24: Guilt, Toadstools and Abject Panic


Call Kiefer.  I’ve got a new story line for 24.  This one will promise pace, action, and all the stress you could possibly want.  Did I mention danger?  Just try stepping into my kitchen over the next day or two …   Forget kevlar: Jack Bauer had best wear his favourite pinny.

See, I’ve got the flu.  Well not really.  I had influenza a couple of years back and this is not it. This is, however, quite bad enough thanks. Life has been less than lavish. Bits of my face are there that ought not to be and I’ve been coughing so hard it makes me giddy.  Not in a girlish, happy kind of way.  Everything aches.  The room is too hot, no, too cold, no, too hot…  

Anyway, I’m grumpy.  The timing could hardly be worse.  Lydia turns 5 this weekend. I have already ruined her last week at kindergarten by being unable to show to do Tuesday’s star cookie baking session (to tie in with the children’s Matariki celebrations).

I spent most of the preceding Monday night worrying that I wouldn’t be well enough to perform. And guess what?   I would be, beyond any possible redemption, a really, really bad mother.  I was letting down my Lydia.  Between school and kindy, I’d done four cooking sessions with her big sister.  Lydia would think I didn’t love her as much, she would suffer middle child angst in life-changing proportions.  Yes, one batch of cookies can have that much power.

Well, in the end we figured it wouldn’t hurt for Lydia to delay her school start for one day to allow one last cookie inclusive kindy Tuesday.  Crisis averted.  Temporarily.

But it took until Thursday to be well enough to contemplate a trip out for essential supplies.  Today is Friday and I have exactly 24 hours and 36 minutes to pull a Garden Fairy Princess birthday party from nowhere.  And believe me, these babies do not make themselves.

Let’s bypass the self-recriminations about the stuff I could have made and frozen weeks ago but didn’t because I thought there was plenty of time.  (Grrrrrrrrrrr)  Let’s not even talk about the parents that have not  R.s.v.p.ed to my admittedly late invitations, leaving me with no idea how many dinky little cupcakes and treat bags I need.  (Grrrrrrrrrrissimo)

There is the special request toadstool birthday cake.  I’m cool with that, but apparently this one needs to be rainbow coloured within.  Not in layers you understand.  Just within the one cake. (No, I stand corrected.  That was last week.  Now it is to be pink and strawberry flavoured with multi-coloured sprinkles throughout, and thank goodness for small mercies,  except that now I can’t bake the blasted thing without another shopping trip.)


There are to be ladybird crackers, little canape that look like baby toadstools, snail-shaped cheese pastries and butterfly cookies.  Sausage rolls and flower cupcakes, glittery ones.  Then, as the birthday girl is a garden fairy princess, there are the costumes, table decorations, lanterns, streamers, treat bags, all that kind of thing.

And why?

Has Lydia demanded it?  No.  She would like the cake and the butterfly cookies, but like most persons her age, as long as there is a potato chip and some sticky icing in the offing, her needs are met.

There are the pictures she has seen on my Pinterest board.  But who put them there?  I did.

Did Lydia buy and devour the Donna Hay kids edition each year for the last 6 or 7 years?  No, though the girls do like looking at the pictures after Mummy is done.  Does she troll through Martha Stewart on-line looking for cute touches?  No. That would be me.

And would I think less of any parent who ordered in pizza and chips?  No.  Do I look down on parties had at bowling allies and skating rinks?  Certainly not.

So why?  Because in a life where I constantly wish I could do more and better for my children, there is that one special day that is all theirs.  Because cooking is one particular medium through which generations of women have expressed love for their families. And because, as my mate Maryanne Cathro says, one of the best things you can hope to leave your children is a stash of good memories to see them through the sometimes dark days of adulthood.

So, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

Sunday Suppers: Feta and Vegetable Fritters: What’s in a Name?

Feta & Vegetable Fritters served with Plain Yoghurt

Prior to the addition of feta cheese, these fritters were pink fairy confetti pancakes. But let us be clear.  No number of girlie names will get my kids to eat anything they don’t want to.  I should know.

There was a time when Francesca would happily devour baby cabbages and fairy trees (Brussels sprouts and broccoli florets to you).  It didn’t last.   

Parents who consider tales of Santa and the Tooth Fairy to be gross fabrications destined to destroy the mutual trust underpinning the fundamentals of the parent-child relationship (and I know you’re there) can relax. 

It wasn’t a matter of misleading my first born.  At no point did I tell her that she would be able to see fairies, grow wings, learn to fly, look thinner, reverse hair loss, double her income or get more dates, although for all I know my mother might have. It was a simple effort to connect with a more interesting world to get those first bites in before she had a chance to think, “I’m not eating that, it’s green.”.  We enjoyed a period of some months before greenism really set in (I know not from whence).

I tried again with Lydia, but parenting can be tough without isolation chambers.  Child 2 quickly learns to read the attitude of child 1. You’ve lost before you started.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may recall my reckless undertaking to involve my children in hands on cooking once a week.  My kids and husband don’t actually know about this, but I have you, Gentle Reader, to keep me honest. So when it came time to prepare this Sunday’s supper, I rounded up the girls, closed my eyes (figuratively anyway) and let them at it.

I diced the onions, grated the tricky bits and did the frying, but they managed the rest themselves.  Yes, Francesca grated a knuckle, but, as she herself pointed out, it wasn’t going to hurt any more now than in a couple of years time.  She had a point.  And up-to-date tetanus shots.

Girls with Sharp Objects

This simple recipe made for an excellent cooking class.  We covered measuring out ingredients (yes, Virginia, there is a correct way to scoop flour), blending wet ingredients into dry (without getting lumps), separating eggs, beating whites by hand and folding them through a heavier mixture.  If they remember any of that, they’ll be ahead of many home cooks.

Learning to beat egg whites.

