Ladies who lunch

Go into journalism, they said. Enjoy long lunches, get wined and dined, meet interesting people and write Pulitzer-winning stories about them. Hmmmm. Well, at least the ‘meet interesting people’ bit turned out right. Long lunches, however, are a complete myth, with most journalists of my acquaintance eating something over their desk. Now, as a freelancer and chief controller of a Small Girl, lunches are even less exciting. I take great joy in thinking up meals for other people, but when it’s just me I lose all motivation and usually end up having whatever the Small Girl is having (or even her leftovers).

But yesterday I pulled out all the stops and made myself a proper lunch – the sort of thing that people who work in offices think that people who work from home do all the time. No, it wasn’t asparagus and hollandaise (though that would have been lovely), or spaghetti alio olio (no one to complain about the garlic perfume), but a simple toasted sandwich.

I foraged for tuna, gherkins and cottage cheese and piled them on a thick slice of wholemeal toast, then topped it with a bit of grated cheddar and lots of black pepper before putting the second slice of toast on top. Then – and this is the magic bit, I wrapped it tightly in baking paper and put it on the ridged grill pan which was heating on the stovetop. I put our massively heavy cast iron frying pan on top and wandered away to think deep thoughts (ie placated Small Girl, stopped her from pouring milk on the floor, sent a text message, worried about the credit card bill… oh, what’s that burning smell?) before flipping it over and cooking for a few more minutes.

Then, I took my little package (attractively charred a little more than desirable) on one side and sat at the table to eat it while I considered the news of the week (with Small Girl on knee, feeding her pieces of it and stopping her from sticking a pen in her eye). This, my friends, was a gourmet lunch AND I ate it sitting down.

Do you have lunch at home alone? What do you make for yourself? Inspire me, please!

Keen on quinoa – Superfood Salad

Once upon a time, when I was a carefree girl-about-London-town, I used to spend a lot of time at Leon, a tiny cafe in Carnaby Street with a Scandinavian-style bleached wood interior and good-for-you-but-not-too-earnest-about-it food. The waiting staff were charming, the menu was interesting and it was within stumbling distance of Liberty, Topshop Oxford Circus and the Boy Wonder’s work.

There are now lots of Leons and even a cookbook by its clever founder, Allegra McEvedy, but alas, none in little old New Zealand. But I’ve been making my own version of its Superfood Salad for so long now that I think it’s better than the original. Quinoa (keen-wah) is considered a super-grain because it’s high in complete proteins, which makes it an excellent choice for vegans, vegetarians and people on gluten-free diets. It behaves a bit like rice and millet – it absorbs twice its volume of water during cooking and has a subtle, nutty flavour.

Quinoa Superfood Salad

Superfood Salad (with thanks to Leon)
In the weekend I made this for Terence and Catherine, with some grilled chicken thighs, a tangle of green leaves and some flatbreads from the Italian deli warehouse down the road. Think of this as the master recipe and make your own substitutions as your garden and the seasons provide.

3/4 cup quinoa
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
1 1/2 cups frozen baby peas
200g feta, diced
1 avocado, diced
a handful or two of cucumber, cut into batons
2 handfuls of mint leaves, shredded
2 handfuls of parsley, chopped
zest of a lemon
a couple of handfuls of sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds (toasted in a dry pan, if you have the time and/or inclination)

Dressing
Mix together:
1 clove garlic, crushed with 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup olive oil

Rinse the quinoa under cold running water, then put in a pan with 2 cups boiling water. Boil gently until nearly all the water is absorbed (about 10 mins). Throw the broccoli and peas in and cook until the broccoli is bright green and ‘al dente’, then drain and refresh under cold water again.
Tip the cooked quinoa and vegetables onto a salad platter, then pour the dressing over the top. Toss gently, then scatter over the herbs, cucumber, feta and avocado. Strew the lemon zest and toasted seeds on top in an artistic fashion and serve. This feeds four as a main course, but I suggest placating the carnivores with something meaty on the side. It also makes a very good packed lunch, but remember to keep it refrigerated until playtime.

Memories of Makiri

Makiri, my great aunt with the dazzling blue eyes and wicked grin, has died. She was 97 and for the last few years lived in the horrible twilight of dementia, but her death still feels like a terrible loss. Makiri, who grew up in a remote rural area in New Zealand, was named after a Maori princess. She told us amazing stories about her childhood, such as the tale about their pet pony, Pocket Edition, who was allowed to come in the house and sleep in a real bed. Retelling this story to someone else recently it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps this wasn’t entirely true – but as a child I would believe anything Makiri told me.

She and Uncle Jack were like fantasy relatives from books. Uncle Jack had a booming laugh and would burst into song or dance at the drop of a hat, while Makiri carried a solid navy handbag from which she could dispense barley sugar sweets whenever a parent wasn’t looking. When they came to stay with us she would make pikelets in the shape of cats and choux pastry swans. When we went to stay with them, she would have a collection of specially chosen library books and I was allowed to drink ginger ale from a crystal tumbler.

