The secrets of great cooking

Timing is the most essential element of successful cooking, according to my husband, Gordon, and I agree with him. But there’s another: ingredients. What to cook, what to combine, how to make something of seemingly nothing, what is best cooked fresh and when you can make do with frozen or canned ingredients are some of the necessary decisions.

I notice that famous TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver and that competitors in TV cooking competitions such as My Kitchen Rules all use packets of frozen peas in recipes, for example. Not that this would affect me, since frozen peas are one of the few foods I detest, and have done since, as a toddler, I stole a packet from the freezer and ate the lot.

I was reminded of how important ingredients are to cooking by today’s topic for the Daily Post At’s Daily Prompt, which is “Ingredients” (you can access the many interesting posts on this topic here). I’m fascinated by this subject, and since I took up painting three years ago, ingredients for recipes have featured in a number of my paintings. Some of them you’ve seen before, but I thought I’d gather my ingredients-based paintings together and present them on this one page.

My first painting, acrylics on treated board, in which I had to be brave, load the brush with paint and go! © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

My first painting, acrylics on treated board, in which I had to be brave, load the brush with paint and go!
© Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

A quick pastel sketch on coloured paper. I don't have a fascination with knives, truly: they are just great subjects to try out new-found painting techniques. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

A quick pastel sketch on coloured paper. I don’t have a fascination with knives, truly: they are just great subjects to try out new-found painting techniques. This one has special sentimental value (explained in the last painting, below).                              © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Pear-Shaped", watercolour. I bought these beautiful pears in season and couldn't resist painting them. This was my first attempt at a watercolour painting. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

“Pear-Shaped”, watercolour. I bought these beautiful pears in season and couldn’t resist painting them. This was my first attempt at a watercolour painting. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Only On His Day Off", acrylics on canvas board. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

“Only On His Day Off”, only the second painting I did, acrylics on canvas board. © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Waiting For Thai Tonight", acrylics on canvas board  © Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

“Waiting For Thai Tonight”, acrylics on canvas board
© Caron Eastgate Dann 2011

"Making Sangria", Pan Pastels on treated paper © Caron Eastgate Dann 2012

“Making Sangria”, PanPastels on treated paper. For this painting, I sourced all the ingredients, including a bottle of Spanish wine that we went to a specialist shop to buy. The great thing: I got to drink it after, so it was an incentive to finish the painting!
© Caron Eastgate Dann 2012

"Making Salad Niçoise", acrylics on treated board. This picture includes my favourite salad servers, plastic tiki-decorated souvenirs from New Zealand.  ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012 ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

“Making Salad Niçoise”, acrylics on treated board. This picture includes my favourite salad servers, plastic tiki-decorated souvenirs from New Zealand.
©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

"Fruity Still Life", watercolours on paper. This was just a quick sketch, and I'm not very experienced in watercolours, so it's rather wonky: but I don't mind that! ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

“Fruity Still Life”, watercolours on paper. This was just a quick sketch, and I’m not very experienced in watercolours, so it’s rather wonky: but I don’t mind that! ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

"Apple Day", PanPastels on treated paper. The apples were three different varieties I bought for this picture. The willow-pattern china was given to me by my late grandmother.  ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

“Apple Day”, PanPastels on treated paper. The apples were three different varieties I bought for this picture. The willow-pattern china was given to me by my late grandmother. The knife in this picture is very special, as it was given to me decades ago by my late father. It has a permanent place in my kitchen.
©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

Cauliflower is the new rice!

My rogan josh, complete with cauliflower rice.

My rogan josh, complete with cauliflower rice

I love pasta, rice and, to a lesser extent, mashed potato, but in our household I am trying to reduce our carbohydrate intake.

We both love to cook and can happily spend hours in the kitchen preparing meals. We’ve been using cauliflower mash to substitute for potato mash for a few years now, and it works beautifully, particularly when done in the snazzy mini-food processor we bought for $30.

Recently, I found that cauliflower could double for another of our staples, and that was white rice. Surprisingly, it was on a Jamie Oliver cooking show that I first heard about cauliflower rice. Here is my version:

Take about a third of a medium cauli for two people. Make sure it is super white and firm. Take off as much of the stalk as you can. Put it in a food processor and whiz until it becomes like grains of rice. Make sure there are no big bits left, and if there are, take them out. But don’t process so much that it congeals. The grains should be separated.

Tip the grains into a microwave-safe dish with a ventilated lid. Very important: do not add water.

