Friday, June 23, 2017

Food for Thought

Well, you say I got no class
You know that can't be true
'Cause I got a taste for finer things
Ain't nothing finer than you
- Shane Clouse Finer Things

Frozen chocolate mousse - Mission Estate Winery

My grandmother used to say that I have champagne tastes and a beer pocket-book ... i.e. I wanted nicer things than I could afford. This naturally extended to the foods I liked to eat. When I moved away from home after high school, I didn't just move to another town, but to another country. I went from the suburbs of Toronto to Hawaii. Unlike most uni students, I couldn't just pop home for the weekend to do my laundry and enjoy some home cooking. And as a student, I couldn't afford to eat out. Of necessity, if I wanted good food, I had to learn to cook it myself.

I enjoyed cooking and found that over time I had become quite good at it. I would use recipes as a guideline rather than instructions. I could estimate volumes without measuring spoons, and I could read a recipe and know that I wanted to adjust it with a little more of this or a little less of that. I could "whip something up" out of almost nothing and what I put on a plate not only looked good, but tasted pretty good too. I had a window-ledge herb garden that was the source of endless jokes for my friends. I had become quite proud of my cooking ... until I met Kari. I don't think she was that much of a better cook than I was at the time, but she had a much broader culinary range and definitely enjoyed it more than I did. Over the years, she pretty much pushed me out of the kitchen and my skills have suffered from lack of use. Now I am less Chef or Sous-Chef, and more Kitchen Porter.

Kari's infamous tortilla soup

I haven't completely given up my man-card ... I'm still in charge of the grill.

We are fortunate to not have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We can pick what we want and splurge when we desire. We have also been fortunate to live in places with diverse influences and rich culinary traditions. From Texas to Washington DC, to Charleston SC, and brief forays to San Francisco and NYC, we have really stretched our boundaries. Even Iowa City, a small city with a big footprint, offered an amazing selection of food experiences. When we travel, we make a point of trying to stay in local areas and eat local foods.

Go on social media, or expat blogs, and people bash American food left and right. They complain of GMOs, unnaturally orange cheese, pale tasteless butter, and sugary everything. In New Zealand we have found our own culinary curiosities. Ever heard of Marmite? Along with Vegemite, the Australian version**, these might be two of the most foul food items in the world ... right up there with Surstromming. If an American tried to feed these to their kids, we would be hauled away by child protective services.

**If you want to start a fight, tell an Aussie or a Kiwi that there's no difference between the two.

Kiwis have a love affair with sauces. You generally get to choose three from a list of many, and they don't just put on a small dollop. Every wrap, sandwich, and burger is dripping with them. They even drizzle sauces on pizza. The horror! I asked one of my Kiwi junior doctors about this and his first comment was on the number of sauces in his refrigerator. He then tried to defend it, saying "we want food to taste good." Damning evidence on the state of Kiwi food if I have ever heard any.

Joking aside (sort of), we have had some absolutely amazing meals here. New Zealand is a small, in many ways isolated, island. The "more sheep than people" refrain is true. There are approximately 4.6 Million people in NZ, and 27.6 Million sheep (2016 numbers) down from a high of 70 Million in 1982. As you might imagine, lamb features prominently. New Zealand lamb is still pretty expensive here, though. Reportedly, it's cheaper to by NZ lamb in the US or the UK than it is here (I haven't found any data to back this up). Venison, both wild and farmed, also shows up on menus. Unlike in the U.S. where just about any fruit or vegetable can be found throughout the year at a reasonable cost, they are highly seasonal here.

For our personal use, we have been growing fruits and vegetables in our garden. We also visit the weekly and monthly farmer's markets.

Pickings from our garden

Local vegetable market

Palmerston North has been called "the most American city in New Zealand" (Link: Yank City?) and not in a favourable way. There are many reasons for this impression, not the least of which is the ubiquity of fast food chains. When we first visited NZ on holiday 4 years ago (Link: Around NZ 1, and Around NZ 2), we immediately noticed the lack of chain restaurants. Not just familiar chain restaurants, but chain restaurants in general. We didn't see a McD's, BK, or Subway until we had been here almost a week and then only in Wellington. In the US, they can be found at nearly every highway exit and in every small town. What we did find was a huge array of small, independently owned cafes. They serve an eclectic mix of coffees, pastries, sandwiches, and the occasional pizza. And, of course, wine!