The best bit?  Despite the vegetable content and complete transparency, each sat down and cleaned off a fritter per year of life without any begging, pleading or cajoling.  I hardly knew what to do with myself.  Even baby Ursula, who had observed the whole procedure with keen interest, put away nearly two and the leftovers were in demand for afternoon tea the next day.  Total success?

OK, so they didn’t want the feta.  Occasionally I know when to cut my losses.  Time for that later.  It was easy enough to cook some fritters without feta first and then to add feta to the remaining batter for the adults.

I made way too much, so I’ve halved my ingredients to give you generous serving for four.

This is a versatile fritter batter that will see you through pancakes sweet and savoury, crisp or soft, freshly cooked or made ahead and frozen.

Feta and Vegetable Fritters


3 1/2c grated vegetables.

We used 1 medium carrot, 11/2 large zucchini (courgettes) and 1/2 a medium beetroot (red beet).  Keep adding until you’ve made up the volume.  Try other vegetables like sweet corn, capsicums (bell peppers), spinach, grated celery (go easy and remove the strings first), pumpkin or squash.  Finely chopped cooked vegetables can also be used, handy if you have some leftover from the night before.

1 large onion, finely diced

1 1/2 c plain (all purpose flour)

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

a generous grinding of black pepper

3/4 to 1 cup of milk, water or soda water

2 eggs, separated

200g crumbled feta (optional)

finely chopped herbs (optional): fresh coriander (cilantro) and mint work well with zucchini or beets

vegetable oil for frying

sea salt for sprinkling

herbs and unsweetened yoghurt or sour cream to serve


1. Grate and measure the vegetables, dice the onion and set aside. If the vegetables are particularly watery, you may want to salt them lightly and drain in a sieve or colander whilse preparing the batter.

2. In a large, c. 2 litre (quart) bowl, add flour, mix in the baking powder, salt and pepper and make a well.

3. Separate the eggs. This stage is not essential, but makes for a much lighter fritter without adding more baking powder, which has an unpleasant taste.  Add the yolks to the well and put the whites in a large clean bowl.

4. Measure out the first 3/4c of liquid. I used milk to maximise the nutritional value of the dish, but water works fine, and soda, if you have it, is best of all for a light, crisp result. If you’ve used tinned whole kernel corn, you can also reserve and use the liquid drained from the corn.

5. Add the liquid to the eggs in the well, beat together lightly and then, using a wooden spoon, keep stirring, gradually working more and more of the flour mixture into the egg mixture.  Add the vegetables and any herbs.  This mixture should not be too stiff. You want it to drop easily from the spoon without being runny.  Keep in mind that the egg whites will loosen the batter a little more.  If it seems too dry, stir in a little more liquid.

6. Whisk the whites until they hold peaks.  It really doesn’t take long by hand, if you don’t have a mixer or, like me, can’t be bothered getting it out. Fold in the whites: add 1/3 of the whites to begin with, work them in gently using a spoon, a cutting rather than stirring motion and rotating the bowl as you go.  Once incorporated, repeat with the balance of the whites.  If you have left the eggs whole, omit this step.

Folding whites into the batter.

The batter with the balance of the whites added but not yet folded through.  If you’ve used some beets, don’t panic, the pink cooks out, though it may colour the feta slightly if you use it.

7. Add the feta (if using), fold through until the mixture is just uniform.

8. Heat vegetable oil in a heavy skillet.  Add heaped tablespoons of the mix to the pan to form  8cm (3″) fritters or your preferred size.  If you have a good non-stick pan, you can get away without any oil at all.  In that case your fritters will not brown so much and will remain soft, more like breakfast pancakes.  If you use oil, you will get a crunchy fritter, but be sure to keep the pan hot enough so that the fritters seal before they absorb a lot of oil.

9.  Cook until the fritters are golden brown on the underside, bubbles appear on the top and the pancakes begin to set around the edges.  Turn over and cook until the second side is also golden brown.

Nearly ready to turn.

Nearly ready to turn: some of the back ones are just starting to set at the edges.


Ready to serve when they look like this on both sides.

10.  Serve immediately, or transfer to a roasting pan or tray with a rack over it, or lined with scrunched up kitchen paper.  If using paper, try to lean cooked fritters on their sides and avoid stacking.  This allows the steam to escape from both sides of the fritter and stops the fritters from going soggy and limp.  Sprinkle with sea salt before they cool completely.

Tips for Making Ahead:

11. You can make these ahead of time. Cool completely, then refrigerate or freeze in an airtight container, separated by layers of cling film. To reheat, arrange in a single layer on a baking tray (cookie sheet) and heat in a 220 C (430 F) oven until they are heated through and bubbling at the edges.  You can do this from frozen.  If you know you will be reheating, under-cook slightly the first time so they don’t burn while reheating.

Fritters as Finger Food or Appetisers:

12. For a tasty appetiser, make fritters with one vegetable (say corn) and serve topped with crisp bacon, avocado and sour cream.  Especially good with a touch of red capsicum jam or sweet chilli sauce. For finger food keep the fritters bite sized.

For a Sweet Version:

13.  For a sweet version, replace the teaspoon of salt with castor sugar, omit onions, make up the liquid with water or milk (soda water is salty) and a touch of vanilla, and fold 1 1/2 to 2 cups of berries, bananas or cooked, very well drained apples into the batter (in place of vegetables, onions and herbs).  If berries are frozen, be mindful that the fritters will be much colder and will take longer to cook. For improved flavour you can also add some butter to the cooking oil. To serve, dust with icing sugar (and cinnamon if you like it) and serve with whipped cream, yoghurt or sour cream.  Yum.

Keeping the Workers Happy

Lamb Shanks: Bonegilla to Marrakech in One Easy Generation


I am that contradiction, a New Zealander and sheep farmer’s granddaughter that seldom eats lamb.  For this I am waiting to be deported.

