Lish Fejer chats with Annabel Crabb about her new book Special Guest over afternoon tea. Co-written with Wendy Sharpe, this is a cookbook for anyone who loves hosting guests at home.
Special Guest is a gentle guide to turning easy basic fare into something of a celebration.
If you are someone who prepares for guests by sweeping bills, laundry and newspapers behind sofa cushions, take heart! It's possible to be an imperfect host, but happily so. The essential ingredient is not, paradoxically, the food, nor the perfect house to host in, but the sentiment you convey when you open the door. Do your eyes say: 'I like you and I enjoy your company,' or does a weepy cloud of visceral horror descend as pine nuts burn quietly in the kitchen?
For when you want to say to your friends with their spouses and ten small children, 'Why don't you stay for lunch?' without hating yourself afterwards. Learn the lesson of 'one splendid thing done well' without regard to the hundred other things, and call the day a success.
Annabel Crabb is one of Australia's best-loved TV and media personalities and a joyfully imperfect host. Wendy Sharpe is Annabel's oldest friend, a recipe consultant on Kitchen Cabinet and co-conspirator in mad-capped cookery projects.
In association with Murdoch Books.
Image: Annabel Crabb, image courtesy Rob Palmer
Author Talk with Annabel Crabb
*Speakers: Erin Dampney (E), Lish Fejer (L), Annabel Crabb (A)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 18th November 2018
E: Good afternoon. We got there eventually, welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Erin Dampney, I’m the Director of Facilities and Security here at the Library. Before we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and I would like to thank their elders past, present and emerging for caring for this land we are so privileged to call home.
And it is such a pleasure to see so many of you here this afternoon to listen to Annabel Crabb in conversation about her latest book, Special Guest, a cookbook for anyone who has ever felt like punching the wall before their guests arrive. Special Guest is a guide to turning simple fare into something of a celebration. It’s for anyone who has ever wanted to say why don’t you stay for lunch? Without hating themselves afterwards. Special Guest is cowritten by Wendy Sharpe, Annabel’s oldest friend, recipe consultant on Kitchen Cabinet and co-conspirator on a number of cooking projects.
This afternoon Annabel speaks with Lish Fejer, broadcaster, Sunday Brunch presenter and most importantly a keen cook who has been delving very deeply I’ve been hearing into the recipes in the last few weeks. So please join me in welcoming Annabel Crabb and Lish Fejer.
L: Hello, oh I’ve brought grocs, Annabel.
A: I’m very pleased to see that basket.
L: ‘Cause whenever you see Annabel arrive anywhere she’s always got a basket that looks like treats so I thought I’d – welcome everyone, thank you all for coming out, what a treat. I have known Annabel for ages. Unfortunately she has just met me. Probably like most of you we feel like we know her so well because she’s so incredibly personable, generous, grilling at times but with that beautiful edge so they – politicians don’t know they’re getting a grilling. She gets the most out of anyone but I think also gives the most so just delighted to be in conversation this afternoon, Annabel.
A: Well I'm liking you already, I must say. You seem delightful.
L: I think we’re going to get along famously.
A: I think we are.
L: But also the podcasts, the books, the -
A: Also I like those shoes.
L: She did threaten to swap outside but – I think we could go well. Now we’re here to talk about a book. Has anyone received or cooked from Special Guest yet?
L: A few. I have done an incredible amount of research, I have been doing a sort of a Julia style job of this, midnight every night, baking another five things out of this book and let me tell you not a single one has been a dud.
A: God, that is such a relief.
L: Like not a single one. In fact this morning I was even ordering the husband to make something from it, make the Turkish eggs, we haven’t got time to waste. So, Annabel, I would like to start by asking you about entertaining because it is all about that wonderful generosity that comes with entertaining and just as women of a certain age, I feel entertaining is just way too much now and I want to know how our parents did it so beautifully. Can you take us – peer us through the curtain of Annabel Crabb’s childhood at what you were looking at in the ‘70s into your entertaining education?
