Spring detox

Lovely Joan at Sempiterna Me has been musing about spring and what it means to us in New Zealand. I’ve just read that it’s rained for 35 of the last 40 days, which makes it very good weather for considering such matters. The seasons are less marked here and sometimes it’s difficult to really feel the change; there’s not the same bursting into life after the dark days of winter, the same sense of rebirth.

As her post points out, this should be the time of Lenten fasting, a kind of detox season after the hearty meals of winter. I think she’s right, but it’s too chilly for salad when there’s driving rain outside.
The upside of this warm, wet weather is that creamy-fleshed cauliflowers are currently in abundance, stacked high at the grocer’s and incredibly cheap. It’s never been the most fashionable of vegetables thanks to years of being overcooked or drowned in gluggy cheese sauce, but I think the humble cauliflower deserves a bit of recognition.

Here’s a simple soup just perfect for the season, based on a Stephanie Alexander recipe. The original includes a spoonful of Vegemite (!) but I’ve omitted it and added a squeeze of lemon juice instead. I’ve also topped it with an improvised gremolata of flatleaf parsley, lemon zest and Parmesan but it’s delicious on its own.

Easy Spring Cauliflower Soup

Spring Soup

1 litre chicken stock (homemade for preference, carton for convenience)
1 cauliflower, chopped (include the stalk)
salt and pepper
handfuls of parsley
zest and juice of a lemon
handfuls of grated Parmesan

Heat the stock to a gentle boil and throw in the cauliflower. Simmer until tender, then puree in a food processor or with a stick blender. Season to taste and squirt in the lemon juice. Reheat gently and decant into warm bowls, then sprinkle generously with the parsley and Parmesan. Serves four.

Treat me: Banana Oaties

Strange I know, but sometimes there is such a thing as too much sugar. These little cookies, on the other hand, are so virtuous that they’re practically candidates for canonisation. There’s no sugar, no dairy and no wheat – but plenty of flavour thanks to sweet, ripe bananas and sticky, chewy dates.

Sugar Free Banana Oaty Cookies

They’re an excellent snack for little people and make a good breakfast substitute for big people on the go. Actually, if you overcook them you could crumble them into a bowl and call it muesli. Otherwise, eat with a glass of cold milk.

Banana Oaties

3 very ripe bananas

2 cups rolled oats

1 tsp cinnamon

1 cup dates, chopped

3 dsp peanut butter/tahini

4 dsp canola oil

Turn the oven to 170C fan bake.

Mash the bananas to a slurry, then stir in all the remaining ingredients until well combined. Leave to sit for 15 minutes (the mixture, not you – though this is the perfect opportunity for a cup of tea and the crossword). Drop tablespoon-sized heaps onto a lined baking tray (you’ll need two trays). These cookies don’t spread in the oven so nestle them up nice and close. Bake for about 20 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool, then store in an airtight container. Makes about 25.

Have a sweet weekend, everyone x

My secret crush…

I have a secret crush. He’s tall and fair-haired and I can’t stop thinking about him. I think about him when I’m supposed to be working and I think about him when I’m pushing the pram and I even think about him when I’m curled up on the sofa with the Boy Wonder.

The new man of my dreams is Dean Brettschneider, a New Zealand baker who counts Rick Stein, Peter Gordon and Anton Mosiman among his fans thanks to his amazing ways with bread and patisserie. You should see his buns, not to mention his fig and aniseed scone twist or apricot and pistachio tart! But the path of true love never runs smooth and we are going to be parted by the cruel forces of the public library.

I found his book, Global Baker, wedged between tomes on wedding cakes and muffins in the part of the library usually frequented by derelicts in search of a cosy place to snooze. It’s a brilliant collection of advice and recipes for everything from pain au levain to spun sugar cages. Dean (we’re on first-name terms) now works in Shanghai, where he has introduced the Chinese to the delights of chocolate hot cross buns, baked cheesecakes and lamingtons made with red bean paste. I love him. I told the Boy Wonder that I was going to run away to learn the secrets of amazing baking from a man I’d never met. He said, “Great. Have you seen my cellphone?”

I haven’t actually made anything out of his book. Yet. But when I get my own copy I’m going to start at the almond croissants and work all the way through to the xiang cong hua juan bao (Chinese flower steam buns). It’s all about spreading the love.

Cupboard love

Some days, when I am being Mrs Super Organised, I start thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner as soon as I get up. I take something out of the freezer, or do bits of prep throughout the day, and dinner magically appears.

