Annabel Langbein: Kiwi hospitality
This year, while I was in France, I spent a couple of months in Bergerac, in the southwest near Bordeaux. During my stay I helped with the catering for a very fancy lunch at the imposing chateau of some foreign billionaire.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this experience (aside from the wretched excess of truffles, foie gras, caviar and mind-bogglingly expensive wines), was that the food was so … well … dare I say it ... rather dull and old-fashioned. There was no chance of sneaking a little toasted cumin seed into the yoghurt dip for the crudites, or sprucing up the salad with an avocado and some toasted walnuts. “Ah non, non, non, this is France my dear, and we only do it like this.”
In the restaurants, it was hard to find somewhere decent to eat that wasn’t old-fashioned, fussy French fare, while at the cheaper end of the dining out scale there was always the dreaded “menu formule”, inevitably trotting out the same tired old routine of duck breast dished up with pommes frites and a bit of limp salad.
To some extent, this stoic adherence to the past is what enables the authentic eating experiences we find so appealing when we travel. Imagine sitting in some little Greek seaside taverna and being served Japanese sushi. We want the souvlaki, the Greek salad and little grilled fish. Even if it may be oily and boring, it feels authentic and safe and right. But these days, here in New Zealand, we don’t just want same, same, day after day. We have grown accustomed to so much more.
We have what it takes to be the best in all things food (and wine) — an amazing growing environment, a diverse melting pot of immigrants bringing their culinary cultures to our tables, the lack of any weighty culinary history to shackle our thinking. Our tables are open to new ideas and innovation. More than at any other time in our history, the world is our oyster.
The heart of our Kiwi culinary culture is not about all the fancy pants stuff — the culinary gymnastics and clever tricks that restaurant chefs trot out to pique our appetites and plunder our pockets. To me, the essence of what defines Kiwi cooking lies in the idea of resourcefulness, coupled with a deeply rooted concept of welcome or manaakitanga.
This latter overarching principle of nourishment and care means that when someone turns up unexpectedly, even when it looks like there is nothing on hand to eat, we will always say, “Stay for dinner.” The possibilities for a simple, good meal to be seemingly conjured out of thin air, are always there.
When the pantry feels bare, here are a few of my favourite meals you can easily whip together for an impromptu meal.
My husband says that when he was growing up on the farm his mother would make fritters with leftover cold meat and onion or bubble and squeak (leftover cooked cabbage and potato), with a little curry powder added. This fritter batter is a terrific canvas for all kinds of flavourings and fillings — try frozen or canned corn kernels, crumbled feta cheese and a little chilli; peas with grated cheese and pesto; or grated kumara and curry spices. This mussel and zucchini combo is always a favourite. This is a thick batter, which gives a chunky fritter, perfect for a meal. For thinner fritters, just add a little more liquid.
The frittata is a great example of the philosophy that runs through my two Essential cookbooks: once you have the hang of the method, it’s a recipe that can be endlessly customised. This combo is great for when you have only eggs, frozen vegetables and cheese at hand, but you could also try it with sauteed peppers and zucchini and lots of fresh basil, or sauteed crumbled fennel sausage, finely chopped broccoli and parmesan. I like to cook it in a frying pan but you can also make individual frittatas in Texas muffin pans. Bake at 180C fanbake until set and lightly golden (about 30 minutes).
You could also use ham or bacon instead of the chorizo or, for a vegetarian version of this easy pasta, replace it with some lightly blanched cauliflower florets. The addition of fresh tomatoes at the end gives the dish a clean, bright finish but you can leave them out if you don’t have them or use rocket or spinach instead.