Ginger crunch, smoked tomatoes & cookbooks for singles

The beginning of this month I made a research trip to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island. It was primarily fieldwork for a new script, but along the way I sampled some of Southland’s and Otago’s culinary offerings—and acquired a couple of local cookbooks. In Queenstown I bought a copy of the iconic Edmonds Cookery Book, described on page 4 as ‘a constant, reliable companion in Kiwi kitchens for over 100 years’. First issued as The Sure to Rise Cookery Book in 1908, a promotional tool for Edmonds’ baking powders, it’s been revised multiple times since and is now up to its sixty-ninth edition.

From one of Invercargill’s many charity shops—I’ve forgotten which—I purchased Food for Flatters. Another Edmonds publication. I bought it to add to my growing collection of (mostly retro) cookbooks for students, singles and small spaces.

In the 1960s and 70s the patterns of the past were changing. More young people were moving out of the parental home, not because they were all getting married, but because they were off to university or off to the city in search of independence—especially the freedom that was difficult to have with Mum and Dad in the adjoining bedroom. Bachelors, it was always assumed, led racy, carefree lives. Spinsters, by contrast, were objects of scorn or pity. That changed—well, sort of. Singledom became an adventurous lifestyle choice—for women as well as men. Cookbooks cashed in, and a subgenre emerged: the singles’ cookbook.

It’s worth noting however, that before Katharine Whitehorn (Cooking in a Bedsitter, 1963) and Helen Gurley Brown (Single Girl’s Cookbook, 1969) appeared on the scene, Marjorie Hillis was providing ideas for solitary suppers and budget-friendly entertaining to ‘bachelor ladies’ in Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner (1937). Joanna Scutt’s The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It colours in the social context and is an absorbing read.

I confess a soft spot for Cooking in a Bedsitter with its Shrimp Wiggle (page 168 in my 1974 Penguin edition) and its ghastly casseroles assembled from condensed soup, mince and a tin of celery. Just as well then that in 2020 it’s more likely to be Jamie Oliver accompanying sons and daughters to halls of residence or share houses.

When I got home from New Zealand, I discovered that about a quarter of the pages had been ripped out of Food for Flatters. Hmm. Disappointing, but look, it only cost $2, the money went to a good cause, and I wasn’t buying it for its recipes. Of course I wasn’t. Crumbed sausages or cheese rolls made with packet soup mix are not appealing. Although I was told several times that cheese rolls are a regional speciality, I wasn’t game enough to try them. Cheese scones, on the other hand—when I could find them without bacon bits—were invariably delicious.

Some of the meals I ate in New Zealand were excellent. Fish pie and Sauvignon Blanc on the terrace of a Queenstown pup, overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Discovering the delights of smoked tomatoes thanks to the fabulous Batch café in Invercargill. And on the snack and treat front, I reacquainted myself with that classic NZ slice: ginger crunch. A slightly crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth shortbread base topped with a thick layer of ginger icing.

According to the Edmonds Cookery Book New Zealanders have always been partial to slices and squares—a taste that continues if the number of bakeries and cafés selling them is anything to go by.

This recipe for ginger crunch is based on the one in Edmonds Cookery Book.

For the base
125g butter softened
½ cup caster sugar
1½ cups plain flour
1 x teaspoons baking powder
1½ x teaspoons ground ginger

For a thick layer of icing
110g butter
1 cup icing sugar
2 x tablespoons golden syrup
4 x teaspoons ground ginger

Preheat oven to 180°C. Grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin.

Mix dry ingredients, rub in the butter, then lightly knead the mixture until it comes together. It will be fairly dry and crumbly at this stage. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and press it down.

Bake about 20-25 minutes until it’s a light, golden brown.

While the base is cooking put the butter, golden syrup and ginger into a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the butter is melted. Add the sifted icing sugar and mix it into the melted ingredients. Once everything is satisfactorily combined, remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the icing over the slice as soon as it comes out of the oven. Cut into fingers and leave to cool before indulging.

Sustainable seafood—my correspondence with Coles

Although I prefer to buy my fish fresh, I do like to have some backup options in the freezer. With this in mind I bought a 1 kg pack of Coles Southern Blue Whiting Fillets in early June. I did the usual checks:

Certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—tick.
Wild caught—tick.
From New Zealand—tick.

One bit of small print I didn’t notice until I got my shopping home was ‘Packed in China’. So on 7 June I wrote a ‘please explain’ letter to Coles Customer Care:

So, the fish is caught in New Zealand waters, sent to China where it is packed and then returned to Australia to be sold in your supermarkets. Why isn’t it processed and packed in this part of the world, in either New Zealand or Australia?

While the actual fish may indeed be sustainably sourced, how does transporting it to China and back constitute an environmentally sustainable practice?

