Five food goals for 2014

While we farewelled 2013 in the style to which we have become accustomed, (lots of champagne, whitebait fritters, lamb stuffed with cherries, goats cheese and cherries, Nigella’s chocolate truffle cake, a huge slab of panforte and an incredibly tangy cheese called ‘Sea Breeze’), I spent the first week of 2014 with a nasty bout of tonsillitis and a vast supply of drugs.

Before that happened, I thought I was going to spring into the new year with all manner of new plans and schemes, not to mention a gleaming clean kitchen and freshly weeded vegetable garden. Instead, I have developed an addiction to Breaking Bad and a fondness for lying down after meals, neither of which are conducive to returning to work this week or achieving much at all at home. In a bid to shake off this inertia, I’ve turned my mind instead to my food-related goals for this year (I just have to get off the sofa to start achieving them). As nice as it is, we can’t live on wine, cheese and olives all year….

1. Eat more: By which I mean, eat a more diverse range of foods. I hate those depressing statistics that claim most people only have five or 10 dishes in their repertoire, but they do reflect a sorry truth. It takes work to stop from falling into the same old routine every night, but it’s so worth it. Why else do I have so many bookmarked recipes and folders of torn-out magazine supplements?

2. Grow more: No, not in a Gwyneth Paltrow sense, but grow more of what we eat. In in my dream life this would include chickens, but for the sake of my marriage, my sanity and continued good relations with our neighbours, I’m going to stick to flora rather than fauna. I figure that since we have this massive garden, we may as well use it to its full potential. New crops underway for 2014 include cucumbers, kale, pears, feijoas, cranberries and currants, not to mention an as-yet unidentified curcubit currently colonising the wildflower meadow we planted in a nondescript bit of lawn in late spring. I’m particularly inspired by Julie and her amazing garden – and Sue’s little city garden – and hope to harness a bit of family muscle in the coming months (Jenny, Goff, are you reading this?)

3. Learn more. In 2013 I conquered doughnuts, cronuts and puff pastry (at least this version). I’m yet to decide on my tasks for this year, but I’d like dumpling making to be among them. What else shall I tackle?

4. Read more: It’s just occurred to me that I didn’t get any new cookbooks for Christmas – unless you count the excellent Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen. Obviously I need to take steps to remedy this (even if via my excellent local library), though I should probably undertake a strict audit of my existing collection first.

5. Be more organised: The arrival of our much-awaited new pantry later this month will play a key part in this, or at least I hope it will. I have a secret fear that even with the new pantry, I will discover that I am really a slatternly housekeeper and that’s the real reason for the disarray in my cupboards (not to mention the rest of my life) Oh well. Worse things happen at sea. Being more organised is a key part in another little project I have planned for this year, but I’ll share more on that when it’s underway.

What are your foodie goals for 2014?

Treat me: Mega muesli bars

On Wednesday night, mindful of the fact that we had a crack team coming to cut down trees and generally sort out the horror of the path to our house, I thought I should make them something for morning tea. I thought some muesli bars would do it, something they could eat in between swinging axes and chainsaws.
I merrily tipped some rice bubbles into a bowl and turned around to find a spoon. When I turned back, there was something crawling out of the bowl.
Now, I know these people are not scared of creepy crawlies, but this was surely a bridge too far. I tipped the lot into the bin and wondered if they did cleanups of pantries as well.
After a cup of tea and a sit down, I conducted a thorough clean/search and destroy mission and gathered all the safe ingredients on the bench. Then I conducted a thorough search of the internet until I found something that I could use them in. When that didn’t work I adapted this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. I bet Deb never has mysterious crawling things in her cupboards.

Mega muesli bars
These are big, thick, chewy slabs of nutritious deliciousness, filled with lots of good things and not too sweet. If you don’t have coconut oil, try another neutral oil or – gasp! – butter. Mix and match the nuts, seeds and fruit to suit your (clean, ordered) pantry too.

100g coconut oil
6 Tbsp honey
80ml (1/3 cup) tahini
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup whole oats
1/2 cup oatmeal (if you can’t find oatmeal, whizz 1/2 cup rolled oats in a food processor until fine)
 cups quick rolled oats
a good pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 cup linseeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup roasted almonds, roughly chopped
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Heat the oven to 175C and line a brownie pan with baking paper, leaving enough to overhang the tin.
Put the coconut oil, tahini and honey in a small saucepan and heat gently until the oil and honey have melted. Stir well and set aside.
Put all the dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir well, then pour in the oil mixture and stir until everything is well combined. Press into the prepared tin, smoothing the top with a spatula, then bake for 35 minutes, until golden.
Let cool completely before cutting into bars. If it seems very crumbly, put the tin in the fridge for an hour or so before cutting. If there are lots of crumbs, gather them up and sprinkle them on your yoghurt tomorrow morning.

Have a great weekend everyone x

What price do you put on good food?

I’ve spent a bit of my work time this week discussing the merits of budget beauty products versus expensive ones (I know, I get paid to think deep thoughts about this stuff. Crazy, huh?)

There’s one school of thought that claims expensive products are a complete con – at best, a rip-off, at worst, nothing more than snake oil. Then there are those that see the budget brands as even worse, because they’ll ruin your precious skin.

Personally, I have a foot in both camps – except for when you’re talking about posh scented candles, which have to be the most ridiculous thing ever invented. I mean, why don’t you just burn the money and be done with it?