Yesterday in honour of her memory I tried to make cat pikelets for the Small Girl. I need more practice – like everything Makiri did, it’s harder than it looks – but they still tasted great. Next stop, choux pastry swans and a pony who sleeps in a real bed.

Perfect Pikelets
Every Antipodean has a pikelet recipe, handed down from generation to generation. Here’s mine, adapted from the trusty Edmonds Cookbook. The first pikelet, like the first pancake, is always a disaster. Gobble it up and keep going.

1 egg
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup natural yoghurt

Beat the egg and sugar together in a bowl, then sift in the dry ingredients. Stir to mix, then add the milk and yoghurt and mix gently to combine. Lightly grease a heavy frying pan with a little butter and place over medium heat. Drop dessertspoonfuls of the mixture into the pan (hold the spoon vertically to get a perfect round). Cook until bubbles appear on top, then flip gently and cook for a few minutes more. Best eaten warm from the pan, or cold with lashings of butter and raspberry jam.

Guilty Pleasures: Fish fingers

The Small Girl is going through what child experts call a developmental phase. In other words, she is turning into one of those children that kicks, screams, wails – and refuses to eat. I know it’s not about me, but it breaks my heart when she pushes away the things I’ve made for her, even if it’s a piece of toast. Actually, toast is one of the few things she will eat. Toast, plain penne, peas and crackers. Her attitude to food reminds me of a sign I once saw above a racecourse cafe: “If you can’t fry it, don’t buy it.” Now I know why people end up feeding their children Turkey Twizzlers and McDonalds, because they are emotionally ruined by years of tantrums at dinner time.

But before Social Services come and take me away, I want it on record that the empty fish finger packet in our recycling bin is not a sign of my unfit mothering. No, I bought fish fingers (‘Simply Natural Oat Crumbed Hoki Fillets’) because I genuinely love them. I KNOW they’re only 50 per cent fish and that the crumb coating is nothing more than a cellulite enhancer, but there’s something about fish fingers that I find inherently comforting. They have to be crumbed though – I haven’t fallen so far that I’ll eat those vile faux tempura ones. Anyway, every now and then we have them with the Boy Wonder’s home made oven chips and my new favourite invention, Yoghurt Tartare Sauce. It makes me feel less guilty about my culinary failings and momentarily distracts me from my maternal ones.

Yoghurt Tartare Sauce
Pour about a cup of natural, unsweetened yoghurt into a pretty serving bowl. Add the zest and juice of a lemon, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a tiny clove of garlic (crushed with some salt), a tablespoon of capers and a few finely chopped gherkins (about 1/3 of a cup). Stir gently to mix, then taste for seasoning. Good with fish and chips, even if they’ve come out of a packet.

The winning Juicy Fruit Loaf

The last time I stayed with my in-laws, in their tiny town on New Zealand’s wild West Coast, I nearly caused a diplomatic incident. It was the long, hot summer of 2008 and we were waiting for our visas to be extended so we could return to London and continue tripping about Europe like a pair of Antipodean gypsies. The Boy Wonder was in heaven, playing cricket every day and gambling at the pub with his little brother. I, on the other hand, ran on the beach, reads lots of books and perfected my entry for the local A&P show.
These shows are a Kiwi summer institution, where plants, produce and baking are judged along with animals, flower arranging displays and tractors. There are ferris wheels and candy floss, shy teenagers and ruddy-faced men in tweed hats.

Nikau palms, West Coast, New Zealand

I decided to enter the baking section as a sort of post-modern feminist statement (and because I was really bored). My in-laws were most amused, but not as much as when my fruit loaf beat off all other contenders and I came home with a photocopied certificate. The Boy Wonder’s aunt still laughs at the memory of overhearing two local stalwarts looking at my name beside my prizewinning loaf. “Who’s that?” one asked the other. “Never heard of her,” the other one sniffed.

One loaf to rule them all…

Juicy Fruit Loaf
This moist, tangy loaf has no butter, oil or eggs, but plenty of punchy fruit flavours. Given the chance, it keeps well in an airtight container. This recipe was emailed to me via a forum and I suspect it may be the brainchild of foodwriter Joan Bishop, even though the authorship was never made clear. Thank you Joan, it’s amazing.

250g dried fruit (I use a mix of sultanas, dates and apricots)
120g grated carrot (about 1 medium carrot)
1 cup orange juice (freshly squeezed is best, out of a carton is ok)
2 Tbsp lemon juice
zest of an orange and a lemon
3 Tbsp brown sugar (or honey, or golden syrup)
2 small bananas, thinly sliced
225g self-raising flour
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda

Grease and line a 6-7 cup capacity loaf tin and preheat the oven to 170C.
Put the dried fruit, carrot, orange and lemon juice and zest and brown sugar into a large saucepan. Bring to the boil and let simmer, uncovered, for five minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then gently stir in the sliced bananas. Sift in the dry ingredients (flour, cinnamon and baking soda) and mix well, then scrape into the loaf tin. Bake for about an hour, or until a skewer comes out clean. Let cool in the tin for five minutes, then turn out onto a cake rack.