I make spaghetti with tomato sauce because that’s all I can make

Vegan tomato spaghetti

Every now and then I get jolted by the fact that 90% of the recipes in my cookbook (yes, my cookbook, Hungry and Frozen: The Cookbook, 2013, Penguin, a highly underground cult item by which I mean it was aggressively discontinued less than a year later) were only tested once, which was entirely due to financial reasons (I didn’t anticipate the responsibility of paying for ingredients and resources for testing 150+ recipes falling to me) coupled with a certain clinging need to make it seem as though everything was fine and this is definitely what I expected from the process, and nothing to do with my lack of dedication to recipes that are proven to work.

Indeed, if looking up the word “science” on Wikipedia, ctrl-F searching for the word “test” and then immediately closing the tab without reading any of its content is anything to go by, making something once isn’t even technically testing it, you’re just, you know….making it once. I’m fortunate in that I can usually trust my oddly innate recipe-creating abilities but I nevertheless keep a place in my brain solely dedicated to housing the fear that someone will email me all like “I made that cake in your book and it wouldn’t rise and the centre was all gluey and undercooked and the flavour had little to recommend it and my wife cited it as grounds for our subsequent divorce proceedings which were fast-tracked with shoddy paperwork and little emotional closure.

Vegan tomato spaghetti

But this recipe, this recipe I made three times and am thus immensely satisfied that it’s neither fluke nor failure – no seasoning with plausible deniability here, confidence is my condiments. Yes, I’m genuinely embarrassed at myself for writing that out, and yes, no, I’m not deleting it.

The reason I made it so many times was the reason for its existence in the first place: it’s a very, very cheap recipe, a real something-from-nothing, flying by the seat of your pants that are currently being worn by the rabbit you pulled out of a hat type thing. The sum is greater than the whole of your pants: a mere onion, a lone tomato, a charmless can of tomato puree, the most off-brand dried spaghetti the supermarket can procure, it all comes together under the heat of the oven to evoke the taste of hours of toil and multitudes of ingredients. It somehow suggests the flavour of tomatoes that have been plucked in most reverent silence in the holiest of Roma’s hills while also hinting at the thickly-sauced comforting promise of canned spaghetti, I’m talking old school canned spaghetti that exists in my memory and not anymore on the supermarket shelf because I know they’ve changed the recipe to make the sauce cheap and watery and the noodles structurally unsound but in the early nineties when, you have to bear in mind, there were only like four different things that had been invented to eat, canned spaghetti was genuinely ultimate and tasted of abundance.

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The key thing here is that you roast the absolute living daylights out of the ingredients. That’s all there is to it. Without that level of heat the tomato puree will taste like expired iron tablets and the onion will be bitter, but under the oven’s blaze it all melts and bubbles and gets sticky and crunchy and charred around the edges, hence the word caramelised in the title since that’s precisely what you’re aiming to do.

It’s incredibly delicious, which is the other reason I’ve returned to it repeatedly, just so immensely full-throatedly rich and intensively tomato-ish and hearty and messy and somehow really buttery and it’s even amazing cold – but then I always did favour the spaghetti unheated, straight from the can – so your opinion of this habit may colour the value that you place on that last opinion.

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Now generally I like to give many options and segues of other ingredients you could include but honestly this is perfect as it is, and because there’s so little going on each ingredient is proportionately crucial. The only leeway I would offer is that if you can’t get hold of a whole tomato for whatever reason it’s not the end of the world, but it really does add texture and body and I assure you, even the most anemic-looking middle-of-winter tomato can be transformed by this recipe. The canned tomato puree must ideally be puree – not canned chopped tomatoes, not passata, not paste – for it alone hits that absolute sweet spot of thick texture and liquid sauciness. If you’re considering reducing the olive oil, first of all, grow up, and second of all, if anything, add more. The olive oil is central to the caramelisation and the richness and the texture and the flavour. While I’m being a fusspot I really feel like this sauce lends itself directly to actions like dramatically twirling pasta round your fork and then dramatically lifting the fork higher than your head before dropping the pasta into your open mouth getting sauce on your chin and laughing heartily yet attractively like a free-spirited character in an arthouse film or a prestige drama about a family of tension and tradition in equal measure and you can really only get that with spaghetti but if all you’ve got to hand is penne it’ll be like, literally fine.

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Spaghetti with Caramelised Tomato Sauce

A recipe by myself. (It’s much simpler than the length of the recipe makes it look, I’m just explain-y.)

  • 1 onion
  • 1 tomato
  • 1 tin tomato puree
  • 100g dried spaghetti or other long pasta of your choice
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil, but allow for more
  • salt and pepper
  • very optional but nice: herbs (eg thyme, basil) and chopped almonds to garnish

Set your oven to 220C/430F. Peel and thinly slice the onion into half-moons, and roughly chop the tomato. Get a small roasting dish – for example, the sort that you might bake brownies or a slice in but also would make yourself a small quantity of roast vegetables, you know, those standard smallish rectangular tins – and place the onions and tomato on one side/half of the roasting dish and tip the can of puree onto the other half. Drizzle everything liberally with the olive oil – like a full four tablespoons is entirely ideal here – and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Don’t stir it yet.

Roast it for about thirty minutes, stirring one or two times during this time only once the onions and the tomato have collapsed and got a little browned/crisp around the edges. If it looks like it needs more – and it well might – return it to the oven for another ten to twenty minutes, but continue to keep an eye on it as there’s a fine line between crispy and straight up burnt. With this in mind I usually start the roasting dish on the top shelf and move it to the bottom shelf towards then end.

While all this is happening bring a large pan of salted water to the boil (which I always do by boiling the jug first and then pouring that into the pan rather than heating up the water on the stove top, it’s much faster) and cook the spaghetti until it’s tender – twelve minutes or so should do it.

When you’re satisfied with the done-ness of both the sauce and the spaghetti, remove the roasting dish from the oven and use a pair of tongs to transfer the spaghetti from its pan into the roasting dish, and to mix it all together. You could drain the spaghetti in a sieve or a colander and then dump it into the roasting dish but using tongs helps retain a little of the cooking water on the spaghetti strands which in turn helps the sauce to cohere better.

Spatula everything onto a plate, scraping as much of the sauce and any crunchy almost-burnt bits as you can from the roasting dish (I sprinkle a tablespoon or so more pasta cooking water into the dish and swirl it round to pick up every last bit of sauce) and then garnish, if you like, with fresh thyme or basil (or both!) and chopped almonds, and perhaps, one last drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 1, although I think you could quite comfortably get away with making this serve two by using 200g pasta but keeping everything else the same.

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I asked Ghost what he thought about pasta and first he was just like “PASTA” over and over again but then he was all, “as August de LaCroix said in 1842, ‘the flâneur is to le badaud what the gourmet is to the glutton,”‘ and “the badaud was later defined as “curious, astonished by everything he sees, he believes everything he hears, and he shows his contentment or his surprise by his open, gaping mouth.”‘ And I was like “Ghost, that’s exactly what I would’ve said, in that order!” (As you can see from the photo, Ghost and I are often of one mind. One…at best.)