My maternal grandmother seldom prepared lamb or mutton.  Poles, generally, are not keen on sheep meat, but after many, many years in these green isles, she took to roasting the leg of lamb for the family.  In some small way, my very Polish grandmother “went native”.

Mum, on the other hand, could never take the cooking smell.  It reminded her of childhood years in an Australian displaced persons camp just after the war.  The mutton for the evening meal was boiled in the extreme heat of the afternoon, the stench of old sheep settling in a fug over the Bonegilla barracks.  She was revolted. Others quite literally so: the state of the food at Bonegilla was so bad that it eventually inspired a riot.

Lamb cooked in the homes of my father’s New Zealand farming family was an entirely different proposition.  Home killed lamb is sweet tasting and lacks the strong smell that store bought lamb can have.  It is testimony to the fact that if livestock are stressed by transport and handling at the works, it affects the meat.  Gentle handling makes for superior produce:  happy hogget is tasty hogget.

My American husband knows a good thing and loves New Zealand lamb, so I try to make sure we have it more often.

As the winter comes on, braised shanks are an ideal meal solution, filling the house with savoury aromas. I cook mine in the oven, but a slow cooker would also work.  The sauce will tend to be much runnier,  so add less liquid (you could reduce the stock that goes into the sauce) or add some lentils to absorb the surplus juices.

This is the kind of dish that benefits from cooking in advance, so make it on Sunday afternoon and come home to a quick and hearty meal on Monday night.

This makes a substantial meal for 4. Australians please note: my tablespoons are 15ml.

Moroccan Style Lamb Shanks

2 tbsp olive oil

4 lamb shanks

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 onions, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 knob ginger, c. 1.5cm or 1/2 and inch, minced

2 chilies finely chopped

2 star anise

1  2 inch or 5cm piece of cinnamon quill

2 tbsp coriander seeds, lightly crushed

1 tbsp cumin seeds, lightly crushed

2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed

2 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp sweet paprika

2 chilies finely chopped

1 can crushed tomatoes (400g or 14oz)

3c beef stock

6 to 8 dried figs

1 small handful golden sultanas

1 handful fresh coriander (cilantro) finely sliced

Couscous to serve (c.400g or 14oz for four adults)

knob of butter (optional)

1. Set your oven to 180 Celcius or 350 Fahrenheit. Rinse the shanks, pat dry with paper. If you want the shanks to present nicely, french the bone: use a sharp, sturdy knife to trim away the sinew at the narrow end of the shank and scrape the exposed bone clean. Season the shanks, heat the oil in a large heavy casserole and add the shanks to the pan, in batches if necessary – if you crowd the pan, the shanks will not brown.  Brown on all sides at high temperature and set aside on a plate.

2. Drop the temperature, add onions, sweat over moderate heat until wilted and just starting to turn golden.  Add the garlic, ginger and chilies and cook a two or three minutes longer.  My girls aren’t good with hot spices, so I just leave the chilies out.

3. Add the star anise, the cinnamon and the crushed spices and cook a little longer – you should be able to smell the spices. You can crush the spices by pressing them under the blade of a broad knife or bruising them with the underside of a heavy saucepan.  Add the ground spices, stir into the mixture, cook for another minute or two.

4. Add the tomatoes, stock and dried fruit. Check sauce seasonings. Add the shanks, arranging them so that the meat on the shanks is covered as well as possible by the cooking liquid.  Cover the pan tightly and cook in the oven for about 2 hours.

5. If you are using a slow cooker, arrange the shanks in the crock and cover with the onion/tomato mixture.  Cook on low for at least 4 hours or until the meat comes off the bone, adding the fresh coriander near the end of the cooking time.  Serve.

6.  Drop the oven to 150 Celcius or 300 Fahrenheit, add the fresh coriander and cook for about another 1/2 hour uncovered.  Rotate in the sauce about half way through to prevent the meat from drying.  This step is primarily to let the sauce to thicken a little.

7.  Check seasonings.  Prepare couscous according to instructions and serve.

Sunday Suppers: Smoked Sausage and Melted Onion Sauce

Smoked Sausage and Onion Sauce on Mash

Growing up, Sunday night meals were always different from the rest.

If the extended family hadn’t gathered for a big lunch, we would, almost without exception, have spent the afternoon together for coffee. In our family, no gathering is really conceivable without prodigious quantities of food, so when I say coffee, think more of a light luncheon served a bit later in the day.

Come Sunday evening, nobody, least of all my Mum who had done most of the cooking, felt like a large meal of the meat and three veg variety. The guests had left. In their wake the house felt empty. The dying strains of The Wonderful World of Disney could be heard from some remote corner of the house as if quietly jeering, “That’s it, your weekend is over, the cold world awaits you on the morrow.  And by the way you’re late with your English homework.”

Sunday nights were made for comfort food, those in between dishes that frowning matrons would not consider a proper meal, carbohydrates and peasant cooking.

Times have changed.  Family dinners tend to be on Saturday nights and the weekly Sunday coffee gathering are long gone.  Sunday night syndrome is not, thankfully, what it used to be.  But damned if I’m going to let those supper dishes go.

This Sunday’s was one my mother and grandmother used to make, sometimes as part of a larger meal.  It used to be a staple of mine too, then somehow over the years I’d forgotten it until the other day I found a loop of Krakowska sausage in the freezer.  The shape reminded me of the thicker type of rookworst sausage my mother used to use for this dish.  Pretty much any smoked pork sausage would do, at a real push maybe even kransky, but I’d avoid sausages that are highly seasoned, dry or fatty – leave the salami end of the spectrum and go for something with more moisture.

I’ve served it with mash, but it’s also good alongside noodles, buckwheat kasha or just a good piece of rye bread.  You could also stop before the thickening stage and use the sausage and onions with a little goats cheese and caraway on a pizza base.

