Prego: Cuisine – Villa Maria Restaurant of the Year Competition

In the evening there is parking next door, but on a rainy lunchtime we arrived like drowned rats :(

226 Ponsonby Rd,
ph: 09-376 3095,
Lunch and dinner 7 days $65

Entrée Crispy skin pork belly  & pistachio nut roulade on  peppered beetroot & spinach with peach aïoli with Villa  Maria Single Vineyard Omahu Gravels Viognier 2007
Main Pan-roasted duck breast, vanilla mashed yams, sautéed cavalo nero, tamarillo compote  & black fig molasses, with Villa Maria Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2005

This was a brilliant matching of food and wine, with the viognier strong enough to partner the heavier than usual starter. (Why do Kiwis call starters Entrées when in France, USA and the UK this word refers to the main meat course? Isn’t it time we either grew up and said “Starter” or learned to use the foreign term more or less correctly?) The superb Syrah also complemented the duck well. In neither case did either the food or the wine overpower the other.

The service was also excellent, when we arrived in a windy downpour staff explained that the vacant table might suffer a draft and explained our choices. The young woman who served our table was attentive (even spotting a grimace from Barbara and checking that the problem was not with the meal) and seemed enthusiastic about the food. Service was prompt (apart from the inevitable wait at the start, late on a busy lunchtime), efficient and not obtrusive.

The starter was interesting, though I would have liked the pistachio to be more evident, and think the pork skin should have been crisp (as indeed the menu suggests) even when served round shredded meat. Despite those quibbles this dish was interesting, and a fine match for the deep and interesting wine.

The main was a delight. The vanilla yams and the fruity juices complemented the duck as well as being interesting in their own right. The wine again worked with the food rather than one or the other “winning” :)

Food: Very good
Wine matching: Excellent
Service: Excellent

We can’t wait to try the next one!

Food to nourish the soul as well as feast the belly

Veges (photo by Noël Zia Lee)

In a comment Larry pointed to the site with Paul McCartney’s impassioned video advocating a Vegan lifestyle to avoid cruelty to animals. While I respect the desires of Larry and Paul to avoid hurting fellow creatures, and to some extent share it, I am speciesist. I can see no reason to accord the same protection and care to other species that we do to our own. “Don’t eat a fish, fish have (some small measure of) personality” does not work for me, sorry! And showing selected clips of the worst atrocities of the US meat industry did not convince me either.

So I then flipped to the recipes, that’s surely where I can use some help. And got a shock, under the heading Breakfast the top recipes offered a collection of dodgy meat substitutes making wannabe carnivore dishes like ‘Eggs’ Benedict; ‘Bacon,’ Potato, and Green Onion Frittata; ‘Chicken’ With Artichokes and Olives; ‘Eggnog’ Pancakes. The first is described as:

Baked tofu, eggless hollandaise sauce, veggie bacon, and fresh tomatoes top a toasted English muffin for a delicious vegan version of a French classic.

The only thing that’s real here are the tomatoes and the muffin. The rest is faux meat. The thought that the best “Vegetarian” can offer is a collection of wannabe carnivore dishes is a real turn off. I want real, tasty, nourishing food, food to nourish the soul as well as feast the belly! And “tofu, eggless hollandaise sauce, veggie bacon” ain’t it :(

Maybe if you are a vegan, or the friend of a vegan, who has a recipe that fits the requirements below you would like to enter it in my vegan recipe competition and help me out?

Repentant carnivores? or Is it Christian to eat meat?

Stuffed tomatoes by hlkljgk

I’m increasingly concerned about the issue of meat-eating among Western Christians. The statistics seem quite clear, on a globe with limited resources, producing a meat diet takes far more of those limited resources than producing a Vegetarian diet, and the difference for Vegan meals are even more pronounced.

A person following a low-fat vegetarian diet, for example, will need less than half (0.44) an acre per person per year to produce their food,” said Christian Peters, M.S. ’02, Ph.D. ’07, a Cornell postdoctoral associate in crop and soil sciences and lead author of the research. “A high-fat diet with a lot of meat, on the other hand, needs 2.11 acres.”

It is as simple as that, the globe cannot sustain the carnivorous lifestyle we Westerners take for granted. No understanding of Christianity that I can recognise can accept that my diet choice and eating pleasure causes others to starve.

Now, at this point I need to clarify a few things:

  • When I talk about unrepentant carnivores I do not mean merely people who sometimes eat meat, by carnivore I mean people who eat meat more than 7 times a week on average. (But yes, some ham or meat paste, or tuna in a sandwich at lunch does count!)
  • By Repentant Carnivore I mean someone who recognises that the carnivorous lifestyle of most Westerners is sinful and who is seeking to change.
  • I am not a Vegetarian – I eat meat of all kinds (almost, horse is a delicacy, rat is pretty tasty, croc delicious, but I’m not over fond of tripe ;)

But Jesus ate meat! Of course he did, and fish. Peter was a fisherman, and Jesus apparently a better one, though he may have had supernatural help ;) But Jesus, Peter and even most relatively affluent people in the Ancient world did not eat meat more than once a day, most of them only ate meat and fish on high-days and holidays, or when someone in the whanau (approximately extended family) or village had killed a beast.