As always, thank you to my important Patreon patrons for supporting my writing. If you have made it through this genuine nonsense and you’re like, this gal’s really going places and I want to ride those coat-tails to the top then you too, should become a patron! A mere handful of your dollars per month directly influences my ability to write and live and I might be able to create a cookbook with recipes tested more than once. You receive exclusive content in return, like book and film reviews or recipes or what star sign I believe each character from Gavin and Stacey is. Signing up is easy and my gratitude is real.

title from: Brimstone and Fire, by Cyndi Lauper. Is this one of her best songs? Honestly, I think no. But it is fine, and she does talk about spaghetti in an alarmingly relevant way.

music lately:

Falling, by Xiu Xiu, from a commissioned series they did of covers of music from Twin Peaks. This is atmospheric and foreboding, with powerful momentum dripping in slow motion like honey from a spoon, I love it. (This album was described as one of their most listenable and you know you’re really on a level when using material by David Lynch makes you more accessible.)

The Sweetest Girl, by Scritti Politti, I just adore this song, all woozy and dreamy and sinister and lovely and highly amenable to listening to on a loop about twelve times before it even registers that the song hasn’t ended yet.

Next time: If you absolutely cannot tell I had a terrible night’s sleep before writing this and perhaps it’s that lack of sleep talking but I might be ready to try making ice cream again, actually.

I won’t remember your birthday, I won’t remember your name, just keep talking to me I’m not listening

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Something that I realised one second after I was told it by someone else, is that in most of life’s arenas my brain will melt down when faced with a task before I’ve even been told what the task is; then should I actually undertake the task (for example, getting on a bus to an appointment) I would often end up doing it wrong (getting on the wrong bus, going to the wrong place) and be afflicted with such brain-paralysis that I would not be able to work out a way to solve it, and worse, the only thing I’d feel capable of is messaging the group chat to drag them down with me on my panicked spiral about something entirely preventable. In all arenas of life! Except in the kitchen.

Like last week’s ice cream atrocity triad: not only was I diplomatically, breezily able to keep going in the face of persistent failure, but I also didn’t see it as a morally-weighted type thing that reflected upon me personally, I was all, I know I’m a good cook, regardless of this garbage. Whereas I still feel a quaking within my nether organs when I have to get on a bus to go like, honestly, anywhere.

(It was Kate that pointed this out to me after I’d been trying to use the oven in her and Jason’s kitchen, the heat/function markings of which are all rubbed off, and instead of lying on the floor and crying I just googled the oven model and found a picture of what the un-rubbed function and heat dials looked like and proceeded accordingly. Upon reflection I was like yeah, that was off-brandingly level-headed of me.)

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With that in mind it was simply no big deal to cook dinner for twelve people last week in honour of my birthday (which was on Wednesday the 17th, in case there’s the slightest bit of unclarity over what my star sign is) and somehow I just instinctively knew which order to make everything in and when to take everything out of the fridge and what could be dovetailed and how to make everything appear on the table at once and how to fix one tricky situation without it having a domino effect on the rest of the food (food can smell fear.) (It just can!)

The menu was as follows:

  • Viv’s Crackers (Make these! They’re so good!)
  • Olive Tapenade (recipe below)
  • Lentil Dip (It’s like. Hummus but with brown lentils and sumac. I just made it up as I went along.)
  • Muhammara (recipe below)
  • Pesto (I just made this up but used my mum’s trick of adding some tahini to it which makes it wonderfully rich, you almost wouldn’t know it was vegan)
  • Caramelised Onion Butter (recipe below)
  • Dukkah (from a recipe of mine from 2018 but I used cashews instead of walnuts)
  • Zucchini, Walnut and Thyme Salad (from Ottolenghi’s book Simple)
  • Marinated Mushrooms (my own recipe from 2012)
  • Cauliflower Tabbouleh (also from Simple)
  • Broccoli Slaw with Wasabi Lime Dressing (I made this up but it’s pretty much exactly how it sounds)
  • Rice Paper Rolls with Peanut Dipping sauce (made them up but again, pretty standard)
  • Roasted Butternut and Parsnip with Cardamom Seeds (I made this up but the title is pretty self-explanatory)
  • Couscous with Fried Eggplants, Olives, Sunflower and Pumpkin Seeds (I made this up but it’s just one of those couscous things where you stir lots of bits into it, you know what I mean?)
  • Blackened Corn and Rice Salad with Pecans, Almonds, and Nasturtium Leaves (based loosely on a recipe of mine from 2012, I added pecans and Chinese Five-Spice and nasturtium leaves from the garden and so on)
  • Fried Zucchini Orzo with Pine Nuts, Mint, Spinach, and Kale (This is just something I made up but it’s definitely based on some Ottolenghi recipe)

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For precisely one minute I was worried I hadn’t made enough and for one wavering semiquaver I was like “what if it’s all bad, just real bad food” but then I laughed at both notions and carried on blithely like I was neurotypically non-avolitional. Nothing actually went wrong but there was definitely plenty of calm yet sudden improvisation required, like when there was no bulgur wheat in the entire suburb of Newtown or when half the vegetables I originally planned for were out of season (it seems the only thing confidently in season in April is meat.)

It’s funny, the psychology of cooking for increasing quantities of people. Supposing I was like, okay, everyone’s getting roast beef and potatoes and salad, you’d be like yeah, three things per person, that’s a normal reasonable meal, all you need to do is make those three things. But the MINUTE you start thinking you’ll have a cosy, low-key, unstructured banquet where everyone just helps themselves to what’s on the table, you suddenly have to provide SO MANY COMPONENTS. Three bowls of salad is NOTHING. But then conversely, the more food there is, the LESS people eat. So a bowl of couscous stuff that normally would in no way stretch to twelve, will not only serve everyone when it’s part of a big table of food, but you’ll also inexplicably have leftovers for a week.

In The Wire, Bunk tells Kima that the one thing you need at a crime scene is “soft eyes…if you’ve got soft eyes you can see the whole thing.” I don’t even know how I came up with the menu in relation to the number of people, it wasn’t based on any actual calculation, I was just like, I’m at one with the food, looking at my proposed menu list with soft eyes, and I’ll just know when I’ve planned enough. And I did! Would I suggest this as advice for anyone else hosting a dinner party? Probably not. Would I suggest watching The Wire? Sure!

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The three recipes I’ve provided for you today were from the dips and sauces – my idea was to have, as well as big bowls of things, just a ton of stuff that could be stirred in to make everything even more interesting. The first recipe, Caramelised Onion Butter, was something I thought up, but let’s be clear: it’s just caramelised onions that have been put in the blender. Nevertheless they were immensely delicious, with that bordering-on-frustratingly slow cooking process slowly breaking down the onions and making them sweet and mellow and lush and somehow even more so once pureed into a creamy mush. Make it and have it on hand to stir into soups, stews, anything that needs an absolute fistful of flavour. The muhammara was something that I adapted from Ottolenghi, not because I thought I could do better than him but because capsicums are ferociously expensive at the moment and so I reduced the quantity a little and subbed in some tomato paste. I think it worked, and the finished result, this rambunctiously flavoured smoky spicy sauce, all nubbly from the walnuts and rich from the roasting process, is highly gorgeous. And as with the caramelised onion butter, I imagine it would be useful to have on hand to embiggen any other food you’ve made. Finally the olive tapenade, which I decided to rakishly make with prunes to boost its dark richness, is so fast to make – have it with bread, stir it through pasta, eat it with a spoon, whatever. If you’re uncertain about the prunes then maybe try blending them in one at a time to see how you go but their robustness complements the equally strident olives and rosemary and the sweetness gives depth rather than unbridled prune-ishness. All three of these recipes are so easy to make (although there’s nothing easy about how much chopping onions makes me cry) I’m sorry, however, that they all involve a food processor. I’m afraid that’s just how it goes when you’re vegan: you give up meat, you inexplicably start blending everything, no almond left unpulverised.

