Before we came to live in New Zealand, I was averagely interested in rugby - I followed major internationals, I watched Six Nations matches. Nothing, though, could ever prepare me for the rugby-obsessed universe that is New Zealand. The zenith of this was last year's World Cup - living here in NZ and having a Welsh husband gave me legitimate reason to support two of the star teams of the tournament, even when England missed the mark by a long shot - but even this doesn't compare to the weekend-long, city-wide fancy dress party that is the Rugby Sevens Tournament. If you're unfamiliar with Rugby Sevens, it's an abbreviated, turbo-charged version of rugby; a young man's game without a doubt, these guys are both strong and very, very fast. The Wellington Sevens (the tournament takes place in various locations round the world, a weekend at a time - nice work if you can get it) is less about the rugby - the stadium only really fills up for the Final at the end of Day Two, even though tickets sold out in four minutes - and more about the party. And this is one party that really should be yelled "paaaaaaaaartay". Every single spectator goes in fancy dress, many impressive in their imagination. The party goes on for two days, Friday and Saturday, so downtown Wellington can be either fun central or carnage, depending on whether you've got tickets or not.
This year, we didn't have tickets. Actually, we've never had tickets yet - the first year tickets had sold out long before we arrived in the country, last year we were up in Auckland meeting Andy's parents off the plane from the UK, and this year - well, let's just say that I tried to get tickets, but apparently my UK credit card people used this one opportunity to take exception to me buying tickets to an event in Wellington ("Were you trying to buy tickets?" "Yes" "Oh. Our bad") and by the time I'd grabbed another card, tickets had sold out. Ah well, next year.
The knock-on from this, to use a rugby term, is that Andy, who works at the Welsh Dragon Bar in central Wellington, has been on call close to round-the-clock for three or four days. Not seeing him much isn't great, but hey, it's only for a short while and people have to put up with much worse. For my part, I've been trying to help out as much as I can, not only by boosting the bar profits on Friday (whoops - I was planning a quiet night), but by taxi-ing him to and from the bar in our trusty campervan, and also by having lots of hearty, energy-giving food that he loves around so he can eat well as and when. He isn't the biggest fan of pasta generally, with two main exceptions - he adores lasagne, and he loves minestrone soup. It was to this latter meal that I turned, knowing there is one version in particular that he can't seem to stop eating. This was originally a Rachael Ray recipe that I have tweaked to use ingredients I can buy here - I know she gets some flack but every single one of her recipes that I have tried always work out well. The original calls for Italian Sweet Sausage and a bulb of fennel; I could get neither in my local supermarket (I could have got both if I'd have gone further afield, but - really, I wasn't in the mood for running all over town for some soup ingredients), so I just used good quality pork sausages and threw in some fennel seeds. It was still delicious - fresh and warming at the same time, the kind of soup you can eat for lunch, after too much wine on a Friday night, or at 8am after completing a 12 hour hard work shift in party central.
White Minestrone with Sausage and Fennel
Adapted from Rachael Ray
2 tablespoons olive oil
400g good quality pork sausages, skins removed
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 bundle Swiss Chard (Silverbeet in NZ), chopped
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1 bay leaf
1 can cannellini beans
1.4 litres chicken stock
2 handfuls frozen peas
Handful of chopped parsley
Heat the olive oil in a large pan on a medium heat (I used my Le Creuset casserole), brown the sausage and break it up into small pieces. Add the fennel seeds, onion, garlic, chard, and season with nutmeg. Add the bay leaf, put the lid on, and sweat the veg for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the cannellini beans, stock, and 500ml water, bring to a boil and add the pasta. When the pasta is cooked, add the peas, turn off the heat, and let it sit for five minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, stir in the chopped parsley.
Serve in big bowls, with parmesan grated over the top.