Just like opening a tin…

Other days, it’s a bit more of a challenge. This kitchen is blessed with a big old-fashioned pantry, but there’s nothing more depressing than opening the door to find the shelves are nearly bare (or filled with things that don’t work together, like Valhrona chocolate, basmati rice and two jars of star anise. Actually, that might be quite a combination. But I digress.) But then I found a can of cannellini beans behind a jar of molasses and something clicked. Of course! Posh baked beans – a kind of vegetarian chilli with enough sweetness and heat to chase away the Monday blues and stave off the cold winds whistling in the back door.
Even better, this is easy to make and requires little attention (so you can do it while dancing the toddler two-step – the dance you do when there’s a small person clinging to your legs).

Hungry?

Posh Baked Beans

This is how I did this last night – but feel free to substitute as fits your own bare pantry.

2tbsp olive oil
2 red onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 heaped tsp ground cumin
1 dried chilli or 1/2-1tsp chilli powder (or harissa, or Tabasco)
2tbsp soy sauce
1/2 a tin tomatoes in puree or passata (or even tomato sauce)
1/2 cup water
2tsp molasses (or brown sugar)
1 tin (400g) cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
half a lemon
salt and pepper

Saute the onions and garlic in the oil until soft (or while you feed a small person). Add the cumin and chilli and saute for a minute or two more. Add the soy sauce, tomatoes, water and molasses. Stir well and let bubble for a minute or two. Add the drained beans, a squeeze of lemon juice and season to taste. Let bubble away gently for five minutes. At this point you can turn off the heat and wander away to do something else, like make a phone call, have a cup of tea, put a small person in the bath or all of the above.
When you’re ready to eat, cook some rice and greens, or whip up a salad and slice some crunchy bread. This serves two starving, greedy, stressed adults (so there’s enough for three or four more moderate eaters). Now, what are we going to have tonight?

Something fishy

Great excitement in the kitchen today, for the KitchenMaid has received a VIP invitation to the opening of a new fish restaurant. It didn’t come on gilt-edged card, but it is exciting all the same. In my old life I went to the openings of envelopes, but my new life is rather less glamorous. Still, it will be nice to take off my apron, leave the house without a small companion, drink pretend champagne and make chit-chat.

Anyway, back to fish. Despite being a small island nation it’s ridiculously expensive to buy fish in New Zealand and even the tinned stuff is pretty cheap and nasty. But the Boy Wonder hails from the wild West Coast and whenever his parents come to visit they bring newspaper-wrapped packages of whitebait; tiny translucent fish frozen in perfect rectangular packages.

Orowaiti Estuary, Westport, New Zealand

On the coast, whitebaiting is serious business. Prime spots along the rivers are guarded fiercely and woe betide an out-of-towner who stakes their claim on a local’s patch. For while Coasters are passionate about whitebait’s delicate flavour, it’s also a lucrative source of blackmarket income. Buying whitebait on the sly is not unlike making a drug deal – cash only, thanks, and don’t tell anyone who you got it from. It’s probably not the most ethically sound or sustainable way to eat fish, but you won’t make many friends by suggesting that.

Buller River, Westport, New Zealand

The traditional way to eat it is in fritters, or patties, as they call them on the Coast. The Boy Wonder’s mother makes them to a recipe that her mother made – 3 eggs to a pound of whitebait (Coasters only talk of pounds of whitebait, as if it’s immune to metric measurements), enough flour to thicken the mixture (about 1/2 cup) and a pinch of baking powder. She fries them in LOTS of butter, then serves them up with oven-cooked chips and buttered white bread. Salt, tomato sauce, and lemon halves are the only accompaniments. Whitebait cooked this way is delicious, but not the sort of thing you want to eat too often.

On our travels we ate lots of tiny fish that had been dipped in flour and flash fried in olive oil. The Boy Wonder has started giving our precious packages of whitebait this treatment and we’ve decided we much prefer it to the eggy stodge of fritters. If you manage to get some this season, here’s what to do with it.

Tiny fish, olive oil, what’s not to like?

Spanish Whitebait
This feeds two very hungry people as a main course but would make a lovely starter or canape treat for more.

1 lb (about 560g) whitebait
flour
salt and pepper
olive oil

Defrost the whitebait and rinse under the tap to get rid of any grit. Drain well.
Heat a thin pool of oil in a heavy pan until hot. Take a handful of whitebait at a time and shake in a coarse sieve with a handful of seasoned flour until lightly coated. Fry in the hot oil until opaque, then remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper and keep warm in a low oven. Serve with crisp salad greens and hunks of good bread. Lemon halves are a must; tomato sauce is optional.