Annabel Langbein Hates 'Tortured' Food, Loves Japanese

Renowned TV chef and author Annabel Langbein shares her food diary

Annabel Langbein. Picture / Supplied.

Annabel Langbein is one of the biggest stars of the New Zealand culinary scene, creating delicious yet simple food with an emphasis on home-grown. In anticipation of the release of her latest cookbook A Free Range Life: Endless Summer, Annabel shares her eating habits, favourite meals, and advice for those who aren’t confident in the kitchen.

How would you describe your default style of eating?
I always head to the garden to find the best pickings to turn into a simple, fresh dinner that doesn’t require me to go out shopping!

What’s the most popular meal you make in your household?
I know I can’t go wrong if I ask Ted to light the fire and then we barbecue a butterflied chicken with loads of veges — peppers, eggplants and zucchinis etc. I’ll make a yummy herby sauce to slather over it all, maybe a salsa verde or a roasted pepper sauce, and some couscous or new potatoes and everyone is happy as clams. I think having that little ritual of lighting the fire, waiting for it to burn down to embers, and then that amazing mouth-watering smell of the chicken cooking creates anticipation and it means that we tend to sit around and yak and relax, and everyone loves that!

During the warmer months, what kind of food do you find yourself eating more of?
In spring and summer I tend to crave Asian-style stir-fries and one-dish salad meals — where I’ll grill some chicken or seafood and then toss it with veges and grains or roasted kumara or pumpkin. I feel less like eating red meat, and all those soupy, stewy slow-cook dishes. I think our appetites mirror the seasons — when it’s hot we don’t want to eat heavy rib-sticking food, we want it light and fresh. And then it’s vice versa as the summer season finishes at the other end of the cycle.

Other than in New Zealand, which city has the best food?
It’s hard to choose between Melbourne and Sydney. I would add London but actually it’s just too expensive for what you get and I think the USA is the same – great food tends to be just way too expensive. In both Sydney and Melbourne there is such richness across so many cultures in terms of both culinary knowledge and history, and so much passion. Sure you can get the occasional pretentious try-hard food — I call it tortured — but generally the food is very real and honest and dammed good eating.

Where’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I think it was down at Colac Bay in a tiny little bach. Ted and I had been out snorkelling on one of those out-of-the-bag blue-sky glass-calm days and came back with some beautiful big paua. We had some of our dearest friends staying and they had brought amazing wines. I made a squid ink pasta with paua and waxy little jersey bennes freshly dug from the garden. It was all so simple — just using really good olive oil, garlic, lemon zest and some herbs — but it was utterly brilliant, the paua was perfectly tender, the squid ink pasta just al dente, the potatoes with that ultimate waxiness. And washed down with a flinty, dry Central Otago riesling, it was one of those ahhh moments.

What’s the worst meal you’ve ever eaten?
There have been a few! Bull balls in Bolivia — grey on grey and oh-so-tough and bouncy; dog sausages in Colombia (I was advised after the fact – I never would have eaten them otherwise); whale meat in Norway — I refused to eat it and got up and left the restaurant, much to the embarrassment of my hosts; and just last weekend some overpriced salad made with little care or thought and an incongruous mix of ingredients including Parma ham, figs and whole anchovies – it was just plain weird!

What do you like most about New Zealand food?
I love the freshness and immediacy of our food here and I love that the people who are producing all these beautiful artisan products are so passionate. It’s incredibly challenging operating in such a small market and I love that it’s getting more and more confident – not in a brash way, but in a way that says “I care, this matters, let’s make it as good as it can be”.

If you’re going out for a meal, where would you usually go?
I’m more likely to eat out in a hole-in-the-wall type joint than a fine-dining restaurant. I love Japanese flavours and the fresh vibrancy of Southeast Asian cooking and the way these cultures excel in little plates of really tasty delicious things – you can be greedy and try lots of things without actually eating too much. And often in these kind of places I eat things I would never make at home. Now and then I like to go out somewhere special but you really need to know where you are going – if you take a punt it can be so disappointing if you pay a small fortune but come away feeling that you could just as easily have done it yourself.

If someone wanted to start their first garden, what should they grow?
First up, grow things that you like to eat and that are reasonably fool proof and quick to grow – getting harvests from something that only takes six to eight weeks to grow is a speedier gratification than long-lead crops such as eggplants and pumpkins. If you have less space grow things that are expensive to buy. So rocket and salad greens and herbs that can be pricey but are super easy to grow are a great start point. Unless you grow them in bags, potatoes take room, as do pumpkins. Cucumbers can be tricky – they need water or they will be bitter, but if they get too wet they will get mildew. And eggplants are another tricky veg. Over summer a zucchini plant is a great thing to grow – it’s so gratifying to get all these zucchinis. Learning to garden is like learning any other skill – at the start you won’t have a clue about how deep to plant your beans or how often to water your celery. But just getting started with a few simple things you can get a quick result from is such an easy way to feel more connected to the rhythms of nature.

What would you say to someone who says they don’t know how to cook?
Cooking is deceptively simple, but so many people feel intimidated by it. And shows such as MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules are great but can make people feel that they have to go all out to impress if they are cooking for anyone else. For someone who doesn’t know how to cook, it’s about building confidence and fool proofing the process so they have a positive experience every time. My focus has always been about creating recipes that are really robust and straightforward – essentially they’re road maps that deliver deliciousness with ease and make people feel proud and successful. I have always said my job is to make everyone feel like they are a star in the kitchen.

A Free Range Life: Endless Summer by Annabel Langbein, published by Annabel Langbein Media, $24.95, is available now.

Share this:
New Zealand Herald

New Zealand Herald

Subscribe to E-Newsletter