Microwave on high for about five minutes. Oliver says seven minutes, and other recipes I’ve seen say four, but it will depend on how much you are cooking, the power of your microwave oven, and what your taste is. For two people, I cook it for four minutes, then test it.

Now use as you would rice: this is a lovely base for a curry, for example, and you can see in the picture above my cauliflower rice with rogan josh, made for dinner last night.

You can also make cauli rice into a sort of pilau. Fry some diced vegetables, such as chopped onion, capsicum, mushroom, garlic, herbs and spices, in a little oil of your choice until golden, then add cooked cauli-rice, stir to heat and serve.

Briefly, here are the other substitutes I use for high-carbohydrate foods:

cauliCauliflower mash

As cauli absorbs a lot of moisture when it cooks, it’s better to microwave or steam it, but you can simply boil it if you want to. Make sure the cooked cauli is very tender, but not waterlogged. The food processor on pulse does the best job, and adding a little cream cheese to the mix does wonders. Half a teaspoon or so of powdered chicken stock can also be good.

If you’ve boiled the cauli, it will make quite a sloppy mash, but this can be delightful served on the dinner plate in a little ramekin with a knob of butter for the naughty.

Zucchini pasta

For a fettuccini substitute, use zucchini (courgette). Take a vegetable peeler and shave long strips from the zucchini, avoiding the inner seeds. You’ll probably need one medium zucchini per person. Then blanche quickly in boiling water—it will take only about one minute, or maybe even less. The trick is that it must be al dente but not raw, so experiment with a few pieces first. If overcooked, the strips will break up.

Drain the strips and treat as you would regular pasta, that is add some seasoning and a few drops of olive oil if you like.

Serve topped with your favourite sauce. A light tomato-based sauce works well, with parmesan and parsley on top. Or, fry in olive oil a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs, a garlic clove, some dried or fresh chilli slices, and an optional anchovy fillet or two. Dribble the sauce liberally over the zucchini pasta and serve with a wedge of lemon on the side.  Season to taste, of course, but remember, anchovy is very salty.

Egg wraps

Bread has such a central place in the western diet, it’s hard to get away from it. This is particularly so at lunchtime, when it seems so easy to grab a couple of pieces of lovely sourdough or a crunchy roll and fill with ham, cheese, tuna, or whatever else is on hand.

For a brilliant alternative, I take one egg per person, break and mix well together in a small bowl. Season and add a little water, no more than a teaspoon for every two eggs, and mix again.

Take a small non-stick fry pan—mine is 14cm across at the base—and spray lightly with oil, turning to medium heat. You should need to use the oil only once during the cooking time.

You fry the egg wraps exactly as if you were cooking crepes: spoon in a small amount of egg and then quickly tilt the pan so the egg covers the entire base. If you’ve overestimated, tip the excess back into the bowl. If you’ve underestimated, add a little more. But this must be done within a few seconds! The wrap will take 30 seconds or less: it’s ready when the edges start to peel away from the pan. You should easily be able to nudge the wrap from the pan and on to a waiting plate.

Continue until all the egg is left. You will probably have three wraps per person, depending on the size of the eggs.

The wraps can be served with hot or cold fillings. Simply treat the way you would a bread wrap, and fill with whatever you want. We like smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers, for example. These can be easily transported to work or school for a portable lunch.

Happy eating, and I’d love to know your suggestions for other substitutes.

‘Tis the season

I’m with Goldfish over at Fish of Gold: I’m not much good at parties these days. I haven’t hosted a party for years, and the only ones I go to are those connected with very important events, such as weddings, engagements and special birthdays.

When I was young, I loved parties. The dressing up, the social interaction, the laughing, the music, the dancing. Now, you couldn’t pay me to leave the comfort of my home at night, pay zillions for taxis and stand around making small talk to people while the music’s so loud, we can hardly hear ourselves think.

So when I read that the last Bloggers for Peace challenge of the year was to plan a party “that will ripple peace to the world”,  I groaned.

Then I started to think about it: is there any requirement that a party have a specific number of people, or that it even needs to be away from home? No, I don’t think there is.

 What is it? Why it's my novelty snow dome bottle stopper, of course, and it comes out only at this time of year.

What is it? Why it’s my novelty snow dome bottle stopper, of course, and it comes out only at this time of year.

So, my peace party would be this: gather together the loved ones in your house or invite some dear friends or family over. No texting, checking Facebook or other anti-social activity while this is going on.

