Asparagus with mustard crème fraîche

Do you snap or cut? Peel or shave? The start of the asparagus season often ignites debate between cooks about whether it’s better to cut off the woody ends (gives a neat finish) or snap them (feels satisfying, but has high potential for wastage). Others claim using a vegetable peeler or sharp knife to shave off any tough, stringy bits is a better option.

Personally, I think it depends on the asparagus; spears as fat as your fingers are likely to have woodier ends, while the very slender ones will need the tiniest of trims. Any ends you do trim off can be used in vegetable stock or – according to Love Food Hate Waste, because I haven’t tried this one myself – turned into asparagus stalk pesto.  

If you’re challenged in the kitchen equipment stakes and don’t have a deep pot (or steamer insert) to cook the asparagus standing up, try cooking them in one layer in a deep frying pan instead. 

ASPARAGUS WITH MUSTARD CREME FRAICHE

Serves 2-4

This is a fast way to dress up asparagus, whether you’re serving it as a side dish for four or a main course for two. The sauce can be made in advance and stored, covered, in the fridge for up to three days. 

  • 500g fresh asparagus, ends trimmed
  • For the creme fraiche sauce:
  • 1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed to a paste with ½ tsp salt
  • 1 generous tsp Dijon mustard
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 tsp freshly squeezed juice
  • ½ cup creme fraiche
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cook the asparagus in lightly salted boiling water until al dente – about 5-6 minutes for spears of medium thickness (skinny ones will be done in 3-4 minutes and their thicker compatriots will need 6-7 minutes). 

While the asparagus is cooking, put the crushed garlic, mustard, lemon zest and juice in a small bowl. Mix well, then fold in the creme fraiche. Season to taste with black pepper.

Drain the asparagus and divide between two (or four) plates. Serve with a generous spoonful of the sauce.

TIP: This also works if you want to eat the asparagus cold: just cook the asparagus until al dente, then drain immediately under cold running water. When the asparagus is cold, wrap it loosely in a clean, dry tea towel and store in the fridge until ready to serve.

Cosy + Malaysian braised pork belly

It’s a terrible thing to be hungry. Not hungry as in, ‘I’m bored and I need a snack’, but hungry because there is just nothing to eat. In this land of plenty, thousands of New Zealanders are hungry all the time. During the Covid-19 lockdown, food banks and charities were reporting four-fold increases in demand. Auckland’s Spark Arena, New Zealand’s largest indoor stadium, was even transformed into a giant food parcel distribution centre to help. This was heralded as a great example of Kiwi ingenuity and people pulling together in a crisis, but all I could think of was, ‘how have we let things get THIS bad?’

My colleagues at Food Writers New Zealand (the professional body for Aotearoa’s food media community) felt similarly shocked. So we did something small, but hopefully meaningful, to help. Our winter e-book, Cosy, is now available for download here for $10. All proceeds go to Meat the Need, a charity set up by farmers to support City Missions and food banks.

When I posted about the book on Facebook people were curious to know what they were getting for their investment – hopefully the photos above whet your appetite. Recipe contributors include household names like Nadia Lim, Annabel Langbein, Lauraine Jacobs, Ginny Grant and Kathy Paterson, along with some less-known but no less talented others (hopefully I fall into that category). Here’s my recipe from the book (mercifully photographed by the amazing Kathy Paterson, who dreamed up the whole concept and slaved away on every single detail). You can have this recipe for nothing, but it would be really kind of you to buy the book. It works out to 25c a recipe, plus you get some bonus essays too. What’s not to like?

Malaysian pork belly with soy, cinnamon and star anise

This recipe came to me via dedicated Wellington foodie Shirleen Oh. She described this dish to me once with such passion that I felt as hungry for it as she was. I shamelessly bribed her with lunch and she later texted me the recipe. A week later, when I was heating up the leftovers in the microwave at work, a colleague ran into the room, demanding to know who had the great-smelling lunch. When I said it was me, she rushed to the microwave to peer in. “But that smells exactly like what my mum used to make in Malaysia,” she cried. “How do you know how to make it?”

Serves 4-6

  • 900g-1kg piece pork belly
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon whole cloves
  •  1 large or 2 small whole star anise
  • ¼ teaspoon whole black or white peppercorns
  • 3 Tablespoons kecap manis
  • 3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 4 Tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
  • 6 eggs
  • 200g deep-fried tofu pieces, optional

Heat oven to 180C. Carefully trim the skin from the pork belly, making sure to leave the fat on the meat. Cut into 4cm pieces.