A: Well I grew up in a rural pocket as my mother likes to remind me. She uses that as an excuse for not being able to use a travel card and things, I grew up in a rural pocket, that’s why. But – so I grew up on a sheep farm on the Adelaide plains with an elder brother, a younger brother and my mum and dad and so my memories of cooking and entertaining are really probably centred around – we had sheep so we had shearers and cooking for shearers is like an insanely demanding – they eat a lot and they’ve got to really smash it down in the quick smokos that they get and they really like you know slabs of cake and sandwiches and all sorts. So the cakes that I remember cooking were based around catering for these itinerant sort of hordes of shearers who ate a lot and didn’t say much and smoked the whole time. But – when they didn’t say much they said a lot actually which is part of the reason why I’m unoffendable today, running around with heaps of shearers.
But dinner parties you know in a country area are not the same at all as they are in a city area so for one you’d have to drive to wherever it was you know it could be – even if it was a neighbour it could be 5 or 10 Ks away and we – this is what’s changed I guess in my lifetime – if Mum and Dad were going to a dinner party to a neighbouring property we would get stuck in the car and packed in with quilts and stuff and that’s where we would spend the night but we’d be outside in the car. I got this really clear recollection of Dad saying to the three of us as he clunked the door shut, he said now don’t come after us ‘cause there’s dangerous dogs on this property, thinking man oh man like –
L: Would the Crabbs have a little picnic inside the car? The Crabb kids.
A: Oh look, occasionally we’d be given like a box of cereal or something, that would be a bit of a treat but it just was – anyway but it was very, very customary for the era but really it could not be less similar to the sort of –
L: And the party that was going on inside the house –
A: Oh yeah and it would – it was like a foreign grown-up land you know where your parents who were completely normally behaved during the day would you know be – there’d be people with swishy dresses and you know and canape and stuff like that. I remember once this terrible situation where – oh and also those little after dinner mints in the sleeves – and I remember like I would help my mum prepare for dinner parties and you know there’d be a salmon mousse or something like that so the fish mould would come out and – or I’d assist in making the smoked oyster dip which was block of Philly cheese, tin of drained smoked oysters like mashed up with a little bit of a lemon squeeze and some chopped curly parsley. To be honest I would still eat that today, I love smoked oysters even though I’m not supposed to in any way, yeah.
L: And the thrill of creeping out in the morning –
A: Oh the next morning and you’d go through the little after dinner mint box to see if anyone had accidentally left one in one of the sleeves, be like I got one. I remember a terrible morning where I came across what I thought was a small bowl of smoked almonds and I thought oh delicious. Turns out they were olive pips. Very, very – a trap for young players. But my friend, Wendy, and co-author, she writes in her introduction to the book about dinner parties at her grandmother’s place ‘cause she used to board at her grandmother’s place when she went to school in the city and so I spent a lot of time at Grandma Goyne’s place too and her dinner parties were a masterpiece of engineering you know they’d be three courses and like just immaculate table settings with gypsophila everywhere and as Wendy recalls the waft of Nina Ricci perfume.
And I think if you’ve grown up with elaborate dinner parties or – you sort of remember them being a big special occasion and you’d all have to be quiet as children but I don’t think – I mean I certainly don’t entertain like that and I think that people these days have a heart attack at the idea of you know assembling your napery and polishing your silverware and bringing out the you know the good china and the good cutlery and so on. I mean I’m you know if I get something edible on the table then I’m congratulating myself –
L: And even better changed for dinner like this is the thing, they changed for dinner.
A: They changed for –
L: So good.
A: But also I mean I think things have changed. If you invite people over who have kids they’re not going to leave them in the car outside anymore, they’re going to – I know, it really sucks. I can’t believe I got the rubber end of both plungers you know like I was in the car and I don’t get to put my children in the car. Great. It’s kind of like the millennial you know situation where they get the generational short straw both ways. But I think too because it’s much more like – unlikely these days that you’ll have a household with a housewife and a breadwinner and the housewife is flitting about you know making sure that all the prep’s done on the salmon mousse or whatever. The housewife on this occasion is working until 5, screaming home, swearing all the way you know so I think that element of life has changed.