Cook a beautiful but simple meal. In the words of one of my friends: “make a salad, bake some potatoes, and put some steaks on the barbecue. Other ideas are to make a huge paella that everyone can dig into; or serve a steaming platter of spaghetti marinara with salad and crunchy bread.  Include something sweet at the end, even if it’s just ice cream (have you SEEN the fancy flavours now available? Lemon meringue, coconut lime, and passionfruit pavlova are among them).

Open a bottle of wine—or, if alcohol isn’t your thing, make luxurious hot chocolate (here’s a stunning Jamie Oliver recipe). Put on your favourite music—not too loudly—and talk to each other. Tell jokes, laugh, talk about the people you miss, talk about the funny things you have done together.

If you celebrate Christmas, consider having a low-key day like this. It will be peaceful and relaxing, not too expensive, and you’ll avoid the stress of the “more is more”, overly commercialised stupidity that has hijacked the season.

If we all spent less on holiday celebrations and had our own peaceful, modest parties instead, then donated the money saved to some effective charities, we could go a long way to making the world a better place for millions of people.

My Favourite Old Recipe Books

My recipe books take up two shelves of a big bookcase, and I have culled them to just the ones I use or am likely to use.

My recipe books take up two shelves of a big bookcase, and I have culled them to just the ones I use or am likely to use.

Remember the days when if you had a whim to cook something—beef stroganoff, say—you would have to trawl through your cook books, knowing the best recipe was…somewhere?

These days, I can simply google it and come up immediately with the right recipe via the internet. I put my iPad in the cook book stand in the kitchen and away I go.

But you know what? I still love my old recipe books. I still occasionally buy a new one. I have had some of these books since the 1980s when I was first starting out on my own and when I knew little more about food than grilled meat and three boiled veg (orange, green, white).

In the first flat I lived in at 17, my flatmate, Heather—who was nine years older—cooked for us on nights one and two. On the third night, we got home from work (we were both reporters, on rival newspapers) and she said, “Well, I cooked the last two nights, so you can do tonight. I’m going out to mow the lawn. Call me when it’s ready.” And off she went.

I was shocked: I don’t think I’d realised I’d have to cook. I probably hadn’t even thought about it, because Mum and Dad always cooked at home and I was too busy studying.

I can’t recall now what I made in entirety, but I remember calling out the window to Heather, “Umm—how do you cook potatoes?” She put the mower on idle and said, “Peel them, put some water in a pot and boil them till they’re soft,” before roaring away from me with the mower.

Heather didn’t stay long, and I soon had a new flatmate, Jan, who was my age but much more cluey about things domestic. Jan introduced me to the world of recipe books and I was soon serving 1980s wonders such as apricot chicken and potato-topped salmon bake.

These days, there are many fantastic and hilarious websites and blogs devoted to retro recipes: but I prefer my own little corner of history in my bookcase and I often still use my favourite old cook books. Coming up are just some of my favourites. Note that these are not my favourite coffee-table recipe books—this is a whole different category that I should write about some time. These are some of my favourite books that I actually use all the time for everyday meals. They are splashed, stained and creased with the efforts of preparing many meals past.

rec4The New Zealand Radio and Television Cookbook, edited by Alison Holst (1981)

This book was given to me by my godmother when I was 21, and I still use it all the time. It’s great if you want to cook a hearty beef casserole or vegetable soup, and has an “Eastern and Polynesian” chapter which—despite the unsophisticated grouping together of a very wide number of cuisines—is actually pretty useful still. Here we find recipes for sukiyaki, Indonesian barbecued duckling with gado gado salad and rempeh.

Alison Holst is one of my homeland New Zealand’s most famous cooks, and any book she writes or edits is accessible, easy to follow, and fail-safe. For this book, recipes were contributed by “listeners and viewers” throughout NZ.