Even though a moderate-fat plant-based diet with a little meat and dairy (red footprint) uses more land than the all-vegetarian diet (far left footprint), it feeds more people (is more efficient) because it uses more pasture land, which is widely available. (Credit: Illustration by Steve Rokitka/University Communications)

That sort of diet (occasional meat eating) is not unsustainable, it makes good use of land that is good for pasture but less good for crops and may have lower demands on scarce resources than Vegetarian or Vegan ones do (see Diet With A Little Meat Uses Less Land Than Many Vegetarian Diets from which the quote above and the graphic are taken).


Western Christians must become “Repentant Carnivores”, we should reduce our meat (including fish, fowl and even eggs and dairy – for Vegetarians are merely wolves in sheep’s clothing, semi-carnivores) considerably.

Having lived the carnivourous lifestyle for years, with four children who (apart for Nathan for a couple of teenage years) demand meat, and complain when fed beans, I’ve regularly cooked the carnivorous way. I now, the children having left home (except Sarah who can I guess cook the meaty meals ;) am free to repent, and plan over the coming months to work towards a low meat mixed diet, with only a meal or two per day (on average) using meat, fish, fowl, cheese or eggs.

Sage advice

Sage is a great flavour for winter, last week I cooked a chicken for visitors down in Tauranga, and despite using a nice barn raised chook all the comments were on the stuffing. If you suffered from packeted dried “Sage and Onion Stuffing” as a child, forget it. Packet stuffing is like dried parsley, or instant coffee, not worth the time they save!

Stuffing is easy:

  • some bread cut into small chunks (or wapped briefly in a processor, but don’t make it breadcrumbs, they’re too fine)
  • zest of a lemon or two (add the juice later if it seems dry)
  • an egg
  • a handful of fresh sage leaves chopped into peices
  • a handful of bacon also chopped
  • salt and pepper

Mix together, if the egg is not quite enough to bind it all together then add lemon juice or another egg. Stuff the bird and roast.

That meant I had sage left over, and those little pots never really grow for me, and the NZ Herald had a delicious looking recipe for Pumpkin, Sage and Blue Cheese Fritters. We also had an unused butternut, and I love blue cheese :) So since I have sent “‘Exile away from his land’: Is landlessness the ultimate punishment in Amos?” off for what I hope is the final time, “The book of Amos and the Day of YHWH” to a colleague for criticism, and am getting on well with “Degrees of Presence” I celebrated by trying the recipe.

It too is simple:

  • grated butternut (I used a cup or so)
  • small red onion (also grated – yes, I grate them together in the food processor, do you think I like skinned knuckles?)
  • blue cheese crumbled – not much (unless like me you are a fiend for blue cheese ;)
  • a few Tbsp Rice Flour
  • a little baking powder (I used 1/2 tsp)
  • handful of chopped sage leaves
  • egg white (the yolk will make mayo or something later)

Mix them all up and fry :)

Easy as, and delicious.

No pictures because the kitchen gremlin seems to have put soya flour (or something) into the jar marked Rice Flour, and the recipe really needs the rice flour to make it crisp! So mine was a delicious fried mash instead of fritters, so no photo this time :(

Roast fennel and potato with safron

Lunch :) aka roast fennel and potato with safron

It’s autumn :) I got some lovely big juicy and cheap organic fennel bulbs the other day at Green Rebel (now Fresh) on Dominion Rd. They are big and juicy, but perhaps have been left to get a bit overgrown, so may be tough. This recipe is ideal, the stock provides steam to soften them a little, while getting the potatoes beautifully crisp.

  • Potatoes (I used about 8 small ones for a two person portion) cut and boiled for 6-10 mins
  • Onions (I used six small red ones) peeled and cut in half or quarters
  • Fennel Bulb (I used one huge organic one, I guess two or three supermarket midgets) cut
  • Stock half a cup (for this 2 portion size) with saffron soaking in it while the veges are getting cut, 1 Tbsp balsamic and a tsp or two of sugar
  • garlic 1/2 a head chopped
  • teaspoon each fennel seeds crushed and paprika
  • bay leaves, several, and thyme several sprigs (if you MUST you can probably used dried but surely you have a few thyme plants in a pot somewhere, no one but you will see they look straggly at this season because they’ll char away, just leaving that lovely aroma, the burnt bay leaves should be removed by hand before serving ;)
  • Olive oil 2-3 Tbsp

