How to make really good soup from nothing (and a $2.50 bunch of cavolo nero)

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?

Lemon verbena syrup + an elegant fruit salad

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.

Spiced Apple Granola

I don’t mean to sound like one of those smug types who do everything but knit their own organic toilet paper,  but I am morally opposed to buying muesli or granola. Not only are they eyewateringly expensive, they’re always packed with sugar and somehow you end up with a nasty sort of dust in the bottom of the packet that looks suspiciously like sweepings from the factory floor.
Here’s my latest version, invented to use up some leftover apple juice. I’ve become addicted to sprinkling allspice on my porridge and so it has found its way into this as well.

Spiced Apple Granola
You’ll have to excuse my slightly vague measurements here – I make this by eye, judging on how much will fit in a roasting dish (which is conveniently about the same amount as will fit in the former gherkin jar that I store it in). Feel free to vary the nuts, seeds and fruit to suit your pantry and personal taste, but make sure you have a good proportion of these additions to oats or this granola will seem more like a punishment than a delicious breakfast. And don’t add poppy seeds – you’ll spend the whole day wondering if you’ve got one stuck in your teeth.

6 cups whole oats
3/4 cup sesame seeds
3/4 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup linseeds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1 cup almonds, roughly chopped (peanuts are a good standby for those weeks when money is too tight to mention)
1Tbsp ground allspice
1Tbsp ground cinnamon
4Tbsp honey (or golden syrup, or date syrup, or brown sugar)
3/4 – 1 cup apple juice
4Tbsp sunflower oil
Dried fruit – chopped dates, sultanas, raisins, chopped apricots – about 2 cups

Preheat the oven to 170C. Tip all the dry ingredients (except the fruit) into a large bowl and mix well. Mix the honey, apple juice and oil together and pour over the dry ingredients. Mix well with your hands. Add a little more apple juice (or a splash of water) if it seems very dry. You want it to be glossy, not wet. Tip into a large roasting dish (use two dishes if necessary). Put in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes, until golden. Don’t wander away – you need to stir it every 10 minutes or so. I frequently forget about mine and burn it, which is horribly frustrating. When it’s an even golden brown, remove from the oven and tip back into the original bowl. Stir through the fruit. Pour into an airtight container – like an empty gherkin jar – when cold.

Have a sweet weekend, everyone!

Old-fashioned vegetable soup

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.

How to fake a wedding cake

This is the wedding cake that nearly wasn’t.

Pandoro Black Doris Plum And Mediterranean Orange Wedding Cake

When one of my oldest and dearest friends announced she was getting married, I immediately offered to make the wedding cake. She accepted the offer and that was that.

When their wedding was delayed to May, I breathed a sigh of relief and put the cake on the back burner.

Then all of a sudden it was April, the bride was talking multiple layers, chocolate ganache, and the merits of chocolate mud versus chocolate and fig, I had a million other things on my mind and I was lying awake at night, panicking about The Cake.

It was then I remembered that I’d been in this situation before. Five years ago, with a small baby and ideas above my station, I offered to make the wedding cake for some dear friends who’d blown into New Zealand from London to get married.

“Oh yes please,” they said. “Don’t go to any trouble, but we’d like it to have three layers and have licorice allsorts exploding out the top.”

Making the cakes – one chocolate and fig, one chocolate mud and one banana (the groom’s favourite flavour) – was easy. Doing the decorating was not. Not for the first time, I recalled a school report in which my teacher said I was often frustrated when my grand plans for artworks didn’t come to fruition. I handed the baby to my mother-in-law and spent 24 hours wrestling with kilos of white fondant icing, alternating between wanting to cry and wanting to cheer.

On the afternoon of the wedding, my beloved and I balanced the cake on our knees while my father-in-law drove as slowly as he could around corners. We screamed every time the cake lurched towards my silk dress, more for the sake of the cake than my outfit. By the time we got to the venue the cake had several dents in it and I needed a strong drink to settle my nerves.

It nearly killed me, but the lovely bride and groom were happy and lots of guests said nice things about the cake. Still, I swore that it was the last time I would ever do it.

With those memories flooding back, I rang the bride. “I can’t do it,” I told her. “I’m too afraid it will be a disaster and you’ll be even more disappointed in me than you feel right now.”

Like the good friend she is, she took this news on the chin. Instead of making the cake, I decided to redefine my role as chief cake wrangler. I set about getting cake quotes and set up a wedding cake Pinterest board to gather ideas. When they baulked at the quotes – a two or three tier wedding cake is in the region of $400-$500 – I came up with plan B.

Instead of requesting a wedding cake, I asked Pandoro Bakery to make us two large cakes – one a 14″ Black Doris Plum Chocolate, the other a 10″ Mediterranean Orange, which they present on gold foil cake boards. I got them to ice them identically with chocolate ganache, with the sides rolled in white chocolate shavings.

The day before the wedding, my fellow bridesmaid and I picked them up and took them on a two-hour car ride (mercifully, on very straight roads).

Later that night, the groom helped me engineer the two together, inserting dowel rods to keep the top layer from collapsing into the bottom. With no storage option, we carefully manoeuvred the cake into a beer fridge and prayed it would survive the night.

The next morning, I returned to the venue, rescued the cake from the fridge and plopped some white roses on top. Just like that, the job was done.

The cake looked beautiful, my 22-year friendship with the bride is still intact and my mental health is sound. I may never make a special occasion cake again.

Are you prone to making special occasion cake promises? Do you have any secret tips?