Smoked Sausage and Melted Onion Sauce

2tbsp vegetable oil

500g or 1lb moist smoked pork sausage, in 1/2cm or 1/4″ slices

8 to 10 medium onions, halved and cut into 1/2cm or 1/4″ slices


freshly ground black pepper

1 large or two small bay leaves

2 to 3 tbsp cider or other mild white vinegar

11/2 to 2 tbsp flour

1 1/2c good beef or chicken stock

sugar to taste (if needed)

1. Heat vegetable oil in a broad, heat proof casserole or similar.  Add sausage and cook over a moderate heat until the sausage is deep golden brown.  If the sausage is fatty, reduce the amount of oil you start with.

Fry the sausage gently to a deep golden brown.

2. Add the onions, bay leaf and seasonings.  It will look like a lot, but the onions really cook down.

Add onions.

3. Cook over low to moderate heat stirring frequently until the onions are starting to melt and turn a light golden brown.  You will need to stir more often and perhaps reduce heat as the onions get closer to being ready. If you burn the onions it’s pretty much all over.  If you’re having problems, add some of the stock or some water little by little so as to let the onions cook some more without sticking.

Onions melting and light golden.

3. Add the vinegar to taste and let it cook out. Remove the bay leaf.   If you want to put this on bread of some kind check the seasonings. Depending on the onions and vinegar, you may need to add a touch of sugar.  If so, sprinkle it in and let it cook through.  Taste again in case you need more.  If it’s too sweet, you can try to balance with a little more vinegar.

4. Sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture, stir in through, let the mixture cook a little – you want the flour to cook through some.  Stir in the stock.  It will tend to go more easily if the stock is already hot.  If the sauce is to thick add more stock or water.  Check for seasonings, sugar or more vinegar as at step 3 above.

5. You’re ready to serve.

Smoked Sausage, Onions and Mash

Food Revolution Day: The Pizza Date

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well gentle reader, we did it. Kind of.  Well, we tried anyway.

My friend Natasha’s idea was to support Food Revolution Day by gathering our kids and letting them make pizza.  Good hands on stuff.  Food from scratch.  Reconnecting with nature’s bounty and all that. 

If, through these posts, you are getting the idea that my friend is the more grounded of the two of us, you would be right.  It had been a very long day, Natasha suggested that she bring along some good quality ready made pizza bases. We would provide simple toppings. It made good sense.  Very good sense even.

But I had finally got my head around the idea of the kids making pizza dough and a nice mess in the kitchen. It was new for me. If I could do it tonight with the calming influence of guests, then perhaps I, too, could become one of those mothers who look serene as their kids cook the kitchen into a new and unintended decor.  For once, there was real hope for me.   It had to be done for the sake of my children.  And besides, why do something the easy way if you can find a way of making it more difficult?

Now, I have more cookbooks than I care to admit, and many pizza dough recipes among them, but for now, almost all are inaccessible (more on the new bookshelves another time).  Besides, Food Revolution Day is Jamie Oliver’s thing, so it seemed reasonable to give one of his recipes a go.

I’d tell you what it was like, but it seems I can no longer read a recipe accurately.  My proportions were different and I also decided to add fine cornmeal polenta in place of fine ground semolina flour (which I do not keep on hand).

Result?  Absolutely. We may never get around to trying the original.

Use this recipe when you are in the mood for a crisp thin crust with a pleasant cornmeal crunch. It made four fairly large (c. 45 x 30cm  or 18 x 12 inch ovals) and four smaller plumper ones slightly under half the size.  It’s not a dough that is going to take well to too much topping, so go easy with cheese and wet toppings or you’ll be dishing up a soggy grease slick.

We made some with a “white” base: a little olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.  Very good with some sliced mushrooms, pitted calamata olives and finely sliced onion rings and an ideal choice for anyone who struggles with dairy or saturated fats. Predictably, the kids all opted for the more traditional “red” base, which, according to their preferences, ranged from tomato sauce (of the ketchup variety) to tomato paste.  

rocket fuel

My own preference in this department was to use a little tomato paste and lift it with a dash of Rocket Fuel sauce for sweetness and spice. Not traditional and too spicy for the kids, but it goes nicely with a topping of zucchini, mushrooms or in season, eggplant and a light sprinkling of cheese.  Besides Rocket Fuel is made locally in Petone.  There’s something satisfying about using local products.

What about the children?  Well, the overnight guest lives in a TV free home and was more interested in the Disney Channel.  The rest tended to follow.  Child involvement was not exactly what it could have been. My older two, being perhaps more deprived of hands on experience, still had a pretty good go at kneading and rolling out.  Turns out that little Lydia is a dab hand with a rolling pin. Who knew?


The kids had no great interest in the toppings and happily left the mums to arrange them.  Well, horse, water, drink. You can only make the opportunities available.  

This lot have all been involved in growing fruit and vegetables, and one was all but born at Moore Wilson. They know what fresh real food looks like.  As for the skills to put it all together? One night does not a revolution make.  So I’m challenging myself to make sure that every week we make at least one meal or dish that the children can get involved in.   

Here’s my version of the pizza dough recipe:

Apologies to American readers.  Next time I make it I’ll try to record the flour measurements by volume also.  In the meantime, here’s a link to a conversion tool that will provide you with approximate equivalents by volume.  I make no representation as to it’s accuracy.

Pizza Dough

1kg or 2 lb 3oz bread flour (a.k.a. strong or high grade flour)*

200g or 7oz fine polenta

1tsp salt

700 to 750ml  or 2 3/4 to 3 cups of lukewarm water

1 tbsp** sugar

4tbsp olive oil

1level tbsp dried yeast

1. Put the flour into a large bowl or heap on a clean working surface.  Jamie Oliver’s recipe said to sift it which would be ideal, but I was in a hurry and didn’t bother.  Stir in the salt and polenta.