Pop-op garage coffee shop - Tauranga

2ate7 - Our favourite road-side cafe in the Hawke's Bay

Zepplin Cafe Gallery - Clive

Our regular stop at Foxton Beach

Friday night pizza night at Bridge Cafe

New Zealand has also embraced the food truck culture. Here in Palmy during the summer, Thursday nights in the square are food-truck nights. The usual local players show up, but we have had trucks from the South Island and Waiheke Island. At every festival and concert we have been to, food trucks have been present. Some of our local food trucks will announce on social media that they will be in a particular location for a few hours and they almost always sell out (sadly often before we can get there).

Waiting for our Long Black and Flat White

Mobile wood-fired pizza

Food Truck Thursday in the Square

Spiral potato

Not all of our meals are taken on the run. We have had some fantastic sit-down meals, including High Tea for Little Highstead's Birthday. I was going to try to explain "High Tea" but couldn't quite come up with the words, so went online to get some ideas. It turns out that what most people call "High Tea" is actually "Full Tea" or "Afternoon Tea". High Tea is a hearty afternoon meal. Way too confusing for me, so check out this Link: Basics of High Tea if you are interested. Otherwise, just look at the pretty pictures.

Travelling to foodie cities, we always found that we couldn't eat at all the places we wanted to, so we started to do our own "progressive dinners". Before going, we scour the review sites looking for old favourites and new gems. Then we put together our plan of attack. We choose several restaurants and plan to spend the evening starting out with drinks and snacks at one place, appetizers at another, drinks and a small plate somewhere else, then onto a restaurant for mains or tapas, and finally drinks and dessert somewhere quiet. It's a full night of eating, drinking, and walking around the city. It allows us to try out a number of different restaurants. By walking and sharing plates, we don't get too full and it makes for a great date night.

Unfortunately, this is a grown-up experience so it only happens when we are out without Little Highstead. As such, we haven't yet been able to put it into action in NZ. Nevertheless, we have had a handful of truly fantastic foodie experiences here. Special occasion meals that have rivaled and sometimes surpassed some of our experiences in NYC, San Fran, Asheville, and Charleston. We were fortunate to be invited to dine with friends at per se in New York. It was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience and something I will always remember, but it's not something we would likely do again. Here in Wellington, we had a similar, though much more low key and approachable dinner at Logan Brown.

We also went to a whisky degustation dinner. Put on by our local Wine Trader, they paired some really interesting whisky choices with a one-off menu at one of our most celebrated local restaurants, Amayjen.

Logan Brown set menu - perfect for our anniversary dinner

Amayjen photos uploaded from the event website

We've found some pretty great restaurants whenever we have searched for one here. From Cucina in Oamaru to Nero here at home in Palmy, we really haven't had a bad experience. One of our favourite restaurants, and one we have gone back to several times, Trattoria alla Toscana in Napier, is not just one of the best restaurants we have been to in New Zealand, but it is one of the best Italian restaurants I have eaten at ... ever.

Deconstructed affogato - Cucina

Dinner at Nero with good friends.

Mussels - Trattoria alla Toscana

Perhaps not surprisingly, though, our favourite meals have been those we prepared at home. The best steaks come from our own smoker and Kari's cooking rivals any restaurant meal. Once we left Texas, we were in Tex-Mex limbo. I'm pretty lucky that Kari is one of the best Tex-Mex chefs I have met even in Texas, and outside of that state we haven't found a restaurant that compares. Before leaving the U.S., and now even more-so in NZ, she has been expanding her repertoire to include our favourite Middle-eastern and Indian dishes.

Home-made fresh snapper ceviche

Enchiladas verdes

Kari's skills aren't limited to food ...

I've barely touched on all the great food we've tried here. We have been amazed at the variety and the different approaches to familiar dishes. I think we will take away from this experience an appreciation for seasonal/local ingredients and the possibilities therein.

Stick a fork in me ...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Caution! Wide Load.

Every picture tells a story.
Every picture also has a story of its own.

Cellphone selfie.     Photo: K. Highstead

With the last post, I went through some of our favourite photos from the first half of our year in New Zealand (Link: Playing Favourites). Looking back at that list, it's amazing to me how much we have seen and done in such a short time. We made a point of stretching our schedule, and our budget, to experience as much as possible. Even with that impressive list, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities here. A big part of documenting our life in New Zealand has been this blog, but an even bigger part has been our photography.

Of the two of us, Kari has always been the more naturally talented photographer. I will see her stop to frame and shoot a photo and wonder to myself what the hell she is doing. Only afterward, with the image projected on-screen, do I see what she saw. It was for Kari (mostly) that we bought ever better camera equipment. Despite this, Kari seems to always turn to the camera that is most familiar, her cellphone. She does like to use the DSLR on occasion, but still regularly pulls out her phone ... even when the DSLR is dangling around her neck.