Half-fill a large ovenproof pot with a lid with water. Bring to a boil and add the pork. Cook for about three minutes – you’ll see some scum float to the surface. Skim off the scum, then drain off the water. Leave the pork in the pot and add the garlic, whole spices and sauces. Cover with cold water – it should be about 2cm above the meat – and cover tightly. Bake in the oven for two hours, stirring after one hour.

While the pork is cooking, boil the eggs. 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. Carefully peel the eggs and set aside to cool.

After two hours, remove the pork from the oven and add the boiled eggs. Stir gently so the eggs are covered by the sauce. Cover and return to the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and add the tofu, if using. Return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened slightly and the tofu is hot. Serve immediately with jasmine rice and a blob of hot sambal, plus a lightly cooked green vegetable like bok choy or broccolini.. Any leftovers can be cooled completely and stored in the fridge for up to three days. Reheat to piping hot before serving.

Feijoa skin syrup (and 9 other ways with feijoas)

I’m just about asleep when I hear it the first time. It’s a dull, definite thud, just outside the back door. There’s no wind and no traffic noise, just the moreporks saying good night to each other. Then it happens again. Thud. Thud. Thud. I freeze in alarm. “Did you hear that?” I hiss. “Mmmm, he says sleepily. “It’ll be a cat or something. Don’t worry about it.” I’m not convinced, but I’m not getting up to look either. I put my head under the duvet and go to sleep.

The next morning I’m standing in the kitchen drinking a cup of tea and it happens again. Thud. Thud. I look out the window. There’s no cat. Then I see them, half a dozen green fruit that have landed heavily on the deck. The feijoas have arrived.

About six years ago we planted five feijoa trees along a north-facing fenceline in our garden. One of them snapped in two during a gale, but the others have soldiered on. In December, they’re covered in beautiful red flowers, like early Christmas decorations. I’ve neglected ours terribly in the last year (it’s hard to care for your garden from the other side of the world) but this autumn we’ve had the biggest crop ever. The first fruits started dropping in at the beginning of April and we’re still collecting dozens every day. A fruit bowl isn’t big enough – we’re currently using a 5kg apple box that never seems to empty, no matter how many I eat. I’ve long since lost the piece of paper on which I wrote down what varieties of trees we planted (possibly a Mammoth, a Eureka, a Bambino and an Apollo?) but some fruit are giant, others are doll-sized.

Since this year’s harvest has coincided with quarantine, I’ve become obsessed with trying to find ways to use them up. Discovering Kristina Jensen’s incredible Chunky Monkey Feijoa Chutney was a revelation. This is an extremely low-stress, low-energy pickle. There’s no peeling, making it a genius way to use up all the little feijoas that are a pain to peel.

This Feijoa, Ginger and Coconut Crumble Shortcake recipe I created for Be Well magazine in the NZ Herald – and ironically had to buy feijoas to make it (when they were $16.99 a kilo back in mid-March!) – has been hugely popular, with lots of people sending me photos of their version.

My latest experiment has been making Feijoa Skin Syrup. Syrups are a big thing in France, with shelves and shelves of all manner of fruity versions in supermarkets. Some are organic, artisanal ones with hand-drawn labels and pretty glass bottles, others come in 2-litre tins and taste suspiciously of factory-generated ‘fruit flavours’. I don’t like fruit juices or fizzy drinks, but last year I became quite partial to a slosh of sirop au citron in a glass of soda water. This one is even better, not least because it’s zero-waste.

Feijoa Skin Syrup

This is as simple as it gets. If you’ve got access to oranges or lemons, add a squeeze of juice and some finely pared rind instead of the lemon verbena. Feijoa skins can be frozen for this recipe. Makes about 500ml.

  • 3 cups feijoa skins
  • 2-3 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • A handful of lemon verbena leaves

Put everything in a small pot set over medium heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then leave to simmer very gently for about 25 minutes (or until the whole house is perfumed). Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then pour through a sieve into sterilised glass bottles. To serve, pour a splash of syrup into a glass and top up with ice and soda (or a splash of vodka or gin). Store syrup in the fridge.