2. Measure out the smaller quantity of water.  Be careful it’s not too hot or you’ll kill the yeast.  When the sugar is dissolved, sprinkle on the yeast.  I usually whisk it in to avoid lumps.

3. Set the yeast mixture aside until is starts to fluff up: you’ll know you’re working with live yeast.  Make a well in the flour, pour in the yeast mixture and gradually stir in the surrounding flour. If it looks like it’s going to be dry, add a bit more water.  Mix until it forms a rough dough, then knead on the work surface until smooth and soft. You might notice blisters forming in the surface of the dough.

4. Pop the dough into a lightly oiled bowl about twice the size of your dough.  Cover  with plastic wrap and leave to rise for about an hour or until doubled in size. It could take longer if your kitchen is particularly cold.

5. Set your oven to heat to 220 deg Celsius or 425 Fahrenheit.

6. Knock the dough back, knead briefly then divide into 6 or 12 even pieces depending on what you want to back.  See above for sizes.

7. Roll the dough out to size.  Dough can be about 1/2cm or 2/8″ thick,  I like it a smidge thinner, but take into account what you are going to put on top – more topping needs more crust. You can push it out with your hands or use a rolling pin or clean bottle. Transfer the dough to baking trays lined with non-stick baking paper.  Let them rise for 20 to 30 minutes.

8. Top as desired and bake in batches in a hot oven until your topping is done and the crust is cooked through and golden. Timing will vary depending on topping.

*You can make it with regular all purpose flour.  The result might be slightly different and you might find that it affects the amount of water you need to form the dough.

**Australian readers note that tablespoons are only 15 and not 20ml.

Food Revolution Day: Petone Shopping

Lydia and Cafe Figg

It was another full day.

I started it sensibly by not sleeping much the night before because I was too busy blogging. When I did get to bed, the baby needed a feed.  Then not long after it seemed to be time to get up again.

The sainted husband would no doubt have taken the kids to school and let me sleep longer, but it was Lydia’s first school visit and I wasn’t going to miss that.  Plus walking to school is an important part of my latest regime.  Anyway, it had to be done.

No sooner home, showered, dressed, baby fed again etc,etc, but Lydia was back from school wishing she could stay the night there (so she likes it, thank goodness), my good friend and partner in crime Natasha had arrived (refer our recent Paella adventures) and we set off to Petone on serious business.

Naturally it was only once we’d gone too far to turn back that I realised I had left behind my shopping list for next Tuesday’s Vietnamese cooking night.

House of Knives

Still, we each had friends to collect from knife hospital, House of Knives and other places to go.

Natasha is diligent and well organised, so I think hers were probably just in for a bit of a rest and a spot of botox.  My much loved but somewhat neglected chef’s knife was there for more serious work.

We’ve been together for nearly 25 years and in that time there have been plenty of adventures.  Heck, we even go on holiday together. (Have you ever tried to chop anything with what they give you in a motel unit?)  But this is only our third professional sharpening.

We’d been going through a bit of a rough patch.  The steel wasn’t doing it for us any more, probably exacerbated by the recent guest who used the knife to open a beer. Guess how close he came to finding out just what a good knife can do.  The tip was bent. (My family deny all knowledge.) And the heel needed another regrind.  Not even the sharpest blade can cut well if it doesn’t touch the board all the way through.

Natasha’s knives were ready.  Mine had missed the regrind, so had to stay in overnight again.  A bit of a pain, but now I’ve got a good excuse for another trip.

We had a good look around the store.  Much as I would have liked the crowd sized paella pan, 2 new pairing knives and a black steel frying pan, all I came out with was a bird’s nest icing tip which I hope to deploy in making grass for Lydia’s forthcoming toadstool birthday cake.  (I loathe working with icing, so whatever you’re thinking, please lower your expectations.)


Having come so far, it would have been rude not to visit Bookfeast, the specialist book store conveniently located in the neighbouring shop.


For those who like to read about food and wine, particularly those quaint individuals who still like to flick through a cookbook before they buy, Bookfeast is a veritable oasis.  It’s less of an oasis with a four year old in tow, even they are really very,very good, but I still managed to come out with a book on Vietnamese street food and a list of titles that should solve my husband’s birthday and Christmas shopping problems unto the ages.

Shop owner Sandra Young is always good for a chat and listens very patiently to my standard rant about the lack of good Russian and Polish cookbooks. She tells me she’s reducing her stock of the kind of popular books carried by the chains in favour of the more obscure and specialised books that her customers crave.

If you get a chance, check out her sale shelves.  You might reasonablly expect to see a selection of less loved volumes that have outstayed their welcome, but that’s not the way Sandra does it.  She says if a shelf it getting to full, she just picks out a volume at random to make space for the new one.  Probably not what her accountant wants to hear, but when I go back to collect that knife next week, I’ll be making a bee-line for that shelf.

By now, Natasha and I are feeling weakened, probably more from what we didn’t buy than what we did, and make our way across the road (kind of) to a place Natasha spotted when admitting her knives the day before.

I lived in this town as a child back when still was it’s own town, the meatworks were a big employer, children came to school with no shoes and nobody had heard of gentrification.  These days it’s part of another city council, the meatworks are long gone and while I’m sure the poverty is still there, house prices are up and Jackson St offers you everything from a chocolatier through crepes to curry and back again.

Cafe Figg

Amoungst this panoply, it would be easy enough to go past Cafe Figg.  As we go in, the traffic is noisy and it’s starting to rain.  Inside it’s cosy without being claustophobic.  The food in the cabinet is appetisingly presented, the staff are very friendly and a charming mural ties the autumn colours of the grape leaves overhanging the rear courtyard area to the trees framing the shop on the other side of the road.