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Caramelised Onion Butter

A recipe by myself

  • 6 large brown onions
  • olive oil (regular, not extra virgin)
  • salt (ideally sea salt or other non-iodised salt)
  • 2 heaped tablespoons soft brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Peel and slice the onions, in half and then into fine-ish half-circles. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil over a low heat in a large saucepan and tip the onions in. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Let the onions fry, stirring fairly often, letting them soften and soften and become lightly golden. This is not like frying onions normally, you don’t want them to catch and become brown, the idea is to just slowly, slowly, melt them down. It will seem at first like they’re never going to cook and collapse but they will! It just takes about twenty solid minutes.

Once the onions have really softened and turned into a golden tangle, tip in the brown sugar and the balsamic vinegar, turn the heat up to medium, and cook for another five or so minutes. This is the point where caramelisation is ideal so don’t stir them too much, and that way the sugar can really do its thing.

At this point, remove from the heat and allow to cool, tasting for more salt if it needs it. Spatula the onions into the bowl of a food processor and drizzle in another two tablespoons of olive oil. Blitz into a thick, creamy mush. If you use a high-speed blender it will become even more creamy but the chunkier texture from the food processor’s blades is also entirely desirable. Decant to a bowl and refrigerate. It’s best closer to room temperature so take it out of the fridge a while before you need it.

Muhamarra

Adapted slightly from a recipe in Ottolenghi’s book Simple

  • 4 red capsicums (peppers)
  • 6 fat cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for roasting the capsicum)
  • 50g walnuts
  • 1/3 cup (80ml) tomato paste
  • 3/4 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • a pinch of chilli flakes
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • salt, to taste

Set your oven to 220C/450F. Half the capsicums and remove the cores, stems and seeds. Place them cut side down in a roasting dish along with the peeled garlic cloves and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Place in the oven for 20 or so minutes, until the garlic cloves are golden brown and the capsicums are soft and their skin is starting to blacken a little.

Allow the capsicums and garlic to cool a little, then throw them into a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Try to spatula/pour any oil and roasting juices from the pan into the processor as well. And just to clarify, “the rest of the ingredients” includes the two tablespoons of olive oil. Blitz to form a rough puree, taste for anything it might need – probably more salt – and then spatula it into a serving bowl or an airtight container and refrigerate till needed. Again, best at room temperature or gently warmed, so take it out of the fridge well before you need it.

Olive Tapenade

A recipe by myself

  • 250g (or so) black pitted olives
  • 4 prunes
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil (extra virgin is good, but whatever you’ve got)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 teaspoon capers (rinsed if salt-packed)
  • a small pinch of cayenne or chilli pepper
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Place everything in a food processor and blitz to form a thick, rough-textured paste. You may need to spatula down the sides a couple of times and then blitz again. Taste to see if it needs more of anything then spatula into a serving bowl or an airtight container, and as with all these recipes, it’s best at room temperature. Just get the cheapest pitted black olives you can find – they’re getting blasted together with all these other ingredients and you don’t want to be dicking around de-stoning them. On the other hand if you do buy proper olives make sure you get more to account for the weight of the stones.

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Let me tell you, there was no greater birthday present than just sitting there watching everyone I love happily eating food I made. I wasn’t even hungry myself, I just wanted to behold everyone consuming what I’d made for them and now that I’ve said that it sounds a bit psychologically suspicious but I assure you, it’s mostly that if I’ve been cooking all day I’ve definitely been generously tasting everything as I go. For dessert I did a tray of homemade butterfingers, dried fruit and dark chocolate and didn’t click till the next day that I’d completely forgotten about a birthday cake, but the entire night was perfect just as it was: by the time it devolved into an elaborate roasting of me, from the story of how I’d never changed a lightbulb to the story of how I dropped my phone down an eight-story lift shaft and pressed the emergency button because it was an emergency, well, I think it’s truly the most content I’ve been all year.

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The Ghost with the most.

And I’m still eating the leftovers: thirty-three feels good. Thank you to Jason and Charlotte who took photos of the food on their phones and sent them to me because I forgot to get my camera ready or to learn how to take photos at night (yes, I can organise a dinner party, yes, it will be at the expense of ALL OTHER THINGS that I might possibly need my brain for.)

title from: Planet Z from my broadway idol Idina Menzel’s beautiful and occasionally bizarre 1997 debut album Still I Can’t Be Still. This boisterously energetic song is groaning under the weight of its production but it all works somehow, I listen to it and couldn’t imagine how it could possibly sound any other way. I love (and miss) her rough-yet-treacly five-zillion-miles-from-Let-It-Go voice.

music lately:

Kate and Jason and I watched Homecoming by Beyoncé last night and it’s absolutely gobsmackingly astounding viewing. Just trying to get my head around her vision, organisation, talent and monumental discipline, as well as the phenomenal production and execution in the stage show. The precision, the work, the drum line, the horn section, the fact that she was the first black woman to headline Coachella and she went okay, then I’m gonna bring hundreds of black women up there with me. Naturally I’ve got her on the brain now and she obviously has nonstop hits but I especially adore Bow Down/I Been On, which she released online in 2013 and would later rework into ***Flawless for her self-titled album. The first part with its discordant Nintendo-sounding sample is so exciting and sinister and off the wall, she sounds so in charge and has these amazing growls in her voice, and then suddenly it slows down and she’s doing operatic soprano and then she starts rapping and her vocals all chopped and screwed now sound like a man’s deep voice, and it becomes this sludgy, slow-moving salute to her hometown and past and she sounds so great. Because she dropped this in such a low-key way online I was not expecting it to pop up on the setlist of Homecoming but she did it! Honestly, even if you’re not a fan, if you generally appreciate live performance, culture, musicianship, or simply a job well done, watch Homecoming.

Invitation to Love, TB. It takes a minute to warm up but once it gets going it’s an extremely lush track that samples Laura Palmer’s Theme from Twin Peaks – that most lush of tracks – that I had a very lovely time dancing to on Sunday night thanks to TV Disko’s DJ set at the Laundry staff party (what, just because I stop working at a place, I’m no longer staff? That’s not how jobs work.)

Today’s Your Day (Whatchagonedo), Fat Lip feat Chali 2na. Deliciously languid, the sound of sunshine refracting through golden syrup, and that chorus is so good.

Next time: It’s been cold and rainy ever since my birthday so I’m thinking, you know, something cold-and-rain friendly.

