The ultimate autumn comfort food: really easy macaroni cheese express

Macaroni cheese is the ultimate comfort food, but I’m never in the right frame of mind to make it. This unconventional method is the answer – the pasta cooks in the milk, eliminating time and dirty pots. What’s not to love about that?

Once you’ve tried this method, you won’t look back. It’s best made with blue top or whole milk; but if you want to use trim, use 3 ½ cups of milk and omit the water. If you don’t drink cow’s milk, try this with goat milk. If you’re in Wellington, look out for Brooklyn Creamery goat milk, which comes from a farm up behind the wind turbine (I know, who knew?) It’s gorgeous milk, hyper-local and very fresh.

  • 2 ½ cups milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 220g dried small pasta (like elbows, macaroni or small penne)
  • A good grating of fresh nutmeg
  • 1 ½ tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 3 packed cups baby spinach
  • 1 ½ packed cups grated tasty cheese
  • 2 slices stale bread, crumbled or grated

Set the grill to medium-high and grease an ovenproof gratin dish (about 20 cm x 30 cm).

Put the milk, water, bay leaf, pasta and nutmeg in a large pot and set over medium heat. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes until the pasta is al dente. It will seem at the start that the sauce will never thicken, but keep stirring, I promise it will happen all of a sudden.

Remove from the heat and add the mustard, baby spinach and most of the grated cheese. Stir well to combine and tip into the prepared dish. Scatter the grated bread and the rest of the cheese over the top.

Put the dish under the grill and cook for 5-10 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately. Serves 3-4.

Creamy parsnip soup

I’m currently trying to get to grips with a range of different French idiomatic expressions involving food, such as ‘raconter des salades’ (literally: to tell some salad – to spin a story), and ‘la moutarde me monte au nez’ (literally: the mustard goes up my nose – I’m getting really angry).

This has reminded me of two things – one, teaching a Khmer colleague in Cambodia the New Zealand expression that ‘it’s all going to custard’ and two, of the English saying that ‘fine words butter no parsnips’. The former is a way of saying that everything is going wrong, but the latter is somewhat harder to explain. I think it means that fancy words mean little, but I’m not entirely sure. However, I am much more certain about this parsnip soup, which is entirely fine and yet contains very little butter. I’m not telling you any salads, I promise.

Creamy parsnip soup

Serves 4-6

60g butter

2 tsp olive oil

2 large onions, finely diced

3 large cloves garlic, finely sliced

1 kg parsnips (about 8 large ones), peeled and cut into chunks

1 sprig fresh thyme

4 cups chicken stock

Juice of one lemon

½ cup cream, plus a little extra for drizzling

Heat the butter and oil in a large, heavy pot. Add the onions and garlic, and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the parsnips and cook for a further 10-15 minutes, until softened and starting to turn golden. Add the chicken stock and simmer gently for another 5-10 minutes, until the parsnips are soft. Remove the thyme, and puree with a stick blender or a mouli. To make it really silky, push the puree through a sieve (tedious, but worth it). Stir in the lemon juice and cream, then return to the heat and warm through (don’t let it boil) before serving.

If you’re in the mood for more winter soups, check out my latest crop of recipes on bite.co.nz.

Pearl barley, lemon and avocado salad

Spring is a tricky time of year for salad lovers. In theory we should all be eating new baby greens and skipping about the place like newborn lambs. In practice, at least in Wellington, we’re as likely to be huddled over the soup pot muttering incantations to the weather gods. The following salad is my answer to this kind of climatic conundrum – it makes use of the things that have now sprung back into season (avocados, parsley, lemons), but it has enough heft to keep you warm on a less-than-optimal day. It also makes a great take-to-work lunch, even if it’s not warm enough to sit outside and eat it.

Pearl barley, lemon and avocado salad

Serves 4-6

Pearl barley is brilliant for salads like this as long as you remember to keep it in balance with the other ingredients – I can happily eat it unadorned but that can be a bit confronting for first-timers. I aim for a 50-50 ratio: 50 per cent barley, 50 per cent other things. Meyer lemons (actually a lemon-mandarin hybrid) are sweeter than ‘real’ lemons and have golden skin and flesh.

1 1/4 cups pearl barley

3 large Meyer lemons, washed

6 spring onions, finely chopped

1 avocado

3 big handfuls fresh mint and flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

4-5 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Put the pearl barley in a sieve and rinse well under the cold tap. Tip the barley into a medium saucepan and add 2 1/2 cups boiling water. Set over medium heat and simmer for 25-30 minutes, until the barley is tender and has absorbed most of the water. Set aside to cool completely.