The preface points to a bygone age when, supposedly, women were the only ones cooking in the domestic sphere (not in my family though—my parents shared the cooking, and my grandad did a fair bit at his place, too). The preface is worth quoting in its entirety, if only for its antiquated sentiments:

“This book contains a wide selection of recipes, favourites sent in by listeners and viewers from one end of New Zealand to the other—farmers’ wives and city women; those who cook for one or two and the mothers of large, hungry families; women who buy just what they fancy and those who watch their food budget carefully; young cooks and women with years of cooking behind them…”

Country Cooking: Regional and traditional recipes from Europe and North America, edited by Heather Maisner (1982)

Almost all my adult life, this book has been my go-to for traditional and authentic menus from Europe and America. It’s an artistically produced book, with historical photos and information about food production. So, if I randomly let this book fall open, I come across the “Spain and Portugal” chapter, from which I would choose vieras guisadas (Galacia) baked scallops, Sopa de almendras (Andalusia) almond soup, and paella Valenciana (Valencia).

rec6A Vegetable Cookbook, by Digby Law (1986)

This is my vegetable bible. I got this book in 1986 when I was literary editor of the Auckland Star and interviewed the author. I still use this book most weeks. It lists vegetables alphabetically, explains how to cook them simply, then for each has 6-10 recipes, which range from the well known, such as ratatouille and moussaka, to the exotic, such as choko relleno, “an unusual dessert from Mexico”. There are no photos, just the odd line drawing of a cabbage or an onion. Law’s Soup Cook Book is also excellent.

rec7South-East Asian Cookery: An Authentic Taste of the Orient, by Sallie Morris (1989)

I bought this unpretentious little paperback in 1991, when I was living in Thailand. Its recipes range from the highly complicated to the divinely simple, such as kha-yan-kyin thee thoke (Burma)—green tomato salad; raam long song (Thailand)—meaning “Rama’s bath”, a beef curry on a platter of green leaves; and goong pahd gratiem (Thailand)—prawns with garlic. There are a few coloured photos, but these are of produce for sale in markets and so on rather than of the recipes themselves.

rec3The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces, by Diane Seed (1987)

I started to get interested in cooking Italian food when I met my dear Italian friend, Rosa, at my first job in Australia in 1988. We’re still great friends after 25 years! She opened my eyes to a whole new world of cooking—olive oil, pasta, olives, fresh garlic, chilli and more. This was probably the first Italian cook book I bought, way back in 1989, and I still use it today. Some of its standout recipes, which I have probably made 50 to 100 times each, are penne al cavolfiore (penne with cauliflower), spaghetti con zucchini, and the supremely simple tagliatelle con cipolle (tagliatelle with onion sauce).

rec9Thai Cooking, by Kurt Kahrs (1990)

When I was first going to live in Thailand in 1990, I didn’t even know what the food would be like—this was before the craze for Thai food had hit Australia and the time when Japanese food, not Thai, seemed to be the most trendy international cuisine here. Before I left, my mother bought me this book and I’ve used it ever since.

I have lots of Thai cook books, since it is my particular area of interest, including two amazing books by Thomson  (describe and photograph all as a montage). But I keep going back to favourite recipes in Kahrs’s book: the khao op sapparod (pineapple baked rice), the khai phad met ma Muang (chicken fried with cashew nuts), and the lab kai (spiced minced chicken salad) among them. This book has photos for each recipe, too.

Rec2Country Cooking: Regional and traditional recipes from Europe and North America, edited by Heather Maisner (1982)

Almost all my adult life, this book has been my go-to for traditional and authentic menus from Europe and America. It’s an artistically produced book, with historical photos and information about food production. So, if I randomly let this book fall open, I come across the “Spain and Portugal” chapter, from which I would choose vieras guisadas (Galacia) baked scallops, Sopa de almendras (Andalusia) almond soup, and paella Valenciana (Valencia).

rec5The Best Traditional Recipes of Greek cooking, Editions D. Haitalis (1990s)

I bought this little gem in Athens in 1996. It has no date of publication, but the cover states that it is a “new edition”. I love Greek food, and this is the only cook book I need, really. It is full of marvellous authentic recipes of a much wider range that your average Australian Greek restaurant serves. One of my favourites is Spanakóryso, simply “spinach rice”. I make this every Christmas: don’t ask me why only at Christmas, it just seems to fit as a lovely side dish that can be eaten hot or cold. There is an error through this book, in that I think they have confused in translation the words for “teaspoon” or “tablespoon perhaps” and “teacup”: thus, we have recipes calling for “2 teacups of olive oil” in a rice dish. The book includes colour photos of many of the dishes.

rec81,000 Italian Recipes, By Michele Scicolone (2004)

This is a newer acquisition, given to my husband and me for a wedding present in 2006 by our foodie friend Kenny over at Consider the Sauce. If you have only one Italian cook book, make it this one. It is full to the brim of authentic regional recipes, many of them simple and requiring just a few ingredients. There are no pictures, but there are wonderful descriptions of how the recipes came to be.