PS as always thank you to my Patreon patrons, especially the new folks who joined in a birthday-related gestural fashion. It is by no means too late to still join my Patreon and have me think it’s something to do with my birthday, or to just join it because supporting me and my writing is – or could be – its own reward. Plus you get access to exclusive content from me, which is more literally its own reward.

little mean things we were doing, must have been part of the game, lending a spice to the wooing

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I started this week making some ice cream out of canned chickpeas based on a photo I’d seen on Instagram, and the whole process was kind of disastrous in that way where you start to wonder if your food is trying to tell you something, like, at first I tried pulverising the chickpeas in the food processor but they were still too chunky and granular so then I was like okay no worries I’ll spatula it into another bowl and use the stick blender, you know, the kind of thing you use to liquidise soups, and all that did was fling chickpea puree everywhere, and then I was like wait! There’s a smoothie blender in the house somewhere, one of those ones that will turn any quantity of vegetables into a silky-smooth and more or less potable liquid; at which point I accidentally misread the thrust of the fulcrum on the stick blender resting on the edge of the bowl by which I mean I flung chickpea puree across the kitchen floor, undeterred I spatula’d what was left into the smoothie maker, which finally did produce the absolutely smooth mixture I’d been seeking, uninterrupted by bits, then I made some cookie dough to stir in and added what I thought the rest of the ingredients should be (some oat milk, some golden syrup, some oil) and then put it in the freezer and realised I’d dirtied every single appliance in the kitchen, including the floor, including myself, and I did the responsible thing and burnt the house to the ground, no, I joke, I just cleaned it all up, and then when I went to taste the now-solidified ice cream six hours later I was like My God…it tastes like cold sugary hummus.

Luckily I had another recipe to blog about.

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But like, back to the ice cream for a second, the curious thing is that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and even though I was pretty convinced it was not the one, I nevertheless ended up eating the entire thing (in two sittings, don’t be aghast) in the hopes of working out if it actually tasted good or not, and honestly I’m still not sure? Like it really tasted like cold chickpeas? But then somehow it tasted almost amazing? And I simply could not stop eating it? If anything I admire the ice cream for not handing itself to me on a plate, for making me chase it, but obviously “deliciousness is a subtext that you have to really work to find” is not what most people are looking for in a recipe so I have returned to the drawing board, I just love ice cream SO much and while I’m perfectly content being vegan, I really do miss the absolute ease with which I could make or access ice cream previously.

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Anyway, this week’s recipe for Chinese Five-Spice panko fried eggplant really does hand it to you on a plate, the subtext is text, it’s straightforwardly delicious and deliciously straightforward. I saw a recipe on Food 52 for something they called Breaded Eggplant Cutlets and decided to make my own version. The main thing that I took from the recipe was the process of leaving the salted eggplant slices to sit for an hour, which is not the sort of time-consuming behaviour I’d normally indulge but it really does have a significant effect, meaning that when you come around to frying the eggplant, the flesh within gets quickly melting and tender while the panko crumb gets golden and crisp. Without the salting, there’s a good chance that the eggplant wouldn’t cook through and you’d end up with cotton-wool polystyrene.

The recipe on Food 52 suggests any number of ways that you can use these slices of eggplant but I chose to have them stuffed into a mustard-smeared supermarket roll with lots of rocket leaves: the sinus-clawing mustard and peppery greens counteract the fabulous oily richness of the eggplant and it’s a perfect lunch, where you’ve put in enough effort for it to feel like you actually care about yourself but it’s not so much effort that you end up crying from exhaustion once it’s done. Chinese Five-Spice powder is one of my favourite ingredients, it’s – usually – comprised of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel, and Szechuan peppercorns, and has this warm, aromatic intensity to it that goes so well with the mildness of the eggplant. The aquafaba, which is literally just brine from a can of chickpeas, works perfectly as glue for the flour and panko crumbs but obviously if you’re not vegan or whatever you could just use a couple of beaten eggs. Panko crumbs are these really light, crunchy Japanese breadcrumbs, they really add to the crisp texture of the finished product and are pretty easy to find in most supermarkets, but if you can only find regular breadcrumbs it’ll undoubtedly still taste good because, well, everything fried tastes good.

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Chinese Five-Spice Panko Fried Eggplant

Inspired by this recipe from Food52.com

  • 1 eggplant, sliced into circles about 1cm thick
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt or other non-iodised salt
  • brine (aquafaba) from one drained can of chickpeas
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 3/4 cup plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese Five-Spice powder
  • 1/3 cup rice brain oil or similar, for frying
  • soft bread rolls, mustard, rocket or similar green leaves, to serve

Firstly, get two pieces of paper towel, and sit the eggplant slices on one of them on a plate. Sprinkle over the salt, lay over the second piece of paper towel, and then place a second plate on top to weigh it down. Leave the eggplant sitting for an hour, then remove the top plate and get rid of the paper towels.

Place the aquafaba in a bowl. Either in two separate bowls, or, as I did, in two piles on the plate that had previously been resting on top of the eggplants, mix the flour and Chinese Five-Spice powder together, and then mix the panko breadcrumbs and nutritional yeast together.

Dunk each piece of eggplant first into the flour, then the aquafaba, then the breadcrumbs, then repeat this process so each piece of eggplant has been twice-dunked in everything. It will be kind of messy and your fingers will get covered in gunk and I’m telling you now: don’t eat it, you’ll be tempted, but just don’t, it’s…not good.

Heat the oil in a good-sized saucepan and fry the coated eggplant slices for a couple of minutes on each side, carefully turning once they’re a deep golden brown colour. Remove to a plate lined with another piece of paper towel, then eat however you like: I chose to spread mustard on some soft white supermarket bread rolls and then stuffed them with the eggplant slices and a handful of rocket leaves.

The amount that this serves depends on how you serve it and how hungry you are, I had two bread rolls with four pieces of eggplant in it for lunch and was pretty content so I guess what I’m saying is definitely scale up if you’re cooking for other people.

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As for the chickpeas that are left from when you drain the can for its brine…just make hummus.

title from: I Surrender, Dear by Bing Crosby. This was one of his very first hits in 1931 and it’s just, you know, some really good rainy day crooner music.

music lately:

The Infinity Room, an album by 36. This is immensely dreamy and swoony, much like the person who recommended it to me. Like, it makes me want to lie down and also get up and dance at the same time.

Old Town Road, by Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus. Look, this song is everywhere right now and it’s so catchy but in this way where I want to hear all the catchy segments of it at the same time all on top of each other, kind of like when I tried curly fries for the first time and I was suddenly panicky like, I need to cram all the curly fries into my mouth at once in order to truly understand their deliciousness, if I eat them only one at a time it’s too fleeting. It’s hard to imagine now, but curly fries were quite the game-changer. Anyway this song is good as hell and I hope it tops the country charts for a very long time. Yee, and I cannot stress this enough: haw.

Shallow Tears, Light Asylum. It sounds atmospheric yet thrilling, it sounds old yet new, I love those big drums and the singer’s big Depeche Mode-y voice.

Next time: I am actually not done with my canned bean ice cream scheme yet, this heedlessness possibly spurred on by watching a lot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (“face your fears! run with scissors!”)

PS: a special and heartfelt thank you to my Patreon patrons! I LOVE YOU! If you are not a patron, but you enjoy my writing and want me to be able to do it more, then indeed please consider signing up. A couple of dollars per month from you directly influences my ability to write more and gets you exclusive content in return, like book and film reviews or what star sign I believe each character from Gavin and Stacey is or a recipe for the best vegan scones.

you know that i liked you, jack

Vegan Jackfruit and Chickpea Curry

This week’s blog post got completely sucked into the vortex that was, well, this week, on account of my working on Saturday and Sunday at Laundry bar in a cameo role (since I no longer work there for real) during the CubaDupa festival. I couldn’t tell you with any real certainty what CubaDupa actually is but I do know for sure that it means Laundry becomes about as crowded as a mid-level Balkan EDM festival except in a small licensed Wellington premises and as such my brief return was both required and, I hope, welcomed. I was also cat-sitting for a friend at the time and am now cat-and-dog-sitting for another friend, it’s all just been comings and goings and that’s why I completely missed writing a blog post, although to be fair it’s somehow already halfway through Friday and yet! I still have traces of a heat rash on my neck from dancing for many hours after my shift finished on Sunday while wearing a $2 shop choker? So I’m really no clearer on how linear time works at all.