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Lydia, who has been behaving well for some time on the promise of a hot chocolate, homes in on strawberry muffin. The range in the cabinet is more than supplemented by a menu, although in terms of presentation, that particular document might look more a home in a greasy spoon.  The new regime dictates abstinence and Lydia declined “help” with her muffin, so there’s not much I can tell you about the food.  I can tell you that they got my hot chocolate just right and that the bathroom facilities were very clean. I think I’ll take Mum there next time we’re on the loose.

By then it was time to head back to Wellington to rescue children from institutions of learning and prepare ourselves for the pizza session to come.  More on that in my next blog.  Plenty more on Petone food shops to come.

Food Revolution Day: In Praise of the Kitchen Table


Today has been designated Food Revolution Day.  It’s all about getting in touch with your food.

Can’t say I’ve ever had too much trouble in that department, but I grew up in an environment of constant cooking.  Whether it was my grandmother baking bread, my aunty separating eggs,  my great grandmother pulling fresh sorrel from the garden for her soup,  helping my mum out in the kitchen – something I always counted as a treat, helping my other granny to collect fresh eggs or seeing her toast bread in the old kitchen range on the end of a wire fork that her father made for the purpose, life was a continuum of food memories.

And let’s face it, the best conversation is always found in the kitchen.

I have a theory on the loss of cooking skills and changes in kitchen layout.  My generation started to haemorrage cooking skills well before our mothers went to work, but about the same time as the modern kitchen emerged.  (I stand to be corrected here.)

Preparation done at a kitchen table is highly visible.  The shift to the kitchen bench, most often in a galley or U shaped kitchen layout, has meant that the primary view for the small is the back of the cook.  What is done transform meat and potato into dinner might as well be alchemy.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a tall gal and food prep at a kitchen table is murder.  I like my benches and I like ’em high.  So what I also like is my island counter with the stools on the far side so that, like me, my girls can sit and draw, do their homework or just hang out watching dinner being prepared.  My cook top is also set into the island, so they have an easy and safe view of every part of the process.  My four year old has even been known to turn off the TV to come and watch.

What I’m not good at is the hands on side.  I have a low threshold for kitchen mess, I’m usually cooking in a hurry and I cringe every time I see those little kids on Master Chef Junior wielding sharp knives.

Tonight I’m going to cut loose.  We’ve got one little friend on a sleep over, and another two coming with their Mum (whose idea it was).  We were thinking of making pelmeni, but circumstances call for something simpler, so it’s pizza all around.  The kids will love making the dough and rolling out their own crust and adding toppings.  Keep an eye out for the photos.

I also reaffirm my pledge that no child of mine will be allowed to leave home without first acquiring basic cooking skills.

In the meantime, viva la revolution!

Find more on Food Revolution Day here.

Roast Resurrection or What to do with the Leftover Pork?

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There’s something very satisfying about cooking a hearty family roast dinner.

We’re talking the kind of meal that speaks of quiet tradition and familiarity. It’s casual, but I set the kitchen table with a cloth and my favourite plates, because these days we don’t have much time together and I want, in some small way, to mark the occasion.

We all squeeze around. The family sit close by as I put the finishing touches on each course. Our affectionate banter is built on in-jokes reaching back to those  present only in memory. The dishes often have the same provenance. No trendy ingredients. No clever cheffy garnishes. Just the tastes and smells of our collective past served up one more time to feed, to nurture and to remind us of good times in other kitchens and in other times.

Then there’s that thing that happens the next day, because if you’ve done it right, there is always, but always, too much food.

You open the fridge door and it looks back at you, cold and diminished. Even from under a layer of foil, your pork joint manages to exude attitude. The kind of unblinking, bleary-eyed, belligerent stare you get from the drunk at the back of the bar after you tell him you’re not interested. “Here I am.”, it says, “So what are you gonna do about it?”.

In New Zealand it’s autumn going on winter. Like a hungover debutante with a crushed dress and smeared mascara, cold pork has limited allure.

My grandmother would have minced the meat and used it to stuff crepes dumplings called pierogi in Poland and vareniki still further east.  But today I don’t have any cooking juices left and there’s nothing very appetising about either dish if the filling is dry and crumbly.

I cooked the pork with star anise instead of my granny’s preferred caraway seeds, so I’m looking for something with an Asian feel. Not strict authenticity, but a direction that will let me turn what’s already in the fridge into a tasty, interesting and relatively healthy weeknight dinner. The pork was roasted on a bed of apples, pears and onions. I decide that onion and apple will work well in a dumpling filling, adding both moisture and flavour.  The pear might be a bit too wet.  A quick google suggests there’s a lot of napa cabbage happening in the pot sticker department. I don’t have one handy, but decide that carrot and zucchini will do.  And while I’m at it, I might as well have a crack at a hot water dough too.

Call it beginners luck, but this one has earned it’s place in my recipe book:  my vegetable-averse firstborn asked for seconds, they were remarkably quick to make,  and the leftover dumplings made a good lunch. Boxes ticked. Happy mummy.

Here’s how:

Pork and Apple Pot Stickers


700g/1 1/2lb cooked pork, cut into coarse boneless dice

2 medium onions, finely diced

2 medium courgettes/zucchini

2 small carrots, peeled

2 small cooking apples (I used Granny Smiths)

4 plump cloves of garlic, crushed

3.5cm/1.5″ piece of ginger, minced or grated

2 whole star anise

vegetable oil

3 tbsp* soy sauce

sesame oil

Dumpling Dough

3c flour

boiling water

To Serve

black or Chinkiang vinegar, soy sauce or other dipping sauce


1. Put cook pork through the mincer or pulse in the food processor until finely ground.  Set aside.

2.Prepare the vegetables and apple.  Grate zucchini, carrots and apple, or cut into rough pieces (discarding the apple core) and pass through the mincer.  Set aside.

3. Heat about 1 tbsp of oil in a wide heavy skillet, add onions and whole star anise, sweat over moderate heat until the onions are wilted.  Add garlic and ginger, continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions until just starting to turn golden.

