Top of the world

Posted June 8th, 2010 by Penny Wise

Jun 8, 2010

Eek, sorry it's been so long, I had no idea! I've discovered lately that Hidden Gems are not just places but also people. For example, I love shopping at my local Caroline Eve store. Caroline Eve is a women's clothing chain here in NZ, I'm not sure if they are in Australia or anywhere else. Anyway, although they sell excellent quality clothing at great prices, I wouldn't call a high street chain store a hidden gem exactly. However, there is one special lady there who most definitely does qualify as an absolute diamond in my book and that's Lola. You'll find Lola most days at the Caroline Eve store located at The Base in Hamilton. I walked in the other day and immediately she said 'Oh hello Jackie, lovely to see you!' I didn't realise she even knew who I was but after she had helped me find what I was looking for, I was paying at the counter when she said 'You know, I really must buy your book. I went to visit my mother in the Hawkes Bay the other day. I've been a bit worried about her as she's just gone on the pension and I thought she might be struggling a bit to make ends meet. I asked her how she was getting along and she said 'Oh don't worry, dear! I bought myself this book called The $21 Challenge. It's written by these two lovely ladies and the recipes are just wonderful, I'm getting along just fine!'

So that's how Lola knew who I was! As you can imagine, to hear that really made my day but it really got me thinking of all the times Lola has helped me. Believe me, she is no ordinary shop assistant. She has a real eye for what suits people, knows how to hide all the 'lumps and bumps' and is honest about what looks good and what doesn't, whilst still always coming across as polite. When I told her the other day I wanted a skivvy (polo neck), she said 'Are you sure it's a polo neck you're after? I think a turtle neck style is more you!' As always, she was right. My favourite blouse is one Lola picked out a couple of years ago. I hadn't even noticed it in the shop and would never have picked it out myself but I love it more than any other item of clothing. She always helps mix and match, offers practical, helpful suggestions and takes price into consideration. Where I would have picked out the first black skivvy I saw, she went and found me three in varying prices and fabrics, saving me $20 in the process! She has helped me so much over the years I thought it was about time I gave something back, so a few days later I found myself back in Hamilton and presented Lola with her own copy of the $21 Challenge book. I hope she enjoys it as much as her mum!

I also had quite a bit of 'hidden gem' help with a birthday present last week. Alex turned 18 on Thursday and we wanted to give him something special. We came up with the idea of getting him a cartoon done by Steve Panozzo. Now there's a real hidden gem! You will have seen Steve's work in the Simple Savings newsletters every month since February 2006 but of course we only see Sally and Hanna, not the fantastic artist behind them. Steve is amazing, he can draw anything! Including Alex in the guise of his favourite Japanese manga character, Naruto! All I did was email Steve a couple of photos of Alex and told him to Google 'Naruto' and in less than 48 hours I had an amazing full colour cartoon. All I had to do was print it off and get a frame for it. Couldn't have been easier! Technically... the printing it off part was easy but finding a big enough frame and surround for my A3 size cartoon was a bit more of a challenge. There wasn't a single one to be found and I needed it that day as Alex was coming with us for our long weekend away!

Fortunately another wee gem came to my rescue. Alice and her husband Peter are the owner operators of Benjamin Moore Colour Plus in Huntly. It's technically a painting and decorating shop but this couple have turned it into much more, including artwork, framing and wonderful, unique gifts. Alice is super helpful and just so cute! She helped me go through every frame in the shop but we couldn't find anything that would fit exactly. The pair of us were all out of suggestions when Alice's face lit up with a smile and she said 'I know! I'll ask Peter to cut the mat surround bigger for you, so it makes the right size!' This was a painstaking job and it took Peter an hour to get it exactly how he wanted it but all the while Alice was happily chatting to us in the shop, showing the kids all the funny novelty gifts and making them laugh. The wait was well worth it, when Peter triumphantly brought out the finished picture. It was huge and looked amazing! The frame set the colours off perfectly so they jumped out at you and Steve had captured Alex's features with incredible accuracy. We wrapped it up and smuggled it into our luggage and presented it to Alex that evening. Once he had stopped falling about laughing at seeing himself transformed into a ninja, he was absolutely gobsmacked at Steve's attention to detail and said it had to be the most awesome gift he had ever been given. A brilliant result - and all thanks to my two precious gems!

