Today’s Three Ways With… column is all about food waste – using up the stuff you’d normally throw away. While I was thinking about it, I realised I do a lot of food ‘saving’ that’s unconscious. Things aren’t so desperate that I reuse teabags (I remember seeing a posh and terrifying friend of my mother’s doing this and being thoroughly shocked), but I do like to extract maximum value from things.

Leftovers get taken for work lunches, baguette ends are turned into breadcrumbs or crostini, spotty bananas are frozen for smoothies or baking – it’s stuff that seems basic household common sense. But I fear that the very existence of campaigns like Love Food Hate Waste (which I’m proud to support) means that people have lost their way.

I guess if you don’t cook often, or see cooking as a difficult chore, then you’re less likely to think about using up your leftovers. Or, you may be like someone I know who cooks a lot, but over-caters massively and then just chucks stuff in the bin (a long-lost Presbytarian gene means I am morally outraged by this). But it’s not that hard.

If you want to waste less, you need to be mindful right from the start. You need to plan meals to a certain extent, you need to shop with purpose and cook with efficiency. That means, when you get excited by seeing huge bunches of cavolo nero at the shops for $2.50, you need to think on your feet about what you’re going to do with it. In this case, I let it sit in the fridge for a few days, waiting for inspiration to strike. We have a small, ill-designed fridge and it’s fundamentally unsuited to having lots of stuff in it. So, when I realised the cavolo nero was balanced on Sunday night’s leftover roast chicken, something stirred in my brain.

The chicken, stripped of fat and skin, went in the pot, with an onion, a carrot and some limp celery. I covered it with water and an hour or so later, I had a vat of delicious stock. I sauted the rest of the celery, another onion and some garlic in a bit of oil leftover from a jar of sundried tomatoes, added a bowl of cooked quinoa from the fridge, a kumara from the cupboard and the cavolo nero. The stock went in, along with some herbs from the garden and before long ‘nothing’ had turned into soup. We ate half of it on the spot, and the rest went in the freezer. Not complicated, not costly, not wasteful. Why is this stuff dressed up to be difficult?

What’s your favourite way to combat food waste?

Remember mint sauce? I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t. I’d all but forgotten about it myself, until last week when the Mr brought home half a slow-cooked lamb shoulder as a souvenir from a night out.

While I was reheating it for dinner the next evening, watching fat pooling in the roasting dish and feeling too tired to make hummus, I remembered the ultimate in traditional accompaniments. Five minutes later…

Easy Mint Sauce For Roast Lamb

Asian Mint Sauce
Let’s be clear, this is a mint sauce with vaguely Asian ingredients, not a sauce of Asian mint (though I’m sure that would be nice, and if you have some growing, adding it would be a good experiment).

2 Tbsp grated palm sugar, or brown sugar
1/2 cup rice vinegar
a good pinch of flaky sea salt
about 40 fresh mint leaves, shredded

Put the sugar, vinegar and salt in a small pot. Bring it to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Remove from the heat and add the mint. Stir and leave to cool, then transfer to a lidded glass jar. Store in the fridge and use liberally on appropriated roast lamb, among other things.

Given the weirdness of our weather – nearly May and it’s still t-shirt weather in most parts of New Zealand, while it’s sleeting in the northern hemisphere – it seems this fits the bill for Lavender and Lovage’s Cooking With Herbs blogging challenge for April, which focuses on herbs for spring and Easter.

Cooking with Herbs Lavender and Lovage

Four years ago, not long after my mother died, someone I didn’t know very well left a lemon verbena tree on our doorstep. I found this gesture incredibly touching and kind, not least because my parents’ garden had a huge lemon verbena tree and Mum often made tea from the leaves. I’m not sure if I ever properly thanked her – but Kate, if you’re reading this, I often think of that kindness when I walk past the tree.

The tree has thrived, despite my neglect, but I seldom do anything with the leaves except for the occasional cup of tea. Then, while pottering around in the kitchen a week or so ago, I made this syrup and the whole house smelled like lemon verbena. It was gorgeous.

If you’ve got a lemon verbena tree, make this syrup now to get a dose of that intense lemony sherbet flavour in the depths of winter (or scent your house with it in summer). You can use it in drinks (nice with soda, or with very cold vodka as a kind of martini-ish number), or pour it over vanilla ice cream, or use it in this simple and elegant fruit salad (recipe follows). I’m thinking a lemon verbena sorbet could be next…

Lemon Verbena Syrup

1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 packed cup lemon verbena leaves

Put the water and sugar in a small pot and set over medium heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then lower the heat and add the lemon verbena. Let bubble gently for five minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.
When the syrup has cooled completely, strain it through a fine sieve into a sterilised bottle or jar. Discard the lemon verbena leaves or use them as a garnish (they will be almost candied). Makes about 1/2 cup.