To compensate for my lack of artistic vision, I became a technician. I devoured online photography advice, read blogs, and practiced. I slowly graduated from using the DSLR like a point-and-shoot in full auto mode, to controlling shutter speed or aperture and letting the computer do the rest, to now controlling every aspect of composition and exposure. Along the way, I went from being a strict technician to finding a glimmer of artistic talent. I still copy and mimic what I have seen others do, but I am also starting to become a little more creative on my own.

When we first started, we were using a single zoom lens that covered 28-300mm focal lengths. It's an entry level lens, good for most uses, but doesn't have a great depth of field, doesn't have great glass, and has a relatively slow auto-focus. Even with those limitations, it's far better than any camera/lens combo we previously owned. It suited our needs and we didn't know any better. Eventually, we started looking at picking up another lens, but we weren't sure what to get. Kari likes to do a lot of macro work, so a dedicated macro lens was in the running. Bird life here is amazing, and I was interested in picking up a dedicated telephoto lens in my elusive quest for bird-in-flight photos. I'm not exactly sure why, but in the end we decided on a wide-angle zoom, covering 16-35mm. We bought a (used) professional level lens, and the difference in the glass quality and speed is night and day. I'm already trying to plot a way to replace our other lens!

Shooting in wide-angle has been a completely new experience for me. I'm generally a background and sideline guy, but to use this lens you need to get up close and personal. It turned out to be a great lens for indoor use and street photography, environments where you can't just back away. After a little practice, I'm getting a lot more bold in what I am willing to try. The photos presented here are a mix of 28-300mm and 16-35mm. They represent my favourite photos, whether because of their technique or their subject matter. A few of them are included because of what I learned in the process.

House of Angels

This was one of my first true wide-angle photographs. I had just received the new lens the day before and had played around with it a little, but on arriving in Christchurch I put it to use in earnest. Christchurch was rocked by two significant earthquakes within 8 months of each other in 2010/2011 (Link: Moving Pictures and Signals). ChristChurch Cathedral sits abandoned and derelict, mired in a legal battle over the interests of demolition versus preservation. To get this shot, I had to poke the camera through a section of fence guarded by a police barrier. As I was doing so, a man came up to me and said "People complain about all the pigeons in there, but I like to think of them as angels."

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 24mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO 64     Photo: G. Highstead

Conjunction Junction

Sometimes pictures almost seem to take themselves. We had been wandering around Christchurch with a bit of a time crunch. As we were making our way back to the car, I looked behind me and saw this mural near Cathedral Junction. It was perfectly framed by the narrow street and overhanging streetcar power lines. I had to wait for a break in traffic and sit down in the middle of the street to get this one. I thought Kari and Little Highstead stood by to make sure I didn't get run over in the process, but when I got up and looked around, they were off buying donuts.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 35mm, f/4, 1/200, ISO 64     Photo: G. Highstead

Wild Hawgs

I am a bit of an anomaly ... an Emergency Medicine Physician who loves to ride motorcycles. I certainly recognize the inherent danger (they're not called "Donor-cycles" by ED docs for no reason), but I love to ride despite the danger, not because of it. Living here in New Zealand, I haven't had my bikes to ride, and I miss it. I prefer the custom/cruiser style bikes. I especially like the older style of cruisers. Indian Motorcycles has done a great job of bringing that retro look into the modern age. When I saw this row of bikes, Indian in front, I saw the opportunity to blend two of my passions. This photo is a Triumph for me in another way ... I knew that the wide-angle lens would exaggerate dimensions in the foreground and was eager to make that effect work to my advantage.

My biggest disappointment with this photo is that the front wheel and fender are in a bit of shadow. I wish I had thought about using the flash. Apparently, it can also be fixed in post-processing, but with my iPad I am limited to using JPEG files and I don't have PhotoShop or Lightroom.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 17mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO 64     Photo: G. Highstead


Our crib (slang for vacation home on the South Island) in Akaroa was perched on a cliff edge and had an unbeatable view of the sound. Each morning, we would sip coffee while watching the sun come up and the sound awaken. Each evening, we would drink wine and watch the constellations fall behind the surrounding hills. When we first arrived, I set about continuing to see what I could achieve with the wide-angle lens. I had quite a bit of difficulty getting my toes out of the way when shooting the wooden spiral staircase. The second photo benefited from the keen eye and cropping of a good friend. The final product was my own, but Paul's vision led the way.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 22mm, f/11, 1/2, ISO 3200     Photo: G. Highstead

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 17mm, f/20, 1/10, ISO 125     Photo: G. Highstead

