Not surprisingly, pulling up stakes and moving to the bottom of the world has presented some personal and culinary challenges. It was easy to be vegetarian in Virginia, as long as I remembered to take detours around the most tantalizing barbeque joints. Most restaurants had a variety of vegetarian options. The frozen food section in most grocery stores had extensive vegetarian sections, with a plethora of vegetarian meals and play-meats. And the rise of “foodie” culture meant, if you had the dosh, there were plenty of sources of fine and exotic produce and vegetarian staples either close to home or a few clicks away on the Internet.
New Zealand is more challenging. True, most restaurants here offer at least one vegetarian option, but that option almost always involves one of two alternatives: make lasagna, take out the meat and replace it with kumara (sweet potatoes), or make lasagna, take out the meat and replace it with pumpkin (the generic Southern Hemisphere term for the entire family of winter squash). If, as Simon and I both do, you dislike sweet potato and/or pumpkin (unless it’s in a pie, and then, only on Thanksgiving), you are out-of-luck. Our local paper once ran a piece about a shop in a nearby town that made the best kiwi pies in New Zealand (and that’s saying something). The next time I was passing through, I stopped to check it out. “Do you have vegetarian pies?”, I asked, hopefully. “Yes: savory kumara and coconut.” Three words that, as far as I’m concerned, have no business being in the same phrase. There are plenty of Indian and Asian restaurants. For the first few weeks we were here, while I was shell-shocked and drowning in my new job and Simon was busy arranging for us to buy a house, we lived off of Thai and Indian takeaways. New Zealand’s deservedly famous Hell’s Pizza has some quite good vegetarian pizzas, but week after week of eating the same couple of combinations got old.
What New Zealand has in abundance is farmers and, as a result, awesome farmers’ markets. [Oh, and vineyards, but we’ll get to that in future posts.] I am a regular at the year-round Saturday morning Riverbank Farmers’ Market in the Hutt Valley, where I can buy reasonably-priced, fresh fruits and vegetables, raw honey, free-range eggs, crunchy baguettes, manuka-smoked garlic salt, sheep milk feta, fresh Thai herbs, New Zealand olive oil, handmade extra-firm tofu, chewy Chinese noodles, lovely Stewart Island smoked salmon (yes, I know, salmon is not a vegetable: mea culpa) and used paperback books and one-dollar DVDs.
There are some up sides. In northern Virginia, if you are lucky, you can get fresh-picked local asparagus for about three weeks between the last frost and the first 90 degree day, when the stalks bolt and become inedible. The season for lovely, tender, if somewhat bent (it’s very windy here in the springtime) Levin asparagus lasts at least two months, sometimes longer. Ditto: strawberries. So, it is possible to be a confirmed locavore and ethically serve asparagus and strawberries for Christmas dinner.
On the other hand, okra is not really a thing here. Neither are collard greens, heirloom tomatoes, jalapeno or poblano peppers, fresh Asian mushrooms, white field corn, spaghetti squash, shelly beans, or turnips – what they call turnips here, I call rutabagas, and they don’t come with greens. One of New Zealand’s favorite vegetables is silverbeet, a sort of nuclear-mutant version of white chard. It is a lovely, slightly sweet green – flavor-wise, a cross between spinach and beetroot. It is lovely, but it isn’t chard. I haven’t seen durian here, either, but, to be honest I wasn’t looking.
So, what’s a Southern girl to do, adrift in the Antipodes without her collards? The answer: kale. Over the past two years, kale has emerged from oblivion at the Riverbank Farmers’ Market. And I buy it in abundance: Tuscan, Russian, blue, and good old-fashioned curly green. On the rare Saturday when the beetroots come with the greens attached, I go nuts.
I assumed no one paid any attention to how much kale I bought. Then, one Saturday, the smoked salmon lady asked me what I do with all those lovely greens. “Do you make smoothies? That seems to be what everyone else does with them.” Gasp! Why would I take a gorgeous bunch of lacinato kale, throw it in a juicer, and turn it into something that tastes like steeped compost? A seed of a new calling took root in my mind – I would spread greens enlightenment.
A few weeks after my conversation with the smoked salmon lady, I was at the Asian greens stall where I buy most of my kale when I overheard a conversation that went something like this:
Asian lady to Asian farmer: What is this?
Farmer to Asian lady: It’s kale.
Asian lady: How you cook?
Farmer: I don’t know. I think they make it into juice.
Maori gentleman: It’s an American thing. It’s real popular in the States.
His Pakeha (Caucasian) companion: Yeah. I hear Americans in the South really like their beans and greens.
Me: I resemble that remark! I’m an American, from the South, and I live for greens! Greens are my life!
Asian lady, Mrs. Maori, and Mrs. Pakeha: How you cook?
The Kale Whisperer was born.