A fortnight later I received this reply.

Coles responded to questions I hadn’t asked—about the quality standards of their supplier’s facility in China—while ignoring the questions I did ask. So I wrote another letter on 24 June asking them to address what I was actually asking. How do all the additional and unnecessary air or sea miles involved in transporting the fish to China and back again contribute to environmental sustainability?

A month later I received a reply. Word for word the same letter they had already sent me. Even the date was unaltered.

On 28 July I wrote a third letter. I reiterated my questions. Pointed out that they were (again) supplying information I had not requested. Asked them not to disregard my query, and to please not send me another form letter.

It’s now the middle of December and I have yet to receive any response from Coles to my third missive. I suspect I won’t. All up, a frustrating and totally unsatisfactory exchange. Coles twice ignored my questions and when I persisted, chose to ignore my letter altogether. Doesn’t say much for their customer relations, does it?

The ways of watercress

I like watercress. I like it in sandwiches, sometimes as a single filling, sometimes with Wensleydale or Cheshire cheese. I put it in stir-fries and salads—it plays well with beetroot. I make watercress lasagne, and of course, soup.

‘Watercress is a leafy paradox,’ says a 2006 Australian Government report into the potential for its production. ‘Cool when first experienced and then hot, when chewed.’

As that report points out, watercress is not widely used in this country. In Europe and Asia it’s a popular vegetable sold in shops and markets, but in Australia and New Zealand we’re more likely to encounter it as a weed.

Yet watercress has been part of the culinary repertoire for a long time. It was prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It’s mentioned in a play by Aristophanes (Clouds). The Romans ate it with oil and vinegar and believed its consumption promoted clarity of thought and bold decision-making.

Although watercress was first cultivated in Germany during the sixteenth century, it wasn’t farmed commercially in Britain until the nineteenth. The development of the railway system made it possible to transport carriage-loads of the plant from beds in England’s southern counties to London’s Covent Garden Market. A food of the poor, watercress helped at least one poor girl make her fortune. Eliza James, who earned the nickname the Watercress Queen, began her business career at the age of five hawking bunches of the wild stuff to factory workers. She ended up with a near monopoly supplying the vegetable to London’s restaurants and hotels.

‘I am sorry I cannot give the name of the public benefactor who introduced this wholesome and useful plant [watercress] into our Queensland streams,’ said Mr F M Bayley in a paper read at the Linnaean Society in 1879. ‘But I may take the opportunity of stating that it was propagated in the South Australian watercourses in about 1842 by Mrs S Davenport, a lady who took great interest in horticulture, and to whom the colony is indebted for the introduction of many useful plants.’

A decade later, in another paper, this one entitled Blunders in Acclimatisation, horticulturalist William Clarson wrote ‘Many years ago, seeds of the common watercress were given away from several of the botanic gardens in the colonies, to induce settlers to sow the banks of the creeks and rivers.’

‘Watercress stands alone. It is not quite so individual as celery, but there is nothing to rival it in its own domain.’ In 1896 the Maitland Daily Mercury waxed lyrical. ‘It is eloquent of the charm of its native environment. Nothing else … speaks or sings to the eater, as watercress does, of cool streams and overhanging banks and lush herbage … The spirit of the rivulet abides in its heart.’

How watercress arrived in Australia remains open to debate. Likewise whether it was a deliberate or accidental introduction—or some combination of both. A member of the mustard family Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum, also known as Nasturtium officinale, is found in waterways, wetlands, drains and irrigation channels—pretty much anywhere damp and not too hot, in fact. At one stage it was declared a noxious weed in Queensland and it’s listed here in my 2011 edition of Weeds of the South East as widespread in all states.

In many parts of Australia the spread of watercress was curbed by periodic drought. But in cooler, rainier New Zealand watercress thrived unchecked. Such an obstruction did it become that the Province of Canterbury passed the Watercress Ordinance, 1864. Despite stiff penalties for people who ‘wilfully cut loosen or dislodge watercresses or other weeds in or from any river or stream or the banks of any river or stream’ the plant remained a huge problem. Its ‘leaves growing as large as those of a water lily, and the stems as thick as those of a man’s wrist,’ according to Wellington’s Evening Post. While another newspaper complained: ‘The watercress of our breakfast tables, in Europe a mere casual brook-side plant, chokes the New Zealand rivers with stems twelve feet long, and costs the colonists of Christchurch alone £300 a year in dredging their Avon free from it.’

Unlike those nineteenth century New Zealanders I don’t see watercress as a breakfast food. For me it’s a lunchtime sandwich. Or Alexandre Dumas’s winter salad. The author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, by all accounts a fine cook, also penned a Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (Great Dictionary of Cooking). ‘Le cresson de fontaine est aussi une salade d’hiver, et on l’assaisonne habituellement avec des tranches de betteraves et quelques filets d’olives tournés.’ Watercress is also a winter salad, and is usually seasoned with slices of beetroot and some pitted olives.