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I made this curry for Jason and I – Jason, who also has a dog and cat but who is simply allowing me to stay at his house between other pet-sittings and heat-rash-gatherings, just to be clear – on Tuesday night. I’ve been finding myself drawn, of all things, to idle scrolling across the ebbing and flowing tides of Pinterest, I’ve also been oddly transfixed by sped-up faceless cake decorating videos on Facebook, even though the results all look inedibly dry and packed with fondant, there’s something strangely soothing in their anonymous competence. I think it’s a bit simplistic to surmise that in difficult times we seek the reassuring – true though it may be – I think it’s really just that I’m a bit weird and get obsessively hyper-focussed upon the most pointless things, and it’s the intense focus itself that’s calming, the subject doesn’t matter. But it just so happens that I found a recipe for a butter chicken-esque vegan curry while I was in one such state of tunnel vision, and while what I ended up making was different, I appreciate the jump-off point that it provided. Much as I feel like Stacey in that scene from Gavin and Stacey where she’s like “Gav, will you laugh at me if I get a korma”, I freely admit that butter chicken sauce is like…completely delicious. It just is. And I was genuinely delighted at how much this recipe evoked it.

Vegan Jackfruit and Chickpea Curry

Jackfruit and Chickpea Curry

Inspired by this recipe from earthchick.com.au.

  • 1 can young jackfruit in brine
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1 can coconut cream
  • 1 can tomato puree (or tomato passatta)
  • 1 large onion, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 2 tablespoons rice bran oil (or similar)
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1cm thick slice of fresh ginger, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 teaspoons ground fenugreek
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons mustard (wholegrain or dijon or American or whatever)
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons ground almonds
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
  • salt, to taste, but like, plenty
  • cooked long grain rice, fresh coriander, and cashews to serve

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and gently fry the onion till lightly browned, then add the garlic, ginger, and all the spices. Drain the can of jackfruit and – cutting up any larger pieces if need be – tip the entire thing into the pan. Follow this with the drained chickpeas and the tomato puree. Let it simmer away for fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Finally, stir in the vinegar, mustard, and sugar, followed by the coconut cream and ground almonds. Allow it to come to a simmer, taste to see if it needs anything more – salt? sugar? cumin? fenugreek? – then serve over bowls of rice, sprinkled with cashews and coriander leaves.

Feeds 2-3.

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I think the most important things in this recipe are as follows: firstly, if you don’t have fenugreek then go out and buy some, because it has this beautifully sweet-savoury flavour that is difficult to replace. Secondly, don’t leave out the sugar. If anything, add more. The sweetness gives balance and depth and ties all the spices together. Thirdly, try to let the tomato puree really caramelise in the saucepan, this will give you intensity and richness of flavour. Next, just keep tasting. Maybe it needs more salt, maybe more sugar, maybe more cumin, maybe just rakishly empty some more fenugreek into it. Finally, if you can’t find canned jackfruit then I would add an extra can of chickpeas but I love their textures together – the gentle fibrousness of the jackfruit with the grainy nuttiness of the chickpeas. Jackfruit is often incorporated into vegan recipes as a meat substitute because of that texture but here I’m not too fussed about whether or not you think it’s chicken, it just tastes really good smothered in sauce. Finally-finally, you may notice that there’s not a lick of chilli in this – I was pleased by the notion of an aggressively mellow curry with warmth from the spices but that otherwise did not put up a fight: feel free to add chilli of your choosing at any and all stages of cooking it. As it is, it’s so creamy and full-bodied and richly sweetly flavoured and comforting and I think I’m going to be making this a lot over the coming winter. And leftovers are, I assure you, fantastic cold, from the fridge, eaten standing up, out of whatever container you stored them in.

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(Since Ghost the dog has had such a presence in the last few blog posts, I thought it was Ariel the cat’s time to shine.)

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(Come back, Ariel!)

title from: JC, by Sonic Youth. I love its crunchy chewy droning guitars and the sullen urgency in the delivery of its poetic lyrics.

music lately:

Secondo Coro Delle Lavandaie by Roberto De Simone, I heard this during TV Disko’s set at CubaDupa and I have been obsessed ever since, it’s so pulsating and makes me feel like I’m running through a jungle, like, you can feel the pupils of your eyes expanding as you listen to it.

Everything Old Is New Again, by Peter Allen but specifically as it’s used in the film All That Jazz. I read an extraordinary article about Bob Fosse today which got me onto watching this, I’d always known – of course! – how influential he was, but I really wasn’t across how he was a real piece of work. In his film extremely thinly fictionalising his own life, Ann Reinking, his real life partner at the time, plays the thinly-veiled-Fosse character’s girlfriend and performs with his character’s daughter in this sweetly touching yet expansively leggy piece of classic Fosse choreography. It’s so meta it almost leaves a bad taste in the mouth but nevertheless Reinking was just born to dance, wasn’t she? (Also this film is amazing! Jessica Lange as an angel of death? Leland Palmer? A young John Lithgow? Wallace Shawn? Cliff Gorman playing a thinly-veiled version of Lenny Bruce in a film-within-a-film based on a film that Bob Fosse really did work on starring Dustin Hoffman based on the Broadway play that starred Cliff Gorman? Ben Vereen?!)

30 Century Man, Scott Walker. I already talked about this extensively last week but I’ve nevertheless listened to this song specifically so many times. His Sinatra via, I want to say, Dean Jones voice just slides right into my amygdala like a missing jigsaw piece.

Next time: I’ve already got another recipe up my sleeve so no matter how much pet-sitting or dancing or working I do this weekend I won’t end up losing half a week again, or at least that’s how I presume it will pan out.

PS: Thank you to those who have been supporting me via Patreon! If you like what I do and want me to be able to do it more, then indeed please consider signing up. A couple of dollars per month from you not only stokes the fires of my ability to write but also gets you exclusive content in return, such as a review of every book and movie that I consumed in January or an essay about what star sign I believe each character from Gavin and Stacey is.

autumn leaves drift by like angels

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Bad things are always happening and we absorb them into our perception of reality without even realising it. Yesterday you were X, today you are X+N(N=new bad thing) and next week you might be X+N+N+N or you might get away with not being this at all, for now. On Friday March 15 a white supremacist terrorist attack happened in Christchurch, where 50 Muslim people who were praying at mosques were murdered by a man with a gun, and now this is the new reality and I can’t remember what it was like to not know this.