Spread the autumnal bounty (dry ingredients) around a baking tray, pour on the stock and oil, place in oven at 190C (about 375F for Americans and anyone stuck in a time warp). Turn over with a slice every ten minutes or so till beautifully golden and burnt. Eat straight from the oven, with seasoning. Forget you intended to keep half for this evening and wish you’d done double quantity :)

PS: if you follow the chef’s advice (my son Nathan) and keep your vege peelings to make stock this recipe is even Vegan as well as delicious :) I confess to having used some bones from a dead chicken to make my stock – I must get better organised ;)

Auckland Aero Club Cafe, Ardmore

There are lots of interesting things to watch at the Areo Club Cafe

When we went out to Ardmore on Thursday for me to enjoy my 30 minutes at the controls of a small trainer, we had a light lunch at the Cafe there.

The view from the Aero Club is great, not great scenery, but the people getting into their aricraft, doing the checks, then taxiing away to take off, or the reverse. Across the airfield fromk time to time there will be someone practicing flying a small helicopter in a straight line following a taxiway… In short there’s always something different to watch.

The coffee was not bad, not the very best, but average to good compared to cafes in our part of Auckland. Service was friendly and quick, even though the cafe was a busy place, nearly as busy as the aero club office next door ;)

The food menu was unadventurous, but also workmanlike. Barbara’s corn fritters were tasty but almost too corny and unusually came with the bacon cut up and mixed into the mixture.

Executive summary: come for the view, not the food, but worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood and want a cup of coffee or a light meal.

Burmese noodle salad

Burmese noodle salad

Fresh, rich and delicious Burmese noodle salad Photo from Borderline

We’ve been eating less meat, since the kids are leaving home (they are all confirmed and voracious carnivores ;-) among the recipes I’ve found useful is this warm Noodle Salad from Burma. We watched it being prepared at Borderline in Mae Sot when we did a cookery course there. I wish I had taken a photo of the meal since their version looked a lot more appetising than the one I prepared over the weekend – in a hurry as we were reorganising the kitchen all afternoon :(


  • wheat noodles (ideally from your local Asian store, not rice noodles, but almost Tagliatelle – which you could probably use if stuck, though it is not the same) enough for the number you are feeding I’ll give quantities for 4 as a main.
  • vegetables (ideally gourd, but corgettes work quite well and carrot is OK…)
  • cabbage 1-2 handsfull
  • spring onions a few
  • beansprouts 1.5 cups
  • hard tofu one block (depending on size)
  • corriander 4-5 plants
  • red onions 2 small
  • yellow bean powder 0.5-1 teacup (a mix of 50/50 soya powder and ground up peanuts works fine)
  • rice flour 5 tsp
  • chilli powder 1-2tsp
  • turmeric 1tsp
  • garlic 4-5 cloves (or if you can find it packeted crispy fried garlic)
  • oil for deep frying (in a wok is traditional) use 1/2 teacup of this later for the spices
Below my clumsy hurried thick cut version,
above Borderline’s delicate Burmese version!

Mix rice flour with water to make a creamy paste (if you use courgettes you should add extra rice flour to make the cream thick as courgettes are watery and risk going soggy not crisp in the salad).

Slice the cabbage, spring onions thinly, slice the onions and garlic even thinner (keep the garlic separate), and chop the coriander (roughly as you want some whole or nearly whole leaves as well as some cut finer.

Cut the vegetable into small (finger size) pieces. Cut the tofu similarly. Coat in the rice flour cream and fry till crisp and golden.

Mix the chilli, garlic and turmeric and pour over 1/2 cup of hot oil (the mixture will fizz up and the spices will cook to perfection) to make a dressing.

Dry fry the bean powder till it darkens, do not burn it!

Cook the noodles and drain, washing in cold water so they stick less.

Assemble by mixing the noodles, dressing, bean powder and salad, use the gourd (carrot or courgette) and tofu to decorate. Eat ideally while still warm.

Cafe Review: Riverhaven Cafe, Huntley

River Haven Cafe is on SH1 entering Huntley from the N

The Riverhaven Cafe is set between State Highway One and the Waikato River, on the long straight as one enters Huntley from the north, where the road runs between the railway and the river. For many years it has offered restaurant and shopping facilities to tourists and coach parties.

The cafe sits behind the shop, so benefiting from views across the river to the power station, which is much more attractive than it sounds (see photo, right :) The cafe offers decent coffee. The food is unusually cheap and the portions are also generous. The quality overall seems somewhere between what one expects from a cafe and from a coach stop. It provides excellent value.

The coffee was fine, good but not excellent. We both had corn fritters, which (as seems often the case) would have been tastier with more corn and less batter, and could have benefited from more seasoning. The bacon was delicious and there was plenty of it :) It was also pleasant to have a small salad beside the fritters and bacon. A sharp salsa might have been a more interesting topping than the sour cream, though this also worked nicely.