I’ll say it again: I like watercress. I like its reliable pepperiness and I like its link with southeast England where I grew up. My mother was an avid forager and I have fond memories of wading into streams with her to gather wild watercress. (If you do pick it wild be careful. If cattle and sheep graze nearby it may host a parasite known as liver fluke and will need cooking or very thorough washing. Mum put vinegar in the water and soaked her wild cress for 10-15 minutes.)

I think my favourite way of eating watercress is as a soup. A lot of recipes use flour and cream or other dairy products. I thicken mine with potatoes. Sauté a diced onion in olive oil and a little butter (omit the butter for a vegan version), add a crushed clove of garlic. While the onions cook, cut up 2 large potatoes and put them into the pot. Add vegetable stock, some parsley, salt, lots of pepper, nutmeg to taste, and cook until the potatoes are soft. Rinse your watercress (you need a couple of bunches) and discard any thick stems. Long cooking robs watercress of its punchy bite, so I blanche it then add it to the pot for just a couple of minutes’ cooking. I use a stick blender to liquidise it—but not too much, I like my watercress soup with a bit of texture.

Eating New Zealand—tinned spaghetti and meat, meat, meat

New Zealand’s (then) Prime Minister opened a can of worms when he opened a can of spaghetti and put it on top of his homespun pizza. Back in April this year, Bill English cooked dinner for his family and posted photos of his creation on social media. Culinary uproar ensued. Some people said a pizza topped with bacon, pineapple chunks and tinned spaghetti was an abomination. Others said no, it was a South Island classic, quick to concoct and budget-friendly to boot. Cynics suggested it was an attempt to divert public attention from more serious political issues.

Yes, frozen pizzas and ready-meal spaghetti bear scant relation to their Italian origins, but the New Zealand PM’s effort was—let’s say in a class of its own. To me it was kiddie food. I remember spaghetti on toast served up on school camping trips, and there was a time when my brother and I considered Heinz tinned ravioli the height of sophistication and were forever pestering our mother to buy it.

I was in new Zealand last month on a research trip, and I have to say I found it a very meaty place. I eat fish and some seafood, but if you didn’t, or were vegan, eating out would be tricky. Across a range of eateries, meatless options were scarce. Menus often had just a single vegetarian offering, while dishes that are traditionally meatless—or could easily be made so—included meat. A Wellington restaurant, for example, had French onion soup—with added bacon bits. Why? I make this soup quite often, sometimes using a light vegetable stock, sometimes not. Bacon is not only totally unnecessary, it actually detracts from the delicious economy of the dish—a peasant recipe composed of onions, stale bread, cheese, and water.

There’s always tinned spaghetti …

I flew into Christchurch and early next morning boarded the bus to Dunedin. The trip took over five hours and in Oamaru we stopped for a thirty-minute lunch break. The driver directed us to the Lagonda Tea Rooms on Thames Street. It was a Sunday, and the Tea Rooms was one of the few places open. Inside were cabinets of cakes and slices, of sandwiches, pies (most featuring meat of some description) and a variety of things on toast. One of the few vegetarian possibilities was white bread spread with canned spaghetti and grilled cheese. I passed on the savoury options and went instead for half a piece of ginger crunch and a cup of tea.

In between working in the University of Otago library, I walked and caught local buses around Dunedin and out to nearby towns. I took note of the extensive range of old-fashioned bakery products (louise cake, lolly cake, Russian fudge, coconut ice and more) and the region’s fantastic secondhand shops. It was in one of those shops that I bought a copy of the 1952 publication The Hostess Cook Book by Helen Cox, a popular New Zealand food writer and broadcaster. On page 91 she has a recipe for ‘Spaghetti en casserole with bacon’. It goes like this:

‘(1) Open a 1-lb. tin of spaghetti and an 11-oz. tin of peas.
(2) Cook 2 eggs until hard (about 15 minutes).
(3) Place half the spaghetti in an oven dish then cover with the peas (well drained from liquid) and the eggs (sliced). Cover with the rest of the spaghetti.
(4) Cut think slices of bread into little triangles and place al over the dish, Cover with bacon rashers (rinds removed). Bake in a moderate over for 20-30 minutes until piping hot and the bacon is cooked and sizzling ..

Is cooking with tinned spaghetti a specifically New Zealand thing? I thought perhaps it was, but no, the Internet—where else?—has a plethora of dishes to make with tinned spaghetti. Everything from omelettes, pies and toasties to chicken spaghetti casserole.

So now you know.