This blog post is not going to be about this or about how it’s affected me – that’s not what anyone needs! – but I need to acknowledge that it happened and that it’s added an extra layer on top of us all, like a coating of poison-laced buttercream on an old, stale cake. I will say: everything feels kind of urgent and pointless at the same time, however I am focussing on direct, concrete actions that I can take, because I want to be contributing positively in whatever ways possible. I believe strongly that this is the most important thing that those of us who aren’t part of the Muslim community can do: actual, concrete things. If you don’t have money, it could be time, energy and mental effort. Volunteering, supporting, writing letters to politicians to endorse new gun control measures and to the media to condemn those they employ who contribute to white supremacist ideology. Have uncomfortable conversations, challenge your racist uncle, don’t pretend you can’t see weird posts from your long-ignored acquaintances or workmates on Facebook. Read Muslim writers’ articles and stories. Acknowledge your rising anxiety and be kind to yourself, but examine where you stand in proximity to this tragedy. There’s a good article on The Spinoff that links to where you can contribute money for the victims and their families and places you can volunteer. I want New Zealand as a whole to scrutinise itself, to do better and do more for the Muslim community and in turn for all those who need it. That’s what I have to say.

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This week’s recipe is full of elements that I find comforting but I would like to establish real quick that I’m not equating it with what’s happened in a greater context, this is just what I happened to cook for Kate and Jason for dinner the other night. It’s not like, self-care pasta or anything! Let’s not do that.

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I’m kind of obsessed with roasted butternut squash (indeed, see my recent recipe for sticky roast balsamic sumac butternut and cashews), I love its mellow sweetness and how when you roast it the edges are all crisp and crunchy and the insides are all soft and oily and I really love how it’s about a thousand times easier to slice up than regular pumpkin and cooks quicker too. Parsnips have a similar vibe, only even more mellow and creamy, and together they taste like a welcome payoff for the fast-retreating summer. (Summer actually ended like a month ago but global warming has blurred the edges of that framework and anyway I live in a city with a climate that seems to consider itself cavalierly above the concept of seasons.)

Nutmeg has this soft woodsy scent that merges beautifully with the fresh-cedar-cabinet vibes of the toasted walnuts and then when you add the warmth of black pepper and the smoky sweetness of maple syrup it’s that feeling of winding a long scarf around your neck and over your chin several times and then pulling a beanie low down over your forehead so basically only your nose is visible to the biting cold; but in food form. The garlicky crumbs are a cheap way of adding opulence and richness and the sage – as woody as nutmeg and almost eucalyptus-y – adds to the overall depth of flavour.

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Autumn Spaghetti (Spaghetti with roasted butternut, parsnip and broccoli, maple nutmeg black pepper walnuts and pumpkin seeds, garlicky crumbs, and fried sage.)

A recipe by myself

  • olive oil, plenty, and just regular, not extra virgin
  • 400g dried spaghetti
  • 1/2 a large butternut squash
  • 2 medium parsnips
  • 1/2 a head of broccoli
  • 1/3 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons maple syrup
  • a good pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (or a pinch of dried, ground nutmeg from a package)
  • 2 soft white bread rolls (or similar)
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (or one finely chopped garlic clove or a teaspoon of garlic from a jar)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato relish
  • 2 teaspoons mustard – Dijon, English, or wholegrain
  • 6 fresh sage leaves
  • lots of salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons or so freshly chopped chives, to serve

Set your oven to 200C/400F. Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a good-sized roasting dish and put it in the oven to heat up while you prepare the vegetables.

Carefully slice the skin from the butternut and cut the flesh into cubes of roughly 1-2cm, then do the same with the parsnips. No need to peel them though. Carefully tip both of these into the hot roasting dish, spread them out into one single layer, and roast for around twenty minutes. Chop the broccoli up into small pieces – stem and all – and add it to the roasting dish, then return it to the oven for another ten minutes. Pour over more olive oil if it looks like it needs it.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil (I always boil the kettle first and then pour that in, it’s a lot faster), add plenty of salt, and then cook the spaghetti for as long as the package instructions require (around ten to twelve minutes usually does it.) Drain, and stir through the tomato relish and mustard.

While the pasta is cooking, toast the pumpkin seeds and walnuts over a low heat in a frying pan, keeping a close eye on them to make sure they don’t scorch. Transfer them to a bowl and stir in the maple syrup, the nutmeg, and plenty of salt and black pepper. Set aside.

Tear the bread rolls into small pieces and crumbs. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in the same pan, and tip in the breadcrumbs. Stir over a medium heat till they’re golden brown and crisp. Stir in the garlic powder, then tip the crumbs into a bowl and set aside.

Heat another tablespoon of olive oil in the same pan and fry the sage leaves till they’re very dark, then remove them from the pan and set aside on a chopping board or something. This will only take a few seconds per leaf, I recommend using a pair of tongs to get the leaves out.

Pile the spaghetti onto three plates, then spoon over the roasted vegetables, followed by the garlic crumbs, then the toasted maple walnuts and pumpkin seeds, then crumble over the sage leaves, then finally sprinkle over the chives. Drizzle a little extra olive oil over it if you like, then serve. If the garlic crumbs have got too cold they can quickly be reheated in the pan before you tip them over.

Serves 3 although could maybe stretch to four, just up the quantities a little.

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every good boy deserves pasta

I’m back in Wellington for a couple of weeks which means I’m back staying with the eternally kind and generous Kate and Jason; I cooked this for us for dinner and then – having not taken any photos of it but being quite pleased with myself – made it again the next day for lunch just for me, and made some adjustments to improve it, and that’s the recipe that I’ve written up today. (“oh” – Kate and Jason reading this, probably. Sorry, Kate and Jason, that you got the first draft.) As with all my recipes I encourage you to work with what you have to hand. If you don’t have sage or chives, plenty of freshly chopped (not fried) parsley would be good, fresh thyme leaves also are delicious and evocative of autumn. You could try hazelnuts or almonds instead of walnuts, cauliflower instead of broccoli, and use penne or some other short pasta instead of spaghetti. If you’re using short pasta, you could also let it get to room temperature and serve it as a salad – in which case perhaps consider stirring through some rocket and slices of crisp pear. And honestly, if you’re not avoiding dairy for whatever reason, I freely and slightly gloomily concede that any iteration of this recipe would probably be amazing with some parmesan shaved over.

I’ve been out of work for about a month now and even though I’m still kind of buffeting about on the wind like a balloon, with no fixed abode and no real deadlines to tie myself to; I nevertheless feel like the amount of space in my brain available to being creative has grown tangibly and as a result so has the creative work that I’ve done. Every day that passes seems to make things ever more sharper-focussed which is honestly an amazing feeling. I spent a lot of last year with the low-level hum of panic in my ears about my lack of direction, now I have SO much direction and it’s such a relief. I don’t have any advice on how to make that direction appear any faster than it has, if I did, I wouldn’t have spent so much time panicking, but I suspect…panicking does not help? Do I advise you to stop panicking? I mean sure, and while you’re at it why not turn back the incoming tide by like, kicking it lightly.

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(I was all, Blankets! Candles! Books! Pasta! Autumn! And Ghost was all, “I agree!”)

title from: Park Song, by Laura Nyro. Her voice is so beautifully melancholic, it’s the sound of grey clouds making it dark at 4pm but not so dark that you can turn a light on so you just sit there in the semi-gloom getting increasingly existential.

music lately:

30 Century Man, by the recently-late Scott Walker, it opens with those guitar chords that I can’t describe in a technical sense but where you just immediately know this song’s going to be sad but uplifting and feel like you’ve heard it before and like you’ve never heard it before all at the same time and like it should play over the one happy scene in an unhappy arthouse film where people stare out of windows a whole lot (for example, So Long Marianne by Leonard Cohen and Alone Again Or by Love also have these guitar chords, you know what I mean?)