rec1The dreaded clippings folder

Probably everyone had one of these, full of recipes we’ve clipped from newspapers, magazines and printed out from websites. Believe it or not, I recently cleaned this out, throwing away years-old recipes I’d never made and now had no interest in. But there’s lots of interesting stuff in here—it’s like a lucky dip. It can take some time, though to find a particular recipe. “Now where is it? I know it’s in here somewhere…”

The perfect inventions: top 11

Apart from the ancient essential inventions, such as the wheel and fire, and the obvious modern inventions, such as antibiotics and X-rays, and world-changing new media, such as the internet and computers, what are the inventions that make our everyday life better than it would otherwise be? What are the inventions that just can’t be beaten? I’ve made a list of some of my favourites. To make the list, they had to have longevity, be sturdy if not unbreakable, be cheap and provide an essential function. Here, then, are my top 11 inventions, in no particular order.

 1.Transistor radio: you need never feel lonely and a couple of batteries will last for a very long time. I have a transistor in the bathroom. Steam from the shower doesn’t bother it, I don’t need to pay anything or use up any data to listen to live radio shows at any time of the day or night. I can get news, real current affairs, interviews, travel updates, music, talkback, lifestyle information, comedy and more. Even my cat likes to sit and listen to the radio.

Radio Lucy: my cat likes to listen to the radio. I've heard they also like a CD, and there are some specially made for cats. That might be taking it a bit far. Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013.

Radio Lucy listens to the morning pet show on the radio. I’ve heard they also like a good music CD, and there are some specially made for cats. That might be taking it a bit far.                                  Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

2. Ballpoint pen: doesn’t go forever, but goes for a long time. Tiny, and never needs batteries. A $20 bundle of pens from the Post Office shop has so far lasted me 10 years. Granted, I don’t hand-write much these days, but there are doodles, occasional lists, scribbled reminders, class rolls. Great books have been written with one of these. Roald Dahl wrote by hand in his garden shed. Students with late essays would never be able to use the excuse that their “computer broke down”.

3. Paperback book: probably the most dodgy on the list, because people will say that ereaders have superseded it. Well, not necessarily. I love my Kindle and my iPad for reading, too, but they have limitations. Obviously, with the iPad, its battery life is a problem (though some flights now allow you to recharge). And with the basic Kindle, although the battery life is great, you still can’t operate electronic gadgets when a plane is taking off and landing, meaning you have to find something else to read then. I often take a paperback, as well as my Kindle, for the no-electronics times. And marginalia, although it can be made electronically, is just not the same. I recently found a text I’d had to read as an undergraduate student, and in the margin, I’ve written in pencil, “Soooooo tedious”.

4. Automatic analogue watch: all you have to do is wear it every day and it just goes. Or you can wind it up. No battery ever needed. My father had the same automatic watch almost all his life (though he owned lots of other watches, too).

5. Toothbrush: I’m talking the manual kind over the electric. I recently went back to this old fashioned gadget that never needs charging or a battery, is easy to clean, is good for three months or more, and is very cheap—the one I just bought cost $1.

6. Plastic comb: minimal cost, you use it every day and it fits in your purse or pocket. All you have to do is wash it every so often. I’ve had the same comb for more than 20 years, and now it has sentimental value.

7. Automatic kettle: most of us still have one, even though we can heat up water in the microwave quicker. My twentysomething brother doesn’t have one though, so perhaps times are a-changing.

8. Electric non-stick toasted sandwich maker: a meal in five minutes, barely any mess, maximum satisfaction and you can pick one up for $30 or less. You can also make omelets in the compartmentalised ones. I like the sandwich-press style these days, which you can also use as a mini grill.

9.  Digital camera: ‘new’ technology but so much better than film cameras (for everyday snapshots at least—proper photographer/artists might have a different opinion). The concept of putting a camera in our phones was brilliant. It’s so easy now to illustrate my blog, for example.

10. Scissors: imagine if they didn’t exist. We could still cut things, but it would be a pain. I have scissors in just about every room of the house. They’re cheap, simple, and although they are sharp, there’s much less chance you’ll accidentally injure yourself with them (unless, as the old saying goes, you run with them—even then…).

