Celebrate our unique place in the world and its heavens.

In the little eyrie bedroom of the Wanaka studio where we live are four skylights looking up to the heavens. Two face east and two incline to the west. Each provides a different framed view of the stars, and throughout the year the parade of constellations and stars in the night sky travels through these frames, an ever-turning cycle east to west, as the Earth makes its annual revolutions around the sun. Over the years I have come to know the months, on a clear night, when the full moon will fall on my pillow, first from the eastern skylight and later as the night rolls on, through the northwestern window. Away from the lights of the city the stars are so bright here, and the moonlight of a full moon can easily wake you.

Around now, as we come close to the shortest day, the constellation of the seven sisters, known also as the Pleiades and in Maori culture, Matariki, enters the sky. Rising low on the horizon in the northeast of the wintry dawn sky, its arrival heralds the Maori New Year.

As with other seafaring cultures, early Maori were exceptional celestial navigators, and their calendar the Maramataka, which literally means "the moon turning", was developed around the movement of the stars and the moon, as well as the migration patterns of birds and fish. Planting and harvesting food supplies was conducted almost always through consulting the Maramataka, as was fishing and the timing of rituals, such as baptisms.

According to the Maramataka, the reappearance of Matariki brings the old lunar year to a close and marks the beginning of the new year. The tohunga would look to the Matariki star cluster to determine how abundant the upcoming year's harvest would be. Bright, clear stars promised sunny skies, warm weather and successful season, whereas if the view was hazy, the prospect was for cold weather and poor crops. By the time Matariki arrived, with the season's crops safely in the storehouse and birds and fish preserved for the winter, it was time to feast sing and dance. In the first new moon after the arrival of the constellation in the sky the revelries would begin. This year Matariki begins on June 25.

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In the homogenity of today's world, it's wonderful to embrace traditions that are unique to our culture and place. When the stars align in the sky around the time of the winter solstice, it's time for our very own thanksgiving feast, with a menu that celebrates Aotearoa's unique place in the world and the rich bounty of our produce.

Kumara Gratin with Ginger

Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 1½ hours
Serves 8-10

2.2kg kumara, peeled and cut into 1cm slices
4 cups ginger beer or ginger ale
1 Tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
salt and ground black pepper, to taste
100g butter, cut into small cubes

Preheat oven to 200C fanbake. Grease the base and sides of a large (3-litre capacity), shallow baking dish.

Combine the kumara, ginger beer or ale, ginger, salt and pepper in the baking dish and toss to coat kumara. Spread out evenly in the dish and dot with butter. Bake until tender and golden (about 1¼ hours).

Annabel says: I prefer the red-skinned New Zealand kumara in this gratin, but any kind of sweet potato can be used. Always peel kumara and sweet potatoes unless they are organic, as they are treated with an antifungal to increase shelf life. For a less formal look, cut the kumara into quite chunky slices and leave it randomly in the dish rather than layering.

Tuatua Fritters

Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 45 mins
Serves 8-10 as finger food

1.6kg tuatua or other shellfish in the shell
1 cup rice flour
½ cup coconut cream
2 eggs
2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp turmeric
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Neutral oil, for frying
Coriander sprigs, to serve

Curry Cream
1 cup creme fraiche
½ tsp curry powder
2 Tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves

To make curry cream, stir together creme fraiche, curry powder and coriander leaves. Chill until needed. To make fritters, place shellfish in a large pot with 2 Tbsp water. Cover tightly and cook just until shells open (about 5 minutes), discarding any that do not open. Remove flesh from shells (you should have about 1 rounded cup of cooked shellfish). Place in a food processor with all other ingredients except oil and coriander sprigs and blend until evenly combined and fairly smooth. Heat a little oil in a large, heavy-based frypan and fry small spoonfuls of the mixture over a medium heat. When bubbles form on the surface flip to cook other side (2-3 minutes each side). Serve scattered with coriander sprigs and accompanied by curry cream.

Annabel says: You can use any shellfish for these tender fritters but be sure to check the shellfish are very fresh and sourced from clean water. The fritter batter can be made in advance and chilled for up to 8 hours before cooking.

Honey and Horopito Lamb with Watercress and Walnut Salad

Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 30 mins + marinating
Serves 8-10

1.7kg boneless butterflied leg of lamb
A little extra virgin olive oil, to brown
A little salt
Honey and Horopito Marinade
3 Tbsp ground dried horopito or 2 Tbsp dried oregano mixed with 1 Tbsp ground black pepper
2 Tbsp each runny honey and extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
½ cup lemon juice

Watercress and Walnut Salad
400g fresh watercress or rocket leaves, tough stems removed
200g crumbled feta, preferably sheep's feta
1 cup roasted walnut pieces

Orange Currant Dressing
¼ cup currants
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
¼ cup fresh orange juice
2 cloves garlic crushed with ½ tsp salt
¼ cup boutique extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp lemon juice
Ground black pepper, to taste

To make the marinade, combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Divide the lamb into 5 or 6 pieces by cutting along the seams between the muscle groups. Place in the marinade, turn to coat evenly, cover and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. To make the dressing, combine currants, orange zest and orange juice in a small jar and allow to stand for at least 15 minutes. Add garlic and salt paste, oil, lemon juice and pepper and shake to combine. The dressing can be prepared up to 2 days in advance and chilled until needed. When ready to cook the lamb, preheat oven to 220C fanbake. Heat a little oil in a large, heavy-based frypan with an ovenproof handle. Lift lamb out of marinade, reserving marinade, season lamb with salt and sear over high heat until well browned (2-3 minutes each side), working in batches if necessary. Add reserved marinade and roast until done to your liking (6-10 minutes for medium-rare, depending on size). Test doneness by squeezing the thickest part -lots of give means rare and the firmer it is, the more well done. Transfer to a plate, cover with baking paper and a teatowel and rest for 10-15 minutes. Slice thinly across the grain to serve. While lamb is resting, arrange watercress on a large platter and scatter with half the feta and walnuts. Add dressing and toss gently to combine. Top with thinly sliced lamb, then scatter with the remaining feta and walnuts to serve.

Annabel says: Horopito is a native New Zealand shrub with peppery leaves. It is available dried online and from specialty food stores. If you have access to a horopito plant (also known as Pseudowintera colorata, New Zealand peppertree, winter's bark and red horopito), add a few finely chopped leaves into the marinade for a spicy, peppery taste. If not, a little oregano mixed with black pepper does the trick.