Little Highstead

In general, LH doesn't like to have her picture taken, and I try to understand and respect that. Like any 11 yo, she is fickle. She definitely does want her picture taken if she strikes a pose. The poses come in two varieties ... hand-stands and utthita hasta padangusthasana. On beaches, lawns, and even cliff edges, she will throw herself into a pose and ask that her picture be taken a dozen or more times until she gets it right. Our photo files are riddled with these pictures. Below are two of my favourites. The third photo she absolutely hates ... and I absolutely love.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 16mm, f/8, 1/125, ISO 200     Photo: G. Highstead

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 48mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO 64     Photo: G. Highstead

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 16mm, f/6.3, 1/80, ISO 64     Photo: G. Highstead

Why The Long Face?

I had seen a photograph somewhere of a New York mounted police officer. The picture was taken with a wide angle lens and the horse's lips practically protruded from the photo. The flared nostrils looked like giant cosmic black holes. The entire picture was distorted by the extreme wide angle and close proximity of the photographer. We had seen a couple of horses along the roadway in Onuku and while I knew I could never recreate the other photo, I did see the opportunity to attempt a variation on the theme. The horse wasn't too happy with me right up close, so I had to get in, get the shot, and get out.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 16mm, f/8, 1/8, ISO 110     Photo: G. Highstead

Great Expectations

The next photos fall into the category of "Way better than I ever hoped or expected". We had been walking around the marai and beach in Onuku, poking around and trying not to be disrespectful. It was a quiet little corner with barely a sound and only wisps of smoke rising from the pipes atop the houses. I was fascinated by the combination of old and new at the marai. There were traditional pou whenua and carvings at the marai with a modern meeting hall and banquet facility directly attached. I shot a few frames with the setting sun, then turned my attention to the beach. The photo with LH sitting on a rock was technically challenging. I hand-held the camera with the shutter open for 2 seconds after telling LH not to move. The result is almost ethereal. It would have benefited from an ND filter, but in another rookie mistake, I didn't have my filters with me.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 16mm, f/20, 1/6, ISO 125     Photo: G. Highstead

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 26mm, f/22, 2/1, ISO 64     Photo: G. Highstead

Runaway Train

Our trip across the Southern Alps on-board the TranzAlpine scenic railway was everything we had hoped it would be. We travelled late in the season, so while the train wasn't completely empty, it wasn't stuffed to the gills either. The outdoor viewing car was a little bit crowded for the first half of the outward journey, but the cold drove most of the crowd back into the enclosed cars. Our return trip from Greymouth was almost empty. It was quite difficult shooting pictures from a jostling train car travelling +100 kph, made doubly so by the smoke and exhaust blowing our way. I did manage to shoot a few frames worth keeping. The photo with the hydro pole flying by turned out exactly how I envisioned it, but I won't reveal how many continuous frames I had to shoot to score just one keeper.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 16mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO 2000     Photo: G. Highstead

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 56mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 360     Photo: G. Highstead

Still Life

I have previously mentioned that I do not have a tripod, so all of my photos are shot hand-held (Link: Playing Favourites). That's a little bit of a white lie. I do hand-hold for the vast majority of shots, but I'm not a robot and I can't hold completely still for more than a couple of seconds. For longer exposures, I generally rest the camera on a fence post, a rock, or even a pillow. That's exactly how I captured this photo of the constellation Orion. I rested the camera on a pillow, set the delay timer for the shutter, hit the release, and walked away. For the night-time shot of our house, I did hand-hold the camera but steadied it on a fence post.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 22mm, f/4, 15/1, ISO 2000     Photo: G. Highstead

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 28mm, f/8, 13/1, ISO 100     Photo: G. Highstead

First in Flight

I have worked relentlessly at obtaining in-flight photos of birds. It is incredibly difficult. I am somewhat limited by equipment ... a maximum 300 mm focal length is not ideal. I can't really blame the equipment, though. Most of my problems are operator error. I often have the wrong lens in place or have the camera set up for shooting something else. By their very nature, birds flying overhead are only fleeting and you generally only have a second or two to respond. I guess I'm just a little slow. That doesn't mean that I haven't had success obtaining bird photos, just that they tend to be around feeders or on the ground (Link: Training Docs Down-under).