While you’re waiting, cut one of the lemons into small dice – including the skin, but making sure to discard any pips. Put into a bowl. Add the zest and juice of the other two lemons into the bowl, plus the spring onions. Peel and stone the avocado and dice the flesh into the lemon mixture. When the barley has cooled, add this to the bowl with 4 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Fold together gently, then stir through the chopped herbs. Taste – add more oil if necessary and season well with salt and pepper. Pile onto a dish and serve. Any leftovers should be kept in a tightly covered container in the fridge. The avocado may brown a little but it will still taste good on day two.

Perfect boiled eggs with pepita dukkah

Did you know that if you Google ‘how to boil an egg’ it comes up with more than 150 million options? This, more than anything, is a sign that there is Too Much Information in the world. I bet more than half of those search results are fake news, too. How else can you explain why the eggs found in cafe sandwiches or salads (even quite posh ones) are dreadful examples of the genre. There are few things more gag-inducing than a powdery pale yellow egg yolk, don’t you think?

I’ve perfected my own boiled egg technique over the years (the method is below) to produce an egg with a just-set yolk. But because I occasionally stuff it up (which is different to stuffing it – as we know, life is too short to stuff an egg), I can tell you that if you overdo the eggs a touch then you can rescue them by dropping a knob of butter onto the yolks to perk them up a bit. If you want to go even further, try this trick.

PERFECT BOILED EGGS WITH PEPITA DUKKAH

This makes enough dukkah to comfortably fill a decent-sized jar, which means your next eggs-travaganza will be a coddle, sorry, doddle to make. This would be a nice Easter dish when you’re tired of hot cross buns and chocolate eggs.

3-4 free-range eggs, at room temperature

A handful or two of fresh, washed and dried rocket leaves

1-2 Tbsp unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil

For the dukkah:

½ cup pumpkin seeds

¼ cup sesame seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon flaky sea salt

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground ginger

Set a large frying pan over medium heat and add the pumpkin seeds. Toast them, stirring often, until they begin to turn golden (about five minutes). Add the sesame, cumin and fennel seeds and toast for another five minutes, or until golden. Let cool briefly, then transfer to a food processor and add the salt, turmeric, paprika and ginger. Pulse to chop – don’t overdo it – then transfer to a jar.

To cook the eggs, I recommend what I know as the Ruth Pretty method: bring a small pot of water to the boil, add a pinch of salt and then slip in the eggs. Let it come back to a simmer and cook the eggs for eight minutes exactly. Drain immediately, then shake the pot to break the shells while holding it under the cold tap. Hey presto, perfectly set whites and just­-set yolks.

To serve, cut the perfectly boiled eggs in half and arrange on a board or serving dish on top of the rocket leaves. Drizzle over the olive oil (or use knobs of unsalted butter) and sprinkle generously with dukkah. Serve immediately.

Happy Easter everyone. May you be blessed with hot cross buns, chocolate and at least one day off.

 

Tagliatelle with smoked trout and mascarpone

They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that counts. I’ve never really believed that until recently when I acquired three new colleagues at my day job. They’re all clever and interesting people, but one in particular has some very enviable connections and she knows how to work them. She sidled up to me on her first day and said, ‘so, I hear you know about food. Want some smoked fish?’

It turns out that she has a keen angler father who keeps her in ample stocks of beautifully smoked and meticulously boned Taupo trout. Even better for me is that she doesn’t like to eat it. The rest of us keep telling her she’s missing out, but she won’t be swayed. I think this is what’s known in the trade as a win-win. In the meantime, I’m making the most of the catch while I can.

Smoked Trout Pasta

Tagliatelle with smoked trout and mascarpone

This is one of those dishes you can put together while the water boils for the pasta. The hardest bit is not eating all the trout while you wait.

Serves two.

½ cup mascarpone

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Finely grated zest and juice of a lemon

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

4 handfuls rocket

150g smoked trout

150g tagliatelle

Put a large pot of water on to boil for the tagliatelle. While you’re waiting, put the mascarpone, mustard, lemon zest and juice and olive oil in a small bowl. Season well with salt and pepper, then whisk to combine and set aside. Flake the trout and stir half of it into the mascarpone mix.

When the water is boiling, add a large spoonful of salt, followed by the pasta. Cook for five minutes (or according to packet directions), then drain, reserving a tablespoon or so of the water. Return to the pot, then toss through most of the rocket and all of the mascarpone. Divide the pasta between two plates and scatter the rest of the rocket and the trout on top. Serve – and eat – immediately.

Got an angler in the family? Here are three more ways with smoked fish to help use up the catch. Failing that, I’m sure I can hook you up with some willing takers!