Simple fruit salad with lemon verbena syrup
2 white-flesh peaches
2 apricots
2 dark-fleshed plums
1 1/2 cups blueberries (or boysenberries)
1/4 cup lemon verbena syrup

Cut all the stonefruit into slim wedges – about eight slices – and put in a bowl. Pour over the syrup and stir gently, then add the berries. This can be done in advance, but I think it’s nicest at room temperature rather than fridge-cold. Serves 4-6.

Like a lot of food bloggers, I get asked to spruik a lot of stuff. Mostly, I don’t do it, not least because I often have no interest in the products they’re flogging. I’d also like to think I have more respect for my readers than expect them to read posts that say ‘look, here’s something I got for free and you didn’t’.

But every now and then I find something that I think really DOES warrant being written about. Here are a few of these things that have crossed my path recently.

I’m ashamed to admit it, because in theory I have a herb garden at my disposal, but this new range of lightly dried herbs from Australian company Gourmet Garden is really, really good.
If fresh herbs go to your fridge to die, half-used (or, like me, you can’t be bothered trekking to the bottom of your garden in the dark to pick your own), then these will be a god-send. Like the name suggests, they’re very lightly dried, so they last up to a month once opened but they’re still ‘live’ enough to taste fresh and perky. There are three herbs – basil, parsley and coriander, plus ginger and chilli. I’d love it if they did hard-to-find herbs like tarragon and dill too, but maybe I should just hurry up and grow my own.

According to conventional wisdom, eating ginger biscuits is a guaranteed remedy for morning sickness. In my limited experience, this is an outright lie. All it did for me was a) get crumbs in the bed and b) make me feel sick whenever I saw a packet of ginger biscuits. It’s taken me a long time to get over that Pavlovian response, but I’ve finally cracked it. Just in time, too, for the arrival of Nairn’s Stem Ginger Oat Biscuits in New Zealand. These are seriously good, with little nuggets of proper stem ginger inside, and a crunchy texture. They’re also not too sweet, and good with cheese. Speaking of which…

…this isn’t new, but our amazing neighbours brought it over last weekend. It’s Ngawi Brie, made over the hill in the Wairarapa by Miles and Janet King of Kingsmeade Cheese. I interviewed the Kings a few years ago and I’ve made a conscious effort to support them by buying their cheese ever since (such a sacrifice).

Last of all, I’ve made a surprising discovery at the other end of the scale. It’s this – Pam’s Cocoa.

Believe it or not, this is the best supermarket cocoa you can buy. It knocks spots off the Cadbury Bournville stuff, which is like light brown dust in comparison. True, it’s not Valrhona, but it’s also much more wallet-friendly. And that always leaves a good taste in my mouth!

What new discoveries have you made this month?

Did you know that in some places they’re not making journalism interns learn shorthand any more? I know, I’m shocked too. Instead of giving them a good grounding in Teeline, they’re giving them magic recording pens that download interviews straight to a computer.

I knew the world would pass me by one day but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. I hate to think what Mary, my shorthand teacher, would think of this. Mary, a saintly sort, reckoned shorthand was crucial for getting you out of a tight spot. Mary warned against relying on dictaphones for fear they would break down and advised us to always carry a pencil because it would enable us to write in wet conditions. I hate to think what she’d make of a magic pen.

My shorthand isn’t what it used to be (ahem, I could do 120 wpm in my heyday), but I still use it all the time. I have recipe notes full of part shorthand, part longhand scrawl and I can still write a shopping list in seconds. Bet fancy youngsters can’t do that with magic pens.

To seal my reputation as a past-it hack of no use to anyone, here’s a vegetable soup recipe so old-fashioned it’s probably due a hipster revival.

Easy Old-Fashioned Vegetable Soup

Old-fashioned vegetable soup
This is so simple you don’t need a magic pen or shorthand skills to memorise the recipe. It’s very comforting, hearty and cheap to make. Be careful when buying soup mix as some are packed with unnecessary flavourings and salt. If you can’t find a decent one (Wellingtonians: Moore Wilson has 500g bags of soup mix that are ideal), then just use a mix of split peas, red lentils and pearl barley.

1 cup (250g) soup mix
4 cups chopped vegetables – eg onion, carrot, celery, sweet potato, pumpkin
8 cups good quality vegetable or chicken stock
fresh herbs – parsley, chervil, coriander

Put the soup mix, vegetables and stock in a large pot. Bring to a simmer, skim off any scum and let cook, uncovered, for about 1 – 1 1/2 hours, until the vegetables are tender. Stir through some fresh herbs before serving. Makes about 10 cups and freezes well.