I have been trying to capture an image of a Swamp Harrier since we arrived in New Zealand. It's become a bit of a running joke in our family. Every time we go for a drive, they fly at or alongside the car, seemingly mocking me. If I stop, they're gone. Zooming along a back-country road one day, Little Highstead spotted a Harrier sitting on a fence post. I turned the car around and approached slowly, but it was back-lit by the setting sun, so I tried to creep around on foot to position the light at my back. As I approached from this new angle, the bird flew down the road about 30 metres and settled on a new post. I slowly walked toward it only to have it do the same again ... and again, and again. Finally giving up, I had Kari drive and I stuck the camera out the passenger window to capture this image.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO 800     Photo: G. Highstead

I did finally manage to get my first in-focus BIF photos just recently. Kari and I had a rare afternoon off together so we went to the beach before Little Highstead got home from school. I spied a couple of South Island Pied Oystercatchers along the shoreline and approached knowing that they would fly away. I set the camera for what I hoped would work and started shooting as soon as they took flight. I do like the solitary Oystercatcher flying low over the surf, but I think I prefer the second photo of a pair of Caspian Terns flying high overhead. There's something about the minimalist nature of that photo ...

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO 280     Photo: G. Highstead

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO 64     Photo: G. Highstead

Dimholt Road

New Zealand's stark and empty landscape has served as the ideal location for a number of movies, the most famous of which may be The Lord Of The Rings series. With a little bit of planning, and sometimes quite a bit of tramping, we have been able to visit film sites from LOTR, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Samurai, and King Kong, among others. Despite this accessibility, without the magic of post-production, it can be difficult to identify just where the movie was filmed or imagine yourself walking alongside the characters. This is not true when walking up the stream bed bordered by the Putangirua Pinnacles. It was easy to imagine walking the Dimholt Road alongside Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli en route to the Paths of the Dead.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 16mm, f/16, 1/13, ISO 200     Photo: G. Highstead


Our experiences turn on the smallest of decisions. We had built up quite an appetite walking the ridges and stream beds through the Putangirua Pinnacles, so headed into Lake Ferry for their famous fish and chips. An interesting aspect of life here in New Zealand is that many restaurants and cafes close in the hours between lunch and dinner. Such was the case with the Lake Ferry Hotel, the only place close-by for a meal. We decided to move on to Martinborough and dinner at a winery, but most of those close by 5pm so we would have to hurry.

The Lake Ferry Hotel sits at the end of the road, beyond which is a dirt track. Kari asked if we could get Taylor (our Suzuki Swift) down there and I was game for giving it a try. The track led to some tidal flats where we saw a man in waders working a gill net. It turns out, he was pulling in flounder (my favourite eating fish). Curious (I had only ever caught flounder by gigging or by hook and line), I spoke briefly with the fisherman's wife standing on the shore. While Kari and Little Highstead played in the loose sand, sifted through driftwood, and hunted for shells, I sat quietly on the bank and took pictures. We missed out on dinner at a winery but had beer and chips (french fries) at the White Swan in Greytown followed by an amazing dinner at Salute.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR @ 170mm, f/14, 1/50, ISO 200     Photo: G. Highstead


Having learned to take the camera with me wherever we go, many of my best photos have been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Occasionally, and seemingly more frequently, I actually shoot some good photos by design. New Zealand consists of two long, relatively narrow islands. As such, we are never far from the coast. Driving home from Wellington one evening we noticed the brilliant colours in the sky to the west of us. We just knew it was going to be an amazing sunset, so we turned toward Waitarere Beach to watch the day close out. I had an idea of the images I wanted to create before we even got there and I was hoping the circumstances would cooperate. These photos almost didn't happen though. I was wearing nice clothes, including suede shoes, and I was hesitant to walk out behind the receding tide. I managed to find a little area of dry sand and started shooting. Kari and Little Highstead couldn't have been better placed if they had posed there. The colours in this picture are exactly as we saw them ... untouched, and un-enhanced.

Nikon D810 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR @ 16mm, f/8, 1/200, ISO 200     Photo: G. Highstead

I'm quite happy with what we have accomplished here in New Zealand, personally, professionally, and as a family. We don't have any more big trips planned locally, although we do have tickets to an All Blacks rugby match and will spend a week in Fiji to escape a Palmy winter. The adventures aren't over ... far from it. We are leaving NZ a month early to travel through Japan and Europe on our way back to the U.S. We purchased a EuRail pass and plan to go where the trains will take us.

My goal for this blog was to try to write a post per week, and I've mostly managed to maintain that pace. I never considered myself much of a writer before taking on this project and have really come to enjoy it ... even when hit by endless days with writer's block. If you have specific thoughts, ideas, questions about where we have been, what we have done, or what I have written, we would be more than happy to hear from you ... and you just might ease my pain.

16mm, f/20, 1/10, ISO 64   G. Highstead

Not fade away ...