11. Dried pasta: lasts for ages without refrigeration, is very cheap (from 65c a packet), filling and incredibly versatile. The simplest of pasta dishes is also my favourite: for two people, boil half a packet (or less) of dried spaghetti in salted water until just al dente, then drain it (do NOT rinse). Meanwhile, in a deep-sided fry pan, heat two tablespoons or so of olive oil (or 1 of olive oil, one of butter) and, on low heat, add a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic and fresh or dried chilli. Fry for a few minutes until the garlic starts to brown, then add one or two bottled anchovy fillets with a little of their oil, and a squeeze of lemon. Fry for a couple of minutes, stirring to break up the anchovy. Add the spaghetti and stir well in the sauce until it is piping hot. Serve  garnished with parsley, black pepper and parmesan, and you have aglio e olio, superb, simple and tasty comfort food.

New Zealand Marmite versus UK Marmite versus Australian Vegemite: The Great Taste Test

© Caron Eastgate Dann, 2013

Never before have these three existed side by side in my house, though I’ve tried them all at one time or another.

I favour NZ Marmite, but the factory in Christchurch was closed in November 2011 as a result of damage done by the earthquake in February that year, and when stocks ran out, I had to make do with Vegemite. Recently, the factory started production again, but supplies have not yet reached our supermarket shelves in Australia. A kind friend from Hawke’s Bay on NZ’s North Island took pity on me and sent me two jars of Marmite. Another friend, from Sydney, decided I hadn’t really lived until I’d tasted again the superiority of British Marmite, and he sent me a special jar of limited-edition UK Marmite Gold, “blended with gold coloured flakes”. Thanks, dear friends—you know who you are.

People are deeply divided over these three. In my early adult life, I ate Vegemite until the mid-1990s, when a NZ friend also living in Australia told me she much preferred Marmite. I hadn’t eaten it since I was a child, but when I did, I never again bought Vegemite unless stuck.

These three spreads baffle and disgust the uninitiated, especially Americans. If you’ve never tasted any of them, they’re almost impossible to explain to you. They are savoury, and there’s a meaty taste, which might account for the myth I heard as a child that Marmite was made from meat by-products (as opposed to Vegemite, which was supposedly made from vegetable by-products). In reality, all three are made from yeast extract with various flavourings added. The myth must persist, because Sanitarium still feels the need to write “100% vegetarian” on the NZ Marmite label.

So this Saturday morning, I decided to do a taste test. I bought a freshly baked loaf of pane di casa  and cut three thick slices, spreading each with a little olive oil spread before adding—sparingly as is best—a layer of Marmite, Marmite Gold or Vegemite accordingly.

Here is my verdict:

NZ Marmite

Consistency: sticky and gooey, but not runny.

Taste: Balance of salty and sweet.

Best way to eat: on toast or plain bread with butter or margarine, accompanied by a cup of tea.

UK Marmite

Consistency: viscous but runny like golden syrup.

Taste: extremely salty – a little goes a long way.

Taste: sophisticated, probably more enjoyable for adults than children.

Best way to eat: on crackers with gourmet cheese. The nutty, slightly sweet cheeses such as gruyere would work well.


Consistency: like margarine; not runny or gooey.

Taste: quite salty, and less complex than either of the others; a bit bland after the other two, which is probably why it has been marketed at parents for children (see the Happy Little Vegemites ad here).

Best way to eat: in a sandwich with cheese and lettuce, or just solo with margarine. This very Australian-style sandwich was even written into a hit song. Down Under, by Men at Work (“He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich”).

The verdict

Though I still love my NZ Marmite, the UK Marmite, being quite a different product, could exist with it in the cupboard happily. NZ Marmite is comfort food; UK Marmite is rather a shock to the palate at first, but I could acquire a taste for it as a pre-dinner snack with a glass of wine. Vegemite? Nothing wrong with it, but it’s still my least favourite.

Marmite pasta?!?

© Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012

My version of Nigella Lawson’s Marmite/Vegemite spaghetti

Yes, it’s true, and there are several versions of spaghetti with a Marmite or Vegemite sauce. The British chef Nigella Lawson was asked by an Australian interviewer last year if she had a recipe using Vegemite. She said yes, because she had made Marmite pasta, so it could be easily adjusted for Vegemite. I have made Nigella’s Marmite spaghetti several times and it is truly delicious (my version is pictured above). If you use Vegemite or UK Marmite, add a small amount of sugar, but don’t add sugar if you’re using NZ Marmite. Here’s my effort, adjusted from her recipe. I added sugar-snap peas, parsley and slivers of red capsicum for colour. You can find Nigella’s recipe here.

Which has the least calories?