4. Add grated vegetables and apple.  Increase heat and fry until the moisture has evaporated (you want the filling to be moist, but not soggy).

5. Stir in the soy sauce, cook for a couple of minutes more sauce.  Taste:  you need enough salt to balance the sweetness of the vegetables.  Then sprinkle a little sesame oil.  You want enough just to add the merest hint.  Go in small increments.  You can always add a little more.

6. Remove the star anise then add the vegetable mixture to the ground pork.  Mix thoroughly. Taste and check seasonings. Rinse out your skillet ready for cooking the pot stickers.

7. Next make the dough. Measure the flour into a good-sized heat proof mixing bowl (c. 4 litres/quarts). Add enough boiling water  to bring together a soft dough. As with the sesame oil, it’s easier to add more than to take it away, so add about a cup and then small amounts until the dough comes together.  It doesn’t take long.

8.  Sprinkle your work-surface with flour, and knead the dough until it’s smooth.  Divide into 3 even portions, roll each portion into a 30cm/12″ sausage and cut into pieces the size of a small walnut.

Mine were a bit big and as a result the dumplings were quite large.  Not so bad with a cooked filling, but if you had raw ingredients you might want to make sure they were a little smaller.)

9. Roll each portion out into a 6.5cm/2.5″ circle. (Ideal job for the kids.)  Holding the circle in the palm of your hand, put a tablespoon of filling in the centre.  Fold over the dough, pinch the edges together, taking care to seal the whole semicircle. Line them up on a lightly floured board or tray ready for cooking.  They should rest on their backs – the straight side of the semicircle.  Plump them down so that there is a flat surface for them to sit on.


10.  When they are all done (or you have enough for a pan load), heat the pan again.  If you have more filling and dough, you can keep filling more dumplings while the first set are cooking.  Add about a tablespoon of oil to the pan.  Arrange the dumplings over the surface of the pan so that there is just a small gap between each one.


11. Cook over moderate heat until the dumplings are golden brown on the underside.  (I like them fried a little more, so I let them cook on each side of the dumpling too, but this is not traditional as far as I can make out.)  Then add about 1/2 cup of water to the pan, cover it and let the dumplings cook until all the water is absorbed.  (About enough time to make yourself some green tea.)  If you don’t have a lid big enough for your pan, try covering with a baking /cookie sheet.  Your dumplings are now ready to serve.

The hyperobservant might have noticed in the second picture that one of the dumplings has a hole in it.  (Up near the red flour scoop) Either I rolled the dough to thin or stretched it a bit much getting it around the filling.   I dealt with that by lying the dumpling directly on the hole rather than the flat bottom when they first went into the pan (lower centre dumpling above), so that it formed it’s own crust and resealed.  Successful rescue.

*Australians please note my tablespoons are 15 not 20ml.

Pot Stickers

Back to School: Paella at Social Cooking


Paella is a dish that taunted me quietly for years.

People raved.  There were cute pans with brightly coloured handles that would look fantastic resting casually on my stove top and a reason to keep saffron in my pantry.  Paella promised warm hues and tantalising aromas from the home of Sarasate, Casals, flamenco, passion and romance, amontillado and choritzo.

But as a fish-wuss who cooks for even bigger fish-wusses, the thought of cooking anything where you picked food out from around the shells was distasteful.  Perhaps nearly as distressing as the composition of black pudding or watching someone dig around inside a marrow bone.

Why not just leave the ruddy shellfish out?  What if that meant my paella was not all it could be?  No, ladies and gentlemen, it was time to man up, as it were, and take the fish by the shell.

At the same time good friend and fellow foodie Natasha and I were thinking of trying out some cooking classes.    Natasha, always a few steps ahead of me when it comes to knowing what’s going on, had heard of a new cooking school down by Wellington’s waterfront called Social Cooking.  The classes were $99 for one person, so we thought they must be pretty sharp.   Times are hard, but the curiosity was killing us, so we promised ourselves a treat … one day.

Fate intervened in the form of one of those email voucher offers.   A class with wine and dessert, it told us, would normally cost us $234, but we were special and could go to the ball for a significantly more palatable $92.  We pounced on the voucher and waited patiently to sign ourselves up for a paella class.

The first troubling sign came with the reminder (kind thought) sent to get my “taste buds rocking”.  It was my “night to cook – baby”.  I was thanked for “getting social” with them.  A reminder to us all never to draft anything after watching Austin Powers movies.

The Big Night

I was running about 25 minutes late, but apparently so was the class.  I arrived just as the demonstrator’s paprika-dusted prawns hit the pan, or so I gathered.  Despite my 6 feet (height not appendages), I couldn’t see into the pan and the overhead mirror added nothing.  Prawns par-fried, we went on to explore the mysteries of the sofrito: onions, tomatoes and garlic, three beings in one.

Grated Tomatoes

The grating of the tomatoes was about the highlight of the evening.  You want finely chopped tomatoes in this dish, but not their skins.

Blanching the tomato, we were told, would take too much equipment .  If you halve a tomato cross ways and rub cut side down against the grater until you’ve worn through to the tomato skin, you can save the blanching, if not your knuckles.

My Polish aunties blanched tomatoes by dropping one into a good sized mug and covering it with boiling water straight from the kettle.   Give it three minutes, refresh under cold tap water and slip off the skin. Probably not how they do it at the Cordon Bleu, but it works.

I can report that the grating method is also effective, and trust that you will feel empowered by the choices now at your disposal.

Tinned vs Fresh

In response to a question, the demonstrator asserted that use of tinned tomatoes would not be right.  They should be fresh, regardless how expensive, and, in all likelihood, how out of season.  I wonder.

Whilst tinned tomatoes were not acceptable, bottled garlic (sponsor’s product) was.  Likewise the not very Spanish or smoked looking paprika.