Poe, by The Shirts. I like that it’s kind of punky and proggy at the same time, by which I guess I mean that it’s punky but goes for over five minutes. Notable for the presence of a young Annie Golden!

Zadok the Priest, by Handel. I’ll be honest with you, this is a good song and all but I’m really here for the first minute and fifty seconds of it which goes SO HARD, with the teetering anticipatory climb of its building chords which, when it finally drops, gives us the choir singing with this incredible anxious urgency of sound. After that it starts to sound more straightforwardly celebratory, all “rejoice, rejoice” but for that first stretch it’s brilliantly tense and exciting.

Next time: I will aim to cook Kate and Jason dinner that’s not a first draft.

PS: If you would like to support what I do and receive exclusive content (such as a review of every book and movie that I consumed in January or what star sign I believe each character from Gavin and Stacey is) then I encourage you to sign up to my Patreon.

give in, give in, and relish every minute of it

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I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge how this week’s post was written in an unprecedentedly comfortable fashion, leisurely strolling over the finish line of the somewhat arbitrary weekly deadlines I laughably set up for myself initially as opposed to the frantic and self-flagellating and days-late content that we’ve all had to get used to, I have possibly lost all semblance of an actual work ethic but I’m really finding it quite delicious how much writing I’m getting done as a result.

When I was a kid there was not a whole lot to be found flourishing in the front yard if you were opportunistically in the market for free snacking: just a mean-spirited apple tree that was more of a body corporate apartment complex for wasps, and one feckless peach tree that bore floury green-tinged fruit. Since I’ve come back home to stay for a bit, however, the place has been since transformed into a veritable Hanging Garden of Babylon, a result of – let the record state – the concentrated efforts of my parents. Like Carlotta in Sondheim’s musical Follies, the apple tree is somehow obstinately still here spitting out weta-lodged apples like Carlotta spits memories – or is the apple tree more like the literal yet also metaphorical apple tree in the Bock/Harnick musical The Apple Tree with its overriding theme of getting what you want and then realising it’s not what you wanted, not a theme I like to be confronted with in life but an undeniably consistent one nevertheless? Nevertheless – let the record state – good god, those apples are sour.

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Nowadays the abundance is really something to behold, there’s onions and potatoes and pumpkins and zucchini and cucumbers and spinach and a whole mess of herbs, and more besides, including a flourishing thatch of tomatoes, 1.5 kilograms of which Mum and I turned into a batch of the most fantastically delicious relish. The recipe comes from a 1990 revised edition of the 1908 Edmonds cookbook, a book that is firmly lodged in New Zealand’s history like a weta in an apple. It conveys a sternly inarguable air of competency, illustrated by its overall lack of illustrations and explanations: just make the recipe, it will work.

As such, it would be very easy to flick past this very recipe on the page, because there’s nothing leaping out to exhort you to spend time making it – but I’m so glad that Mum found it, because the resulting relish tastes extraordinarily good. I enjoy a pickled or preserved confection as much as the next person: that power-play of sweet and salty and vinegary is exquisite when executed correctly, but I am honestly quite next-level rapturous, even by my own standards, about this particular one.

The relish just has this stunning potency of concentrated tomato flavour, so rich and savoury and juicy and almost meaty in its intensity. The curry powder and mustard add to the fulsomeness and depth of it all and the flour, weird though it feels as an ingredient in relish, gives it a wonderfully velvety pectin-like lusciousness. Obviously there’s no reason given for including the flour in the recipe so you just have to go with it and hope for the best, but of course: the book was right. The tomatoes from the garden are candy-sweet and taste like sunshine on their own, but I’m sure this recipe would have transformative effects on even the most unfriendly and unlikely of specimens.

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Edmonds Cookbook Tomato Relish

  • 1.5kg tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes, or a mix)
  • 4 large onions
  • 25g salt
  • 500g brown sugar
  • malt vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons mustard powder
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons flour

Peel the onions and chop roughly into chunks. Cut the tomatoes, also roughly – either into quarters or chunks or honestly whatever. If you’re using cherry tomatoes give them a rough pressing with a fork or similar to crush them slightly. Place the tomatoes and onions into a non-metallic bowl, sprinkle with the salt, cover, and leave for 6-8 hours or overnight – just in the pantry or generally out of the way, they don’t need to be refrigerated.

Drain off the liquid- reserve it for stock if you like – and place the tomatoes and onions into a saucepan with the sugar. Pour over enough vinegar to just cover everything. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 1 and 1/2 hours. At this point, mix the flour, curry powder and mustard to a smooth paste with a little of the cooking liquid and then stir it into the tomatoes and onions in the pan. Boil for five minutes, then spoon or pour into sterilised jars, seal tightly, and allow to cool.

Makes around 4 standard jam jars of relish.

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Relish can be put to good use in any number of ways but I especially recommend this stuff spread on crackers with equal quantities of almond butter.

Mum and I both set to getting the tomatoes and onions prepared early in the morning and then completely forgot about them until about midnight of the same day, by the time we got the stuff into the jars it was closer to 2am but it felt very relaxed, in that we were not trying to go against the grain of our inherently synced levels of disorganisation and night owl tendencies. The entire lack of urgency, The Crown playing in the background, pottering about with my writing on my laptop while the pan of tomatoes simmers away full of promise: I could get used to this.

title from: The Walk, by Imogen Heap. I love the strange gravel-scraping sound effect at the start of this song, very ASMR.

music lately:

Out Of Space, by The Prodigy. Man, I was sad as hell at the news of Keith Flint’s death, this is one of my favourite songs of theirs.

Juice, by Lizzo. This is sunshine-saturated perfect upbeat 80s funk, I love her.

Getting Married Today, from the 1970 Sondheim musical Company, as interpreted and annihilated by Julie Andrews somehow singing ALL THREE PARTS, from the opening soprano to the almost unbearably anxious patter of the verses themselves to the man’s part, which she goes over and sings TO A MAN who is sitting RIGHT THERE as if to say “look how extraneous you are when I, Julie Andrews, am around”, it’s honestly the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. The verses are so rakishly crammed with words (something like 6.5 words per second) and it’s one of the most difficult songs on Broadway to perform accurately and yet she looks so relaxed and her enunciation is so crisp and she manages to act on top of all of that and perform the words in this oddly personable tone so full of character and inflection despite it being entirely unclear whether she breathes once in the duration. And then she finishes on this high note? That’s not even required? Does she care about any of my nerves?

Next time: undoubtedly the garden will continue to inspire.

PS: if you like what I do and (a) want more of it and (b) will enjoy knowing that you were astute enough to support this from the very start and (c) wish to receive treats, then may I direct you with all the quiet authority of opening a velvet-roped VIP area, to my Patreon.

bonfires burning bright, pumpkin faces in the night

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I’ve read seventeen books in the last two months which is more than I read in the last year, in fact I could say with neither hesitation nor exaggeration that it’s than I read in the past four years combined. One of these books was The Idiot by Elif Batuman, I call upon it because partway through this novel there was a passage that absolutely kneecapped me:

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Though I tempered the immediate butter knife that this drove through me by reminding myself that I’d been writing this very blog for eleven years now and have in fact had a cookbook published before; the precision is nevertheless really something, isn’t it, and probably applicable to any vocation that you hold out of your own reach while insisting it’s really external forces standing in the way?

