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.

Paua with garlic, chilli, coriander and lime

We are blessed with the best neighbours in the world. They are great neighbours for all sorts of reasons, but for the purposes of a food blog, they are the best neighbours because they do things like turn up with freshly caught crayfish, or duck, or smoked trout. Now they’ve just set the bar even higher by bringing us three massive paua. It’s going to take a lot of reciprocal bottles of wine and cakes to beat that one.

Paua With Garlic, Chilli, Coriander And Lime

I can’t remember the last time I had fresh paua – it appears in dishes on restaurant menus sometimes but my sources tell me it’s usually squid, so I never order it. When I was 13 I remember a magical holiday with cousins in the Far North of New Zealand, where the crayfish and paua were in such abundance we begged to have sausages as a treat. If you happen to have excellent neighbours, or a source of paua, here’s a way to cook it.

Fast And Easy Paua With Asian Flavours

Paua with garlic, chilli, coriander and lime
Paua is notoriously tough – I remember my cousin beating it with a wine bottle to tenderise it – but my neighbour passed on the ‘boil it first’ method, which works well (and requires a lot less effort). Quantities here are very approximate – adjust to suit the amount of paua you have. If all else fails, do what the restaurants do and use squid instead.

Half-fill a pot with water and bring to the boil. Drop in the paua and cover the pot. Let the water come to the boil and simmer for three minutes. Drain immediately and slice the paua into thin strips.
Heat a couple of sloshes of olive oil in a large, heavy frying pan. Add a couple of cloves of garlic, sliced, some fresh chilli and a bunch of spring onions. Add the paua and cook, stirring frequently, for another couple of minutes.
Scoop onto a warm waiting plate, then squeeze over some fresh lime juice and strew with coriander. Eat immediately.

Hello 2016

I’m writing this in the room we grandly call ‘the office’. There is just enough room for the laptop on this huge old wooden desk, jammed between a pile of notebooks on one side and a stack of what looks to be school ‘art’ projects, plus the recently deceased cover of the ironing board, on the other. I have a cup of tea balanced precariously on a pile of papers that includes a recipe for ‘pancetta’ cured kingfish and a cookbook idea I wrote down in a hurry last week. It is a mess and I really should do something about it.

The dishwasher is purring upstairs, but not so loudly that I won’t be able to hear my best beloved cutting into the loaves of bread I’ve just taken out of the oven, despite knowing this is a terrible crime. So far, 2016, so good.

We ended 2015 with vintage champagne, whitebait fritters and lamb racks cooked to a recipe from the first Ottolenghi book, plus chocolate fondants from The Cook’s Companion. The fondants were a disaster (I was so desperate not to overcook them that I erred too far in the direction of undercookedness), but no one seemed to mind. The champagne may have had something to do with that, or perhaps it’s because molten chocolate is better than no chocolate. Anyway, I’m going to get them right eventually.

Apart from that, I have no pressing food goals for 2016. I’m not going to drink less wine or eat less cheese. I’d like to grow more vegetables and see if I can nurture a new sourdough starter. If that sounds all a bit too virtuous, I’m also going to master the new ice cream attachment I have for my KitchenAid.

The latter goal reminds me of a clipping I have pinned to the wall above my desk. It’s a fragment of an interview with Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician who was held hostage in the Colombian jungle by FARC guerillas for more than six years. At the end of the story, Betancourt says the experience made her decide that she would learn to cook when she got out and that she would “always have flowers in my room and wear perfume; that I would no longer forbid myself to eat ice-cream or cakes. I understood that in my life I had abandoned too many little pleasures, taking them for granted.”

Ingrid Betancourt had to suffer unspeakable horrors to reach that realisation, the rest of us should learn from it. Like she says at the end of the story, “I never say no to an ice-cream.”

What are your ice cream dreams for 2016?

The one secret sauce you’ll use all summer

Want a simple sauce you can use on just about anything? Look no further. This stir-together sauce takes about two minutes to make and enlivens all kinds of dishes. It’s good with cold chicken, as a side sauce for fish or prawns. You can also try it with very cold soft tofu or soft-hard boiled eggs. There’s just one piece of advice: don’t share this sauce recipe with anyone, or you’ll be drowning in it by the time summer ends. It’s THAT good.

Secret spicy sauce

The trick to this is using good quality curry powder. Other than that, there’s not much to it.

1 Tbsp hot curry powder

1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 cup Greek yoghurt

1/4 cup mayonnaise

salt and pepper

Put the curry powder and lemon juice in a bowl and mix to a paste. Beat in the yoghurt and mayonnaise, then taste for seasoning – it may need a little salt, or a little more lemon juice. Store, covered, in the fridge for up to a week.

Have a great weekend everyone x

Good Things: November 2015

“Guess what, Mum?” says the six-year-old, standing beside the bed at 6.30am with a book, a frisbee and a teddy. “It’s only six weeks until Christmas!”

I’m afraid she’s right, but I’m trying not to think about it. Instead, I’m going to focus on the nice things about November. If I concentrate hard, time will go slower, right?

I wanted to hate this book, I really did. I mean, it’s hard to love a cookbook – or indeed, any book – when the first pages are filled with young, bronzed people in their swimmers. But, all bias aside, it’s actually fantastic.

On the face of it, Bondi Harvest sounds like a PR dream. It’s the brainchild of two Bondi-based surfing mates, one of whom is a chef, the other a photographer and film maker, who decided to collaborate on some Youtube cooking videos, then a book. What makes you forgive the surfing palaver and the shots of people in bikinis is that the recipes are lovely, with a focus on fresh ingredients and gutsy flavours. I’m probably never going to frolic on the sands of Bondi while wearing a tiny bikini and drinking a green smoothie, but I am looking forward to making some of Guy Turland’s recipes.

Lots of people I know are still being struck down by unseasonal colds and other miseries – which makes Mother Earth’s new UMF Manuka Honey seem like a gift from the gods. Not all manuka honeys are created equal (and some are about as manuka’d as I am), but this one has been certified by the industry-supported Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association. The Mother Earth honeys come in two UMF strengths, UMF 5+ and UMF 10+, with the higher number indicating a higher degree of purity and quality. Importantly, they taste amazing, with those rich, earthy flavours associated with manuka honeys. Mother Earth’s UMF Manuka Honeys start from $17.99 for 250g. 

As a proud Good Bitch (and baker), I’m very excited to reveal the gorgeous products the Head Bitches have created to raise funds. There’s a pair of teatowels (one of which features a top-secret ginger crunch recipe) and a gorgeous calendar, plus you can still get your hands on one of the exclusive ‘Baking Bad’ t-shirts from earlier in the year. All these things have got Christmas giving written all over them. Go on, buy a set!

Speaking of charity, if you’re wanting to do your bit for Movember but can’t find it in you to grow a mo’ you can always grab my neighbour’s balls. Go on, he’d love you to grab a pair.

These salted caramel balls are insanely addictive, all-natural, and a not-for-profit fundraising venture dreamed up by my neighbour (of Wellington-based food company Go Native) to raise funds for Movember. They’re $2.99 a pack, and a dollar from each one sold goes to men’s health initiatives.

Last but by no means least, I’m very flattered to be in the running for Best Kids’ Food Blog in the 2015 Munch Food Awards. You can vote in this category – as well as name and shame the worst kids’ foods – here.

Have a great weekend everyone x