The rest of the demonstration barreled along amiably, albeit with the assistant constantly hopping out the back for plates and bits that had been forgotten.  We learned to spread the rice out into a thin (c. 1cm or 1/2″) layer (hence the big flat pans),  to let it cook without stirring until you can see the rice through the cooking liquid, then how to cover it with paper until the cooking is complete.

The demonstrator explained how to cook paella without the specialist pans (damn and blast), how to check up on progress without creating a starchy mess, and what to do if the rice wasn’t cooked through. We went through how to score the squid and how to check the mussels were still alive, but not how to clean them.  There was no discussion about the types of rice suitable for paella.

Unusually, we were not able to taste the demonstrator’s paella before we went on to cook our own.   This was apparently reserved as dinner for the demonstrator and her assistant.

Hands On

Natasha and I agreed that cooking the squid for 10 or more minutes seemed like a bad idea.  The demonstrator suggested a slow simmer in stock while the rest of the paella was cooking.  We settled  for pre-cooking the squid on a hot pan along with the prawns and were rewarded with great flavour.    The squid and prawns were added back for the last five minutes of cooking, but could have gone in a bit later.

Did I mention our glass of wine?  No?  That’s because so far we were still waiting for it.  When it did arrive, it had all the bouquet of a bottle you find hiding in the back of the fridge about two weeks after a dinner party.  We drank it anyway.  There were only two bottles of water set out for 20 people in a small shop front and 10 lots of paella cooking away furiously.  We had to drink something.

On the hygiene side, the hand washing facilities were inadequate and we came across dirty glasses, plates and cutlery over the course of the evening.  At the other extreme, thank goodness for the paper protecting our rice as one of the presenters merrily sprayed the bench cleaner around right next to where our pan was cooking.

It all went along much as promised and produced, I must admit, a very tasty dinner.  The crust on the bottom of rice was just delicious.  As for the mussels, they were tender and sweet and lent a delicacy to the dish not remotely reminiscent of low tide.  Definitely something I will try again at home.   I can only think how much better it will be with homemade chicken stock. What we had tasted distinctly as though it came from a cube.

Dessert consisted of a small scoop of partially melted ice cream with a previously hot chocolate sauce congealed around the edges of the mismatched bowls.  And there was coffee, if not quite enough coffee cups.

The social aspect of the evening would have been greatly enhanced if only we had all been able to sit down for dinner, but as there was only table space for 8, the rest of us ate by our benches, once again contributing to the sense of cooking in a student flat. Pretty much everyone was there with someone else.  I imagine it would feel quite awkward if you went on your own.

We had pretty much been, gone and eaten by 8:15pm.  As we waited for the nice AA man to come and revive my car battery, we watched the remaining attendees trickle out.  That they had done by about 8:30pm, well before the advertised 9:15pm finish.  Makes you wonder why they didn’t pack in more time on the fundamental techniques and ingredients.  

All said and done, I really did enjoy the evening.   Always good to spend time with Natasha, I tried some new ingredients and learned to cook a tasty new dish that I would not have tried at home by myself.

Will I cook this dish again?  Yes.  Would I go to another class? They won’t have me back now anyway.  Would I be happy to pay $117 for the pleasure?  You must be joking.  Did the class represent value at $46 per person? Just barely.

Click here for the recipe.

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Natasha and I beaming over our diced onions.     

Seafood Paella:  Finishing Touch of Parsley

A finishing touch of parsley.

Paella on a Plate

Time to eat.  Two servings took quite a large pan.  Pan size has to increase with the number of servings or you miss the all-delicious crust.

Saigon Taste, Wellington

I’m planning a Vietnamese themed cooking night with some foodie friends in a couple of weeks.  By way of background research (yes, sometimes life is hard), three of us got together for lunch at Mount Victoria’s Saigon Taste.  Yum.  I’d definitely go back.

We ordered and shared 5 dishes:  summer (fresh) rolls, chicken salad, hanoi style noodles with fried fish & sesame rice paper (Bun Ca or 38a), fish & pineapple hot pot and hot and sour beef and seafood soup.
If you’d like a closer look, there are pictures on the menu. The soup was a blackboard special, so don’t go crazy looking for that.
Whilst the summer rolls and salad were both billed as starters, the servings were very generous and would make an ample lunch.
Both dishes show-cased the fresh, clean flavours Vietnamese cooking is famous for.  I was particularly impressed with the judicious use of Vietnamese mint.  I once put it in a salad at home, used the same quantities as I would of regular mint and consequently renounced the pungent herb for all time.  Now I’m thinking I might plant some.
The Bun Ca was something of a revelation.  The fish was lightly cooked and crisp on the outside without being greasy.  Together with crispy wafers of sesame rice paper, it sat of a full bowl of noodles, vegetables and dressing.  I was interested to learn more about the seasonings that gave the fish a sweetish almost vanilla-ish flavour and got as far as working out that there are two kinds of Bun Ca.  As soon as I googled Bug Ca Ha Noi, you start to run out of English language hits pretty quickly.
I found that comforting.  I’d think of begging Papa Saigon Taste for his recipe, but since his English was only marginally more proficient than my Vietnamese, I might have to resign myself to ignorance.
The hot pot is only for those who really  like very strong oily fish flavours.  Since I sometimes blanch at the thought of sardines on toast (yes, I’m a fish-wuss) it was not for me.  That’s not to say it wasn’t well prepared.
The final dish was the hot and sour soup.  I don’t recall we discussed this one much.  I’m not sure my friends could really taste much after the hot pot.  And we were all pretty much stuffed full.  Pleasant enough, but not a stand out and I’m not sure that the cooking method did much for the squid.
The service was gentle, unobtrusive and prompt.   On the last point, they weren’t very busy, so who knows how things work on a busy Saturday night.
Three of us ate a big and varied meal for a princely $61.