A birthday, a helicopter flight – and how to make a delicious pasta dish with roasted butternut

Birthdays are a funny thing. Some love them, some hate them and some are simply indifferent, failing to see the point of celebrating being another year older.

I will have to confess to the first. I do love my birthday but this year it surpassed my expectations. Let me explain why.

Most of us consider a special celebration is only warranted when a new decade rolls around. This is the time when we start joking with our friends that forty is the new thirty and fifty is the new forty and so on. But I have discovered another occasion worthy of a special celebration and that is when your birthday falls on a weekend.

And how often does this happen? I’ve calculated every five or six years if you account for leap year. Considering most birthdays are spent at work because they fall mid-week (and you often think: what’s the point?) when your birthday finally falls on a Saturday it heralds the opportunity to do something special – something that can be enjoyed on the day.

Of course you could always just go with a party or dinner out but why not try something a bit different? Perhaps something you’ve always wanted to do but never got around to? For me this year I decided it was a helicopter flight. I’ve never been in a helicopter before. There have been many occasions on past holidays when my husband and I have toyed with the idea, but ended up deciding it was too expensive or simply chose to do something else.

A couple of months before my birthday I came across a deal from Grab One for a helicopter flight from Mechanics Bay with Inflite Charters followed by dinner at Mikano Restaurant. I showed it to my husband and said, “That’s it. That’s what I want to do for my birthday.”

Always relieved to be handed an idea and be saved the exquisite torture of having to think of something himself, my husband readily agreed. We had friends who were also keen on the idea and so the four of us made a plan and booked it for my birthday – on the very day!

What can I say about it? What a fantastic experience! It helped that I have absolutely no fear of flying, small planes, motorbikes or anything that flies in the air or goes considerably faster than myself and so it was always going to be right in my wheelhouse. But what I particularly loved about it was the incredible view. So different from an aeroplane because you are substantially lower and this enables you to see the sights in much more detail.

We flew over the Harbour Bridge and the Domain and then over Eden Park where they were preparing for a big rugby match that night. We got a fantastic view of the Mt Eden Crater and then flew on to Mission Bay.

What most surprised me was the differential between how fast we were going and how fast it felt we were going. I had always imagined that when in a helicopter you would feel every one of the kilometres that you were travelling at (which would be no problem as I love speed) but in fact it didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, sometimes it seemed as though we were merely suspended in mid-air, barely moving. So if you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy excessive speed there is no need for alarm when climbing into a helicopter. It was a very smooth, serene ride and I felt completely safe and loved every minute of it.

On the way back our pilot took us into a dive, which was extremely cool and actually my favourite part. For my lovely friend Clare who doesn’t travel so well it was her least favourite part but alas I cannot share with you her exact words to describe it.

And speaking of our pilot, he was a joy to fly with and a very interesting man. He had many notable facts to impart and told us a little about the commercial flying he did in Papua New Guinea.

When we arrived back in Mechanics Bay he treated us to a faultlessly smooth landing and although I was sorry it was over I still had a fabulous dinner in Mikano to look forward to so I was able to survive the letdown. And our dinner was delicious. I started with crab lasagne followed by perfectly cooked lamb rump and finished with a divinely rich crème brulee.

In short, it was one of the most fantastic birthdays I’ve ever had. So the next time your birthday falls on a Saturday – or a Sunday will do – plan to do something not only special but also a touch extraordinary.

Now it’s time for food. A couple of weeks ago I featured my last summer recipe of the season. The clocks have now gone back and we are well and truly into autumn. So I thought this week I would share with you one of the first recipes I like to cook once the weather cools.

It’s no secret how much I love pasta but this is definitely one of my favourites. And if you’re someone who likes the idea of risotto but can’t be bothered with all the standing at the stove and stirring then this is the dish for you. Orzo (or Risoni as it is also called) is a small oval-shaped pasta that resembles a grain of rice. Once cooked it’s probably the closest you’ll get to a risotto without actually cooking a risotto.

An important component of this dish is one of my all-time favourite things to eat and that is roasted butternut. I could quite easily polish off a whole tray of it straight from the oven. That combination of caramelised flesh on the outside while tender and sweet within is a spectacular contrast.

The crispy bacon and pine nuts add yet more flavour and texture, while the Gruyere is creamy and nutty and just delicious. It’s a dish that warms and soothes – close the curtains on the now dark nights and put a bowl of this in front of your loved ones – they’ll leave the table happy.

 

Orzo with Roasted Butternut, Bacon & Pine Nuts

 

1 large butternut

3-4 tbsp olive oil, plus another glug for later

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

150g Orzo pasta

60g pine nuts

150g bacon, chopped into pieces (I like to use free-range eye bacon)

3 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped

100g Gruyere cheese, grated

 

Preheat the oven to 200° Celsius.

Remove the skin from the butternut with a sharp knife, scoop out the seeds and then cut into 3 cm cubes. Place them in a single layer inside a large shallow oven dish (I like to line mine with baking paper to save a lot of mess later on). Give the butternut pieces a good grinding of salt and pepper and then drizzle with olive oil – you’ll probably need about 2-3 tablespoons. I then like to toss the cubes with my hands to make sure they’re all slicked with the oil.

Put the dish in the oven and roast for around 40-45 minutes. Ovens vary but you’re looking for the butternut pieces to be golden and crisp. It doesn’t take long however for them to shrivel up and overcook so keep your eye on it.

Now for the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and a large frying pan to a medium heat.

Once the water is boiling, add a good dash of salt and then the Orzo. Give it a stir every minute or so to prevent the pasta sticking together. It shouldn’t take very long because it is so small but check your packet for timing instructions.

While the pasta is cooking, first toast the pine nuts in the heated pan and then transfer to a plate for later. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and sauté the bacon. Once it is starting to crisp up a little, add the shallots and garlic and sauté until the bacon is crisp and the shallots are soft (it’s fine if these catch a little also, you just don’t want anything to burn).

Drain the Orzo, keeping a little of the cooking water aside. Add the pasta to the bacon and shallots and stir through. At this stage I like to grind over some black pepper and add a nice glug of olive oil.

Now add the roasted butternut, stirring through carefully so as not to break up the delicate pieces and then finally the pine nuts and parsley. At this stage you might want to add some of the reserved cooking water from the pasta to loosen it up a bit.

Finally, take the pan off the heat and stir through the Gruyere.

Serve up in pasta bowls. I like to grate over a little Parmesan to finish but this is entirely optional. It is perfect just as it is. Delicious!

 

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