Surprisingly, NZ Marmite has fewer calories than UK Marmite or Vegemite, even though it has the most sugar. Here’s the run-down:

NZ Marmite

KJ per 100g: 690 (165 calories)

Sodium (mg) per 100g: 3310

Sugars (g) per 100g: 11.2


KJ per 100g: 798 (263 calories)

Sodium (mg) per 100g: 3450

Sugars (g) per 100g: 2.2

UK Marmite

KJ per 100g: 1100 (250 calories)

Sodium (mg) per 100g: 3900

Sugars (g) per 100g: 1

My Mum, an excellent cook!

My friend Kenny wrote this engaging, nostalgic piece about his mum’s cooking, which made me also remember what it was like growing up in NZ in the 1970s. Like Kenny, I’m from Dunedin originally and so is my mum, though I was brought up in Auckland from the ages of 7-9 and 12-17.

consider the sauce


Pauline, Russell and Jean celebrate a combined 240 years!

Bennie and his father have just returned from a quickie four-day visit to New Zealand –  to New Plymouth in the North Island region of Taranaki, to be precise.

The ostensible reason for the visit was to help Bennie’s Grandma, Pauline Ethel Weir, celebrate her 80th birthday.

But it was more than that, as it was a triple-banger 80th birthday party taking in also the milestone’s of Pauline’s brother-in-law Russell (Kenny’s uncle), and his partner Jean.

And it was far more than that again, as relatives and friends flew or bussed in from all over New Zealand and Australia.

It was a family reunion of the likes never before experienced by myself, let alone Bennie!

Over three organised events on the Saturday and the Sunday and more informal get-togethers, tales and family lore were exchanged and rolled out.

Relatives and neighbours…

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The art of food

In response to a challenge from The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge to “detail a three to five step story or process, and illustrate each of the steps with something visual”.

When I took up painting two years ago, I didn’t think still life would interest me. However, I gave it a go and found that I loved painting food. I had  an idea to paint recipes: that is, to paint the elements of a recipe before they became a meal. This idea evolved to include place settings and pre-dinner snacks—anything to do with food preparation, utensils or consumption in the home, in fact. Strangely, I have painted a knife in all of them!


“Cut Me” (above): This is the very first painting I did. It was with trepidation that I took up a paintbrush and loaded it with that wonderful vibrant red. I was pleased with the result, especially the way the knife turned out. It took me about 15 tries to get that reflection right!

Lemon and Knife

“Lemon and Knife” (above): This wasn’t really meant to be a painting at all, just a trial of my new PanPastels, which are a pastel medium pressed into small dishes and applied with sponges. This took me only about 15 minutes at the breakfast table one morning. The knife is special, as it was given to me by my late father when I was about 20. I have used it almost every day in the kitchen since then. As someone on an online art group I belong to commented: “Sometimes the simplest things are the best”.


“Only On His Day Off” (above): Until recently, my husband worked evening shift five nights a week. On his days off, he loved to indulge in some red wine and accompanying snacks. The cloth is one I bought from Bali when I visited in 2005.


“Making Sangria” (above): the ingredients for this classic Spanish drink are peaches, oranges, lemons, red wine and soda water. The red wine was sourced from a shop in Melbourne that stocks the right kind, and it was expensive! There is also usually sugar in the recipe, too, but I thought I had enough elements already.

Salad Niçoise

“Making Salad Niçoise” (above): For the ingredients of this French salad I bought a Spanish onion and bottled olives, Italian canned tuna and anchovies, and Australian extra virgin olive oil. You can also add capers to this salad. I used those fantastic green plastic souvenir salad servers sent to me by a friend in Auckland, New Zealand, plus a wonderful green glass platter given to me by a friend in Melbourne, Australia. Most of my paintings contain elements that are meaningful to me.

Cooking, Grandma Style

I was reminiscing with one of my cousins recently about stuff our grandparents cooked for us in New Zealand. He remembered Grandad Freddy toasting Vogel’s classic mixed-grain bread, then spreading it with butter and, sparsely, with Vegemite (I’m a Marmite girl myself). As far as I know, this delicious bread is no longer available in Australia, so is but a memory to me now.

Just like Grandma used to make.

Just like Grandma used to make. Photo courtesy of

We remembered what Grandad called “toad in the hole”, which was cutting a hole in a piece of bread, then frying it in a pan with an egg dropped into the centre. This was actually not the right name for it, as the real toad-in-the-hole is an English dish made of sausages and Yorkshire pudding batter.
Grandad would whistle while he was in the kitchen cooking. He always made breakfast, and when I lived with them for a year when I was 12 and 13, he also usually made my school lunch. He was a career army man, a Captain after fighting in the Korean War. When I lived with them, Grandad had retired from the army and was working as a clerk for the government department that was then known as Maori Affairs. I’m not sure what he did for them, as he never talked about his work.