Also when you invite half a dozen people over for dinner you’ll have a Coeliac, you’ll have two vegans you know someone who’s really not that into mushrooms and like it’s like a big puzzle like a Rubik’s cube and so people get anxious about that. Also if they’ve been watching any MasterChef at all they feel like they’ve got to have immaculate pleating and wow factor and you know that. And then also – I mean I’m not that fazed by much of the abovementioned you know I really love cooking and I don’t mind a complicated cook but the thing that really stresses me out is tidying up because I am a messy person. So for me the reason I don’t invite people ‘round for three-course dinner parties is because I cannot be arsed cleaning off the dining room table which has got newspapers from the last three weeks –
L: And that’s why there’s a very tight shot -
A: That’s a very tight shot.
L: - of Annabel and her kids here because there’s no mess, you cannot see a single bit of mess.
A: I put all the mess behind the children which is my technique. But we’ve got this verb at my house which is [crydear] 11:08 which is when you’ve got people coming over and you forgot that you had to tidy up the table and you haven’t and so you're just grabbing vast armfuls of stuff and like putting it behind things and you’re just crying a little bit while you’re doing it ‘cause you just can’t believe that you live like this. But yeah so that’s the thing that stresses me out.
L: But mess like cooking is handed down the generations, don’t you think?
A: It is, I’ve inherited it totally. My mother’s messy too.
L: Is she? But she’s also a fabulous cook.
A: She is, she just is messy like me.
L: What were the things that she taught you originally when you were a little tiny kid because often it takes great patience to instil the love of food but more importantly cooking in a child.
A: She was just super-patient like the thing about my mum, and I wish I’d inherited a bit more of her patience, actually because I cook with my kids too and I just - like that little sound of a chair being dragged up and then this little face and like your hands and I – I’ll do it. And for me my mother is an incredibly generous and patient person so she is the sort of person who will prepare something beautifully or roll out a perfect sheet of gingerbread dough and some kid’ll come up and stick a cutter right in the middle of it like – and she’ll be like that’s adorable, off you go, you just have a go. And I’ll be like no, no, you do it like this around the edges and then like you could get more out of this sheet if you did this. No, I’ll do it. So it’s a constant battle with my own control freakery. And also like everybody says that you should get your children to cook a whole meal because it’s really great for them and it is but I don’t want to eat that meal, I want to eat the one that I’m making, I just like – I know exactly where I want to go with this dish.
So I’m very, very – I need to work on my patience and – at our kids’ school, actually, we are lucky enough to have a Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden which is the greatest thing so the kids grow all these vegetables and we’ve got a real hard-arse kitchen teacher at our primary school and she makes them cook stuff in the kitchen class that’s just - only comes from the garden. And she’ll start from scratch so it’ll be like today you’re making sweet potato gnocchi. There’s none of this well let’s make cupcakes nonsense, no.
L: And that’s nice –
A: They’re like we’re making wontons with celeriac because that’s all we’ve got in the garden this week. The kids are like okay. But what is interesting is that I will sit there – ‘cause I go in and help with kitchen classes ‘cause it’s sort of the only thing I’m good at in the entire educational spectrum –
L: Get out.
A: - and it’s amazing because you stand back and you let the kids do it even if they’re really you know taking a weird slash dangerous approach to the preparation, it’s like - and then they all sit down and they share the food together and I’ve seen kids eat the stuff that they would never eat at my house, you know? I do my best but my kids – like I have yet to produce a child who’ll eat a tomato fresh like I’m embarrassed about that but I just – I mean I do feed them lots of good stuff but they just have these sort of red light issues and one of them is fresh tomatoes, I just do not understand it. I do tomatoes on anything else, in a pasta sauce, on a pizza most notably you know but a fresh tomato will not do it.
L: What’s a young Annabel Crabb as a you know you’ve grown up, you’ve gone to your own house, normal students are going through a heavy lentil phase.
A: Oh yeah.
