know all about logistics and prior commitments.) I have a friend who is desperate to do spontaneous, fun things ... but only if she's planned and prepared for it first with plenty of notice. Hmmm. It doesn't quite work that way. (I think she secretly understands this.)

    Yesterday, a colleague casually invited a few of us in the office to her place for lunch and a mini-housewarming. We'd briefly mentioned the idea before she moved and agreed to wait until she felt settled enough to host us. Word spread quickly and the numbers grew. And then Miss Self-proclaimed Party Girl Who Loves To Do Crazy Reckless Things At The Drop Of A Hat piped up with a litany of questions:
    • When is it? What day of the week is that? How many weeks away is it?
    • What time will it start and finish?
    • What do you mean by 'lunch'? Do you mean lunch or just nibbles?
    • How much food will there be? What sort of food is it?
    • What is everybody bringing? How will we know what everyone else is bringing? Should we all write what we are bringing on a big list just in case someone else brings the same thing and we have too much?
    • Who else is invited? How many people will be there? Who is allowed to come? Can people come later if they can't make it at the start?
    • What will we do once we're there?
    ... all within 30 seconds. Sure, they're all valid questions and there is definitely a time and place to sort out details, but we were taken aback with how quickly she could fire them at us and needed to know the answers right now. Whew!

    We told her to take a leaf out of Nike's book and just do it. Yes, I know that campaign's not all it was cracked up to be - but just think about it for a while, ponder all the facts and then make a measured decision when you are ready doesn't quite have the same ring to it when we're suggesting a casual lunch six weeks away. We assured her we'd get it all sorted before the day but, in the meantime, she should just put it in her calendar. We all had a good-natured laugh and she backed down a little, but I'm not entirely sure she's convinced.

    Do you love or loathe spontaneity? How would you react if your best friend called you right now and said, "I'm in town for just one night - let's have dinner"?