Grandma Rita most often cooked the evening meal. I remember her cooking had much more salt, butter and cream in it than my parents’ cooking. She would mash a big pot of potatoes, adding an egg and some raw onion. I always liked mashed potatoes done this way, though my father, her son, did not. Grandma Rita also made tasty girdle scones, and cheese or currant scones baked in the oven. And rock cakes that were impossible to chew! Grandma also liked to make an apple crumble, or perhaps an apple pie with a fancy flower on top made of the leftover pastry pieces.

On the maternal side of my family, Nanna would make wonderful fluffy little pikelets, spread with jam. Also, she would carefully peel tomatoes so they were skinless—I still don’t like tomato skins—and put them on crackers spread with butter. She would sprinkle salt and pepper on them. These had to be eaten straight away, as she said, before the tomato made the crackers soggy.

Harking back to his family’s strong Scottish Highlands origins, my maternal grandfather, Grandad Mac, made porridge every morning, adding a pinch of salt, and believed it was the only suitable breakfast. He always got up very early —about 5am—and if he was staying with us, I would find my school shoes outside my bedroom door, gleaming with polish.

Before porridge was served, there was something better, something so simple but something I love to this day and sometimes still have as a treat: Grandad Mac would cut the crusts off a slice of fresh white bread, then spread it with butter. He would cut it into halves and bring it in to me with the first cup of tea of the day.  As a young person, I mostly drank coffee, but I liked the tea he made. Nowadays, I usually have tea, and my first morning cuppa always brings back memories of Grandad Mac.

When I was 19, I lived with my great-grandmother, my father’s grandma, for a year in Palmerston North while I attended Massey University. Great-Grandma Abbott always served dinner—she called it “tea”, as we did too when I was growing up—at 5pm. It was possible to have the plate kept in the warming drawer of the oven if you were late, but you were generally expected to sit and eat with the family at that time. She always told me off for not having sugar in my tea or coffee—“a girl needs a bit of sugar”—and for washing my hair too often—”I’ve never known a girl to wash her hair so much; it’s not healthy”. My reply? “Yes, Grandma”. One didn’t argue with her.

One afternoon I came home to find that tripe and onions in a white sauce were on the menu. I made some excuse and, to this day, still haven’t tried tripe, though I’m not a picky eater.

Great-grandma never got used to the electric stove. The old coal range on the farm had been far better to cook on, she said. She didn’t like the newfangled washing machine, either, even though she never had an automatic one, only one of those tubs with a wringer above it. Wooden boards in troughs of water had worked better, she said.

I asked her one day what had been her favourite time in her long life. She grinned and said she wished she were back on the farm in Waipukurau, Central Hawke’s Bay, “with all the boys” in the 1930s. She had had seven children, four boys and three girls, but one son had died in the Second World War and another of cancer, while her husband, my great-grandfather, the All Black Harold “Bunny” Abbott, had died about 10 years before I lived with her. She said she loved firing up the range on the farm, ready for the boys to come in from work for a big cooked breakfast at about 9am.

My great-grandmother in 1938 or early 1939 with "all the boys", including  my father as a toddler. Shortly after this, her son Harold (standing directly behind her), would be killed in World War II.

My great-grandmother in 1938 or early 1939 with “all the boys”, including my father as a toddler. Shortly after this, her son Harold (standing directly behind her), would be killed in World War II. My Grandma Rita is seated left, with Grandad Freddy standing behind her.

At Great-Grandma Abbott’s house, left-over meat from a roast was not put in the fridge, but in a meat safe in one of the cupboards. And soup would bubble away on the stove for days, added to from time to time with various leftovers. I can’t remember any of us getting food poisoning.

There was no pasta or rice to be had in my great-grandmother’s house, or even in my grandparents’ houses. I wonder what they’d make of our multi-cultural cuisine these days: one night we might have Thai-style food, the next Italian, Greek, Malaysian, Chinese, Fijian, Spanish, Colombian, or Japanese.

While my grandparents and great-grandparents cooked tried-and-true recipes handed down through generations, we are constantly trying new cuisines—it’s a very different approach to home cooking. Mind you, I still have my old favourites that I’ve been making for many years. But that’s a post for another day.