If you asked Ali what his favourite hidden gem is, he would say in a flash 'Papaiti Station'! It's hidden alright, so well hidden in fact I doubt whether I could even find it by myself! I first wrote about this magical place Mount Ruapehu!' I blinked and took a second look and - WOAH! There it was! This enormous snow covered mountain looked close enough to touch.

We scrabbled up the rest of the steep ridge. Ali kept a brisk pace, still looking out for unsuspecting wildlife, while I puffed along behind. 'Mum, can you PLEASE do something about your breathing?' he asked as nicely as he could. 'I can hear your heart beating from here - you'll scare the animals away!' At last I pulled myself up and over the edge and there we were, on top of the world. That's what it felt like anyway. I can't describe how exhilarating the experience was! There was mountain after mountain, as far as the eye can see and enormous gullies bursting with wildlife down below. I couldn't help wishing that Ali and I had brought a picnic, then we could have sat up there all day, just watching the world go by. I was so proud of my wee boy, who knew every hill like the back of his hand and so grateful to him for sharing his knowledge and this awesome view with me. We may not have brought any food or drink but I did bring my camera and I took heaps of photos. Unfortunately in my haste to capture the moment I pressed the wrong button and when I got home there was nothing on the camera! I vowed to go up again the next day but the weather refused to play ball and the rest of our stay was spent shrouded in mist.

One thing's for certain, when you go to Papaiti Station you have to be prepared and pack plenty of food. It's a heck of a long drive to the shops if you discover you've run out of milk! So I made heaps of goodies to take with us - good honest tucker for long, cold days in the bush! Everyone seems to love these recipes so much that I'll share them with you here:

Rhys Mellow's Vegetable Soup

This, quite simply is the best soup we've ever tasted! It comes from one of Noel's colleagues, hence the name. Rhys is a trendy young bachelor who is a dab hand in the cooking department and is well known around the saleyards for bringing his wonderful home made soups to work, rather than buy his lunch from the canteen like the other blokes. Ali, on tasting this soup described it as 'pure gold' and has since bestowed Rhys with the prestigious title, 'King of Soups'! So here it is, for everyone to enjoy!

1 x bacon hock or bacon bones

1 x 210g packet King vegetable soup mix

1 cup Sun Valley soup mix (I couldn't get that so used a cheapo generic brand)

500ml chicken stock

1/3 pumpkin

1 kumara (sweet potato)

1 potato

1 onion

1 celery stick

1 carrot

1 parsnip

1.5 litres water

Peel and roughly chop all your veges, then throw into a large pot with all the other ingredients. Bring to the boil and simmer gently on low heat for two hours. Remove the bacon hock and pull off the meat, then put back in, bring up to the boil and cook for a further 15 minutes. Test and add salt and pepper if needed. Done!

Couldn't be easier! Noel, Ali and I are soup fiends from way back but even Liam loves this soup. The boys scoffed it at every opportunity while we were away! I also took a bacon and egg pie with me. Alex says he never used to like bacon and egg pie - but he loves this one, and so does everyone else who has ever tried it! It's real title is Leek, Ham and Egg Pie but I just adapt it to use whatever I have. If you don't have any ham I just double the bacon in the recipe and it works just as well.

Leek, Ham and Egg Pie

Serves 6

2 leeks (or you can use onions)

2 rashers bacon (or more if you're not using ham)

2 tbsp butter

1 tbsp flour

1/2 cup milk

1/2 tsp wholegrain mustard

2 - 3 sheets flaky or puff pastry

1/2 cup grated cheese

1 cup chopped ham

4 eggs

Sesame seeds

Splash of extra milk to glaze

Trim and thinly slice your leeks (or chop the onions if you're using those instead). Wash and drain the leeks thoroughly. De-rind and chop the bacon.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add your leeks and bacon, cover and cook gently until the leeks (or onions!) are soft. Stir in the flour and cook for one minute. Gradually add the milk, stirring until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat, stir in the mustard and set aside.

Line the base and sides of a 20cm dish with pastry. Spoon your leek mixture onto the base, then top with cheese. Sprinkle the ham over the cheese if using, then break the eggs on the top.

Season well with salt and pepper, then use the rest of the pastry to make the pie 'lid'. Trim so the pastry fits inside the dish and use any leftover pastry to decorate. Brush the top with milk to glaze.

Bake at 220C for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 180C and cook for a further 20 minutes. Enjoy hot or cold. YUM!

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