View from the River Haven Cafe

Our neighbours were somewhat put out that the dishes from the coach party, which was still leaving as we arrived, had not been cleared quicker from  the prime tables by the windows. My take is that (if you avoid coach parties) the service is good. Their helping of scrambled eggs was huge, and we all enjoyed the views.

Coffee: Fine.
Food: Fine, excellent value.

Deliciously savoury baked couscous

Another recipe from the past I do not want to lose.

Baked couscous

Baked couscous with tomatoes

When we got back from the weekend (seminars and preaching) in New Plymouth, I found an interesting recipe in the NZ Herald‘s Saturday colour supplement. It does not appear to be online, so I can’t link to it, so I’ll give you my variant (as tested last night and tonight – it was so good, all those intense flavours!) here.

This recipe is easy, quick, tasty and unusual. As Donna Hay says it captures “those strong flavours synonymous with roasts… in half the time”.

Heat the oven I suggest about 170oC fanbake, or a bit more conventional – Donna recommended 200oC but I think that starts the tomatoes too fast – cut about three or four tomatoes per person in half, put them on a baking tray with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and a small handful of herbs (Donna says thyme, but it is not the thyme season round here – so how come a recipe for thyme was in last week’s Herald? Go figure! I used marjoram and it tasted good last night, today I found thyme in the vegie shop, so maybe our thyme dying is just bad herbiculture). When the oven is hot put them in for 12-15 minutes – they should be starting to loose shape and concentrate the flavour as the water evaporates.

Turn the oven up to 225oC (perhaps more if conventional). Prepare the couscous equal parts hot chicken stock and couscous, enough for the number of people for a meal one cup does two, for one course one cup might serve 3-4 people. and pour over the tomatoes. Back in the oven for 10 mins. Donna says cover, I preferred to soak the couscous first and then half cover so the higher heat could begin to make nice dark baked bits.

Meanwhile whizz some more oil, lemon juice to taste, salt and pepper and mix in pinenuts (if you have no pinenuts cashews work well, but put them in to whizz and get partly chopped – I’ve tried both, pinenuts are best but cashews are good too). Mix this dressing with a handfull or two of baby spinach leaves per person and plenty of grated parmesan. (Yes, this time you need the fresh stuff the tubes of dry grains will NOT do!) Pour this over the hot tomato couscous mix in the oven tray to wilt the spinach before serving. It goes down a treat on its own, or with chicken. To save bother if you are using chicken I suggest cutting small and putting into the oven about half way through cooking the tomatoes the first time.

Ingredients (per person as a main):

  • Tomatoes: Roma or other acid free – 3-4
  • Pinenuts – 1/3-1/2 cup for 2-4 people
  • Baby spinach leaves – 1-2 handfulls
  • Couscous – 1/2 a cup
  • Chicken stock – 1/2 cup
  • Lemon juice – tablespoon
  • Parmesan cheese grated – 1/3 cup or so
  • Olive oil, salt and pepper

For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, suffering summer, you need not wait till winter to try this – though it is worth waiting for, I promise – Donna says it can be eaten cold as a salad. Tonight I deliberately made enough, so tomorrow I’ll let you know if she is right. Or I will if the sun shines brightly again like today ;-)

I didn’t wait for the sun to shine, I stoked up the fire, and imagined it. There is no one else at home they are at conferences or skiing or soaking in the hot pools at Rotorua, so my consolation prize was starting the day my way: salmon and the Baked Couscous and Tomato as a salad. It was delicious, so you deprived summery types need not wait, add a delicious unusual new salad to your repertoire!

Gravlax (home-cured salmon)

Another reposted recipe

Gravlax on a plate

Photo from Kent Wang.

One recipe that has been a favourite in our family for ages is Gravlax. I know the name (unless you are in the know) sounds disgusting – which is why I put “home cured salmon” in the title ;-) But gravlax is delicious, a Scandinavian treat. And easy as.

Just take a piece of fresh salmon (or – if you are worried about parasites in uncooked fish – of commercially frozen salmon, the details of why are explained in the Cooking for Engineers article on Gravlax) make sure you remove ALL the little bones.

Gravlax (Photo by Claudecf)

Gravlax (Photo by Claudecf)

Mix sugar, salt and dill (to taste, but about equal quantities sugar and salt, loads of dill if it is fresh or smaller quantity if dried – dried works surprisingly well).

Place the fish on a sheet of cooking paper, coat with plenty of the mix. Wrap, and refrigerate for 12 hours (24 is too long and 6 leaves you with almost sashimi).

Slice diagonally with a very sharp knife. Eat as you would cold smoked salmon – but much more as it is so cheap!