And though this quote dangles in my head like a spider’s legs I’ve done a robust quantity of writing this week to helpfully back up my claim of wanting to write, including the following:

  • I updated my Frasier food blog, covering Episode 18 of Season 1 and a recipe for the Pink Lady Cocktail
  • I updated my Frasier food blog AGAIN, covering Episode 19 and a recipe for homemade Butterfingers
  • At the behest of no-one, I wrote an intense analysis of a performance of The Ladies Who Lunch, Elaine Stritch’s big number from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, likely to the interest of myself only, but I think it’s a fairly brilliant piece of writing.

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And I’m writing this, aren’t I! The recipe I made this week – Sticky Roast Balsamic Sumac Butternut Pumpkin and Cashews – came about simply because I was craving those precise qualities – sticky and caramelised and crisp and roasted and a little sour and salty and rich, you know what I mean? To be perfectly honest with you the sumac component came in at the last minute – after having taken the photos of this recipe I finally got to consume a bowlful, and while it was delicious it was lacking a certain top note, sort of like if you listen to a stereo and you’ve accidentally turned down the treble dial, so it’s recognisable but a little lifeless? That was when I thought to add the sumac: it dovetails with the balsamic vinegar, it imparts a kind of lemony ebullience, and lightens up the rich, oily heft of the roasted butternut pumpkin and all those cashews.

This combination is just smashingly delicious: the butternut gets all crunchy and almost adhesive to itself in the hot olive oil, the cashews with their brief blast of heat get their mild creamy flavour and crunch deepened, and the drizzle of golden syrup and balsamic vinegar intensifies everything else and ramps up the caramelisation. And the sumac demonstrably saves the day. If you don’t have any of the sour red powder that is sumac, and this is entirely reasonable, I would just squeeze over the juice of a lemon or a lime and furthermore sprinkle over its zest for good measure. Pomegranate molasses or tamarind would have a similar energy but I feel like if you have those you probably also have sumac already and therefore do not require my dupes. On that note; I chose the butternut pumpkin on purpose: it’s buttery and rich, and not only cooks quicker than regular pumpkin it’s also much easier to slice. But consider them fairly interchangeable if you only have the latter.

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Sticky Roast Balsamic Sumac Butternut Pumpkin and Cashews

a recipe by myself

  • 1/2 a large butternut pumpkin
  • (optional) 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 tablespoons or so olive oil
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 1/4 cup raw peanuts (or just more cashews if you like) 
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, plus extra for drizzling
  • 2 teaspoons golden syrup or similar
  • 2 teaspoons sumac
  • coriander leaves to serve, optional
  • lots of salt and pepper

Set your oven to 220C/450F. Pour the oil into a large roasting tray and put the tray into the oven to heat up while you get everything else sorted.

Carefully slice the skin off the pumpkin and dice the flesh into pieces of roughly one inch. Sprinkle the flour over the cubes of pumpkin if you want, this will make it all the more crispy when it roasts but you can leave it out if you want for gluten-avoidance reasons.

Tip the cubes of pumpkin into the roasting dish that’s been heating up and spread them out so they’re all on one layer. Sprinkle over the cumin and drizzle over more oil if it looks like it needs it. Roast for roughly twenty minutes, stirring halfway through – the amount of time will depend on your oven, but don’t be afraid to leave it in there for a while so the pumpkin gets really crispy and browned.

While the butternut pumpkin is in the oven, pile the cashews and peanuts onto your chopping board and roughly chop them into rubble. In a small cup or bowl mix together the golden syrup and balsamic vinegar.

When you’re quite satisfied with the crisp and brown-ness of the cubes of butternut, remove the tray from the oven and drizzle over the balsamic/syrup mixture – it doesn’t have to coat everything evenly – and sprinkle over the chopped nuts. Return the tray to the oven for literally one minute, then turn the oven off. Leave the tray in there for about ten minutes (although check occasionally to make sure the cashews haven’t burnt). Remove the tray from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and plenty of salt and pepper, and then serve with the coriander leaves sprinkled on top and an extra drizzle of balsamic vinegar for good measure.

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This recipe is one of those neither-here-nor-there ones, but in a really good way – you can serve it as a side during a larger hearty meal; you could stir it through couscous or bulghur wheat (perhaps with some capers and sultanas); or pile it on rice with some other components; you could fold it through some robust salad leaves, I’m thinking a mixture of rocket and cos lettuce; or you could mix it into spaghetti or other long pasta; or you can do what I did and just eat a bowlful of it on its own. The dish shone at any temperature as well: straight from the oven dish before I’d even decamped it to a serving bowl to photograph; at room temperature once it had finished modelling for me; even fridge-cold, the next-day leftovers were spectacularly good, the balsamic sweetness really coming through the wonderfully oily cubes of butternut pumpkin.

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(A Ghost sighting in the wild) (Ghost is the name of the dog by the way)

I’m currently staying with my parents for a bit, and have spent the last two days on the road in a car with my mother and her best friend getting from Wellington to Waiuku (including a three hour and one minute journey between the capital and Otaki due to post-Eminem concert-goer traffic – it should normally take around an hour at the most, but it’s all part of the road trip adventure as we optimistically surmised: if there’s one thing Mum and her best friend know how to do, it’s executing a cunning plan and being optimistic about it at every step of the way.) If you remember when I mentioned in my first blog post of the year that Mum suggested I could come home for a bit and frame it as a writer’s retreat, well, like foreshadowing in a prestige television show, that chicken has come home to roost.

The next thing I’m going to be working on is my actual writing projects that I’ve set out for myself (which you can read about here), an article I pitched to The Spinoff, and this month’s exclusive content for my Patreon supporters (a piece about what I believe each character from Gavin and Stacey’s star signs are, and why, and if this admittedly narrow field of appeal appeals to you then you can sign up here.)

title from: Halloween, by Misfits. I love the anxious guitar riff and the abrupt energy and the way lead singer Glenn Danzig slides over his consonants in a muffled, careless manner, much like a young Patti LuPone in, for example, the 1988 Broadway revival of Anything Goes. Let the bodies hit the floor!

music lately:

Survive It, by Ghostpoet. Really beautiful and poetic.

(I Want To See) The Bright Lights, by Julie Covington. She was the first person to record the breakout song Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in the concept album that preceded the musical Evita (when the concept materialised into a musical on the West End the role went to the unsinkable Elaine Paige, and upon its transfer to Broadway the following year, it was none other than the aforementioned Patti LuPone who sang the famous number.) This is from one of her solo albums and is a cover of a Richard and Linda Thompson song, she sounds just gorgeous and the jingle-jangle production is somehow not too dated, and it captures that very British oil-and-water quality of being plaintively melancholy and resiliently upbeat simultaneously.

Sound of Rain, by Solange. She dropped a new album all at once and everything about it, the musicality and her voice and the writing and the production is stunning and she just seems to be in top form. At 39 minutes, When I Get Home is easy to listen to in its entirety but I love this track in particular at the moment.

Next time: Mum has become an abundant and flourishing gardener and the property is positively creaking with home-grown produce, I imagine this will play a part in whatever I cook next.