Want more ways to use up your feijoas? Try these:

Crunchy cheese, potato and onion bake

When all this is over, I’m going to declare a fatwa on potatoes and cheese. We’re a potato-based household at the best of times, but right now it feels like we’re practically living on them. I’d do anything for a bit of variation on the cheese front, too. Just before lockdown started I had a wedge of my favourite Whitestone Aged Windsor Blue that I ate all too quickly. And oh, to be able to eat any of the cheeses I ate in France last year…

However, in the spirit of being grateful for small mercies, even the most ordinary potatoes and cheese can make life seem a little brighter. This is a riff on my sister-in-law Jenny’s famous cheesy potatoes (I aspire to make them as well as she can). If you squint, it’s sort of a poor man’s tartiflette – I made this Thomasina Miers’ tartiflette many times in France with enormous wheels of reblochon last year. And one day, I will again.

CRUNCHY CHEESE, POTATO AND ONION BAKE

Serves 4

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

If you’ve got cold leftover roast or boiled potatoes, you can use them instead – just blanch the spinach or silverbeet in boiling water, then add it to the potatoes and crush. Also feel free to swap the bacon for ham (or a small amount of anchovies, or olives). Other good additions include cherry tomatoes, little florets of broccoli or cauliflower, chunks of other cheeses – whatever your lockdown cupboards or fridge offers up.

  • 5 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 large onions, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 6-8 large agria potatoes, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
  • 200g spinach or silverbeet, washed and roughly chopped
  • 150g streaky bacon, diced
  • 2 cups grated tasty cheese

Heat the oven to 200C. Put 3 Tablespoons of the olive oil and the sliced onions in a roasting dish and toss well. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes while you’re getting the potatoes ready.

While the onions are cooking, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 15 minutes, until just about falling apart when prodded with a fork. Drop the spinach into the pot and cook for two minutes, then tip the whole thing into a colander and leave to drain.

Remove the onions from the onion and take most of them out of the dish. Layer some potatoes and spinach on top, crushing the potatoes with a fork, followed by some grated cheese and bacon. Repeat these layers, ending with cheese and bacon. Season well with lots of black pepper, drizzle over the remaining olive oil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, until everything is crunchy. Eat with lots of hot mustard and something green.

Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

You may well feel that life is too fraught at the moment to even consider making your own hot cross buns (you might feel like that all the time, in which case you have my sympathies). Even if you do like a bit of baking therapy, your plans might be stymied by a lack of yeast, or flour, or energy to do anything other than get through the day. I know the feeling. But in case you feel like making something, here’s an Easter-ish breakfast treat that uses basic ingredients, doesn’t require you to nurture a living thing and takes very little time to make.

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Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

A note on substitutions for these straitened times: using butter gives these a better flavour, but using oil is fine if butter’s in short supply. Use any sugar (white, caster, brown) – but don’t pack brown sugar into the cup. Use any milk and any flour – omit the baking powder if you’ve only got self-raising, use a little less if you’re using wholemeal (and be aware the pikelets will be a bit sturdier). If you don’t have honey, use golden syrup in the butter (I had to do this for the photo – it was still delicious). 

Makes about 20 pikelets, serves 3-6 depending on greed, hunger, boredom etc

Preparation time: 10 mins

Cooking time: 10 minutes

  • 1 tablespoon melted butter or oil
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ – ¾ cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp cocoa
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 cup plain flour

For the spiced butter:

  • ½ cup (125g) soft butter
  • 2-3 generous Tbsp honey 
  • 1-2 tsp cinnamon

Whisk together the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and ½ cup milk. Sift over the dry ingredients and stir together until just combined (don’t over-mix or the pikelets will be tough). Add a litte more milk if the mixture is very thick.

Set a large heavy frying pan over medium heat. Grease with a little butter or oil.

Drop dessertspoons full of the mixture into the pan (hold the spoon vertically to make the pikelets round). Cook until bubbles appear and pop on the top, then gently flip over and cook for another couple of minutes. Remove to a plate lined with a teatowel or a cooling rack.

To make the spiced butter, beat the butter and honey together until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the cinnamon. 

To serve, pile the pikelets on a serving plate and accompany with the butter. Any leftover pikelets can be frozen and reheated in a toaster. Any leftover butter is great on hot cross buns or toast.

If you fancy a few more Easter cooking projects, you might like to try these Pretend Hot Cross Buns (gluten-free) or these Homemade Marshmallow Easter Eggs (also gluten-free and dairy-free).

Hope you have a happy Easter, wherever you are. Don’t go anywhere, will you?