I think there are parallels with how people view spending on food. Of course, in both cases economics have a lot to do with it, but it’s also a matter of priorities.

During our holiday I fulfilled a long-held ambition to go to Ottolenghi. The Small Girl and I shared this lunch box, which – along with a small bag of meringues, two exquisite cheese straws and a bottle of water – cost nearly 25 quid (about NZ$55). I nearly died! It was delicious, but crumbs, we couldn’t do that every day. Or even every week. Could you?

In our household, we spend a lot of our income on food, both because we are in a position to do so and because we choose to. Other people spend money on – well, what do they spend it on? Scented candles? Fancy cars? – we spend it on feeding ourselves and our friends.

I do most of the food shopping, which in a week might include a weekly trip to a cheap supermarket and sometimes a posh one, plus the weekend vegetable market. I prioritise buying good (that is, organic and free range) eggs and meat where I can. I grow most of our salad vegetables, even though I am rubbish at gardening. I still make most of our bread, yoghurt and muesli, partly for financial reasons but mostly because I like doing it. Some weeks I feel like I spend a lot of money, some weeks I don’t.

We don’t eat TV dinners and rarely have takeaways, unless it’s the occasional pizza with our neighbours. It’s not like we are having foie gras and champagne suppers every night – I write this having made crunchy omelets for dinner with eggs donated from a friend’s hens – but I know we are lucky. We are a small family and we don’t have to choose between paying the power bill and eating.

I know people in reasonably straitened circumstances who put a lot of emphasis on eating well, just like I know some well-off people who couldn’t care less what they eat.  #Firstworldproblems, you might say. But then, as the storm over Jamie Oliver’s new book has shown, food poverty is everyone’s problem.

What I want to know is, what do you prioritise in your household when it comes to food shopping? Do you spend more on eating out or eating in? Do you angst over organic vs ordinary veges, or do you grow your own? What would you spend more on if money was no object? What would you spend more time making if time was no object?

Spinach and garlic hummus

On Friday a master gardener is coming to visit. I have asked her not to be shocked and horrified by the state of my garden, but I’ve since realised that I am constantly shocked and horrified by it, so it’s unfair to expect her not to be. At least the landslide in the back garden is a talking point; the less said about the neglected state of what we call ‘the allotment’ the better. But, as I discovered in the weekend, there are things growing down there where the wild things are. I have terraces of parsley, proud rows of rainbow chard and a transplanted bay tree (which would not have survived the slip if it hadn’t been moved). But before I discovered these things I found a big bag of baby spinach in the fridge that needed to be used before I could harvest our greens in good conscience. This is what I did with it.

Spinach and garlic hummus
If your children – or other members of your household – are resistant to eating their greens, this may convert them. If it doesn’t, then there’s all the more for you. I ended up throwing in some parsley, because we have it in such abundance at the moment we could start selling it at the market. Actually, there’s an idea…

2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
7-8 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
1 tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
100g baby spinach (most of one of those bags you get from the supermarket)
salt and pepper
a couple of juicy lemons
a couple of handfuls of fresh parsley, roughly chopped

Put two tablespoons of the olive oil in a high-sided frying pan and place it over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until just beginning to turn golden. Tip in the chilli flakes, the spinach and the chickpeas and saute for a couple of minutes, until the spinach wilts and the chickpeas colour slightly. Transfer the mixture to a food processor, along with the juice of one lemon, five tablespoons of olive oil, a good pinch of salt, some black pepper and the parsley. Whiz, stopping to scrape down the sides of the processor as necessary. Taste and add more oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper if needed. Scrape into a bowl and drizzle with oil before serving. Store any leftover in the fridge, well covered, for a couple of days.

Throwing in the parsley also means this hummus makes the cut for Lavender and Lovage’s Cooking With Herbs challenge (you can read more about that here). If your garden is looking a little bare and you need any encouragement to get out in it, watch this. I can’t wait to see it.

Cooking with Herbs

Tomatoes fit for Simon Gault

Yesterday afternoon I hung out with chef and Masterchef NZ judge Simon Gault. Yep, it was just me and him. And his publicist. And a sound guy. And, oh, about 85 other people who had queued up to listen to him talk. Of course, it was work for him – he’s on a tour spruiking his new book – and it was work for me (I guess I was helping him spruik his new book) but it was really good fun.

If you think I’m being a terrible namedropper by throwing his name into conversation, you should have heard him. He’s swum with some pretty big culinary fish and made some big cheese connections as a result. And he has some incredible stories to tell about all of them. He reckons he’s not into celebrity chef culture but he’s definitely got a tell-all book in him. Or at least a film.

But my favourite bit was when he was talking about tomatoes, and bemoaning the horrible ones on sale in supermarkets. It was all I could do not to go up to him afterwards and say, ‘check out my tomatoes’. But I can say that to you, can’t I?

This is yesterday’s harvest: nine fleshy heirloom tomatoes, two rather stunted ears of sweetcorn and one juicy strawberry. I planted the tomatoes in November – which is pretty late – but our endless summer has been kind to them. It’s supposed to rain hard today (with water restrictions looming we are all keeping our fingers crossed) so I thought I better pick them just in case. We ate most of them last night, fried in olive oil and drizzled with red wine vinegar. Tomato heaven.

How is your garden growing at the moment?