L: Did you go through a lentil phase or were you always in your dolmades, big Chinese <inaudible> 14:32 cous cous phase like were you –
A: No, I was – so when I moved out of home – so I grew up on a sheep farm as I mentioned, we used to do our own butchery so I’ve been vegetarian since about the age of 15. You ask me why, I grew up on a farm, it’s all too much which I did, I just thought oh I don’t like that aspect of really things very much and I thought well if I'm uncomfortable with watching an animal be deprived of its life then I probably shouldn’t be you know eating the stuff and I thought do you know what? I wouldn’t even miss it that much, I don’t love meat and so I thought well I’ll eat things – I’ll only eat things that I’m prepared to murder myself so I eat fish, happy to knock over a fish – sorry, fish, yeah – seafood, I couldn’t live without. Very happy to extinguish a prawn, I'm sorry again.
So – but north of that I don’t eat and I’m a total hypocrite because I cook meat for my kids, I’m not going to make a dietary decision for them but the stuff that we eat at home is heavily – I mean I get a lot of veg into them but they love meat, they really love meat to an extent that I really didn’t when I was a kid. Also because you live on a sheep farm like you’re not getting the lambs when you live on the farm, you’re getting the ones that have seen a few summers. You’re getting the ones that were just like limping around looking as if they were ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. Yeah, you get a lot of casserole. Very sheepy-tasting casserole. Nope, nope.
L: It’s funny, isn’t it, ‘cause the lamb chop and when you see the lamb chop at ridiculous prices now –
L: - what’s your thought? Please, not another cutlet.
A: It was all neck chops and –
L: Oh we’ll move on from that –
A: We had rabbits as well. So I know that some people are just massively into eating rabbit but I ate a lot of rabbit when I was a kid. I’ve had enough –
L: Did you ferret? Did you go ferreting?
A: Oh –
L: I’ve just brought up something that maybe Annabel didn’t want to.
A: Yeah, I have, actually because I had free range guinea pigs and my cousin was a ferreter, Jock –
L: Tell us a bit more about Jock.
A: Well he lost a – the thing with ferrets is you put them down rabbit holes and they’re supposed to murder a rabbit down there and bring it up to you. But one out of 10 ferrets will go down there, kill the rabbit, eat it and go to sleep. And then you're just whistling Dixie up at ground level waiting for your ferret to come back and it doesn’t and then it gets dark so you go home. Meanwhile your ferret wakes up having slept off the rabbit and comes up and eats my guinea pigs, that’s what happens.
L: Oh –
A: Yeah so I'm not good with ferrets.
L: Nor with Jock, cousin Jock –
A: Well Jock went down a few notches in my estimation when that happened. Yeah.
L: So what are you eating at university? Are you still being very experimental?
A: No, I wasn’t even a very good cook like – I was a vegetarian by that stage and so – and I – if I hadn’t been, I probably wouldn’t have been buying meat anyway, I didn’t have very much money. I worked at a service station so I ate a lot of Burger Rings. Wasn’t a very busy servo. And you know I worked at this servo for ages, actually and I used to get there on my shift and wait for the owners to leave and then I’d put all the pornos back behind the counter, I'm like I’m not selling pornos. And like you’d get these people come in, these guys’d come in and they’d be browsing in the shop for ages and they’d be like ages and ages and ages. And they’d come up to the counter and be like I’ll just have this stick of gum and these five magazines, please. They don’t like buying porn off girls. Anyway, I don’t know why that memory came back to me but –
L: No, like a ferret –
A: What did I make? Yeah, I used to do the – like the big cook-up of lentils and vegetables and sludge and that would go in the fridge or if I forgot to put it in the fridge then bad things would happen because you cannot leave – if you leave a pan of lentils on the stove and you forgot to put it in the fridge within a day it’s pretty much coming to murder you in your bed.
L: So when did the love of cooking and – I understand you’re quite an extravagant entertainer and like to take a challenge when you cook –
A: Yes, I do love a challenge.
L: Where did that come –
A: I don’t know. Wendy always teases me about this because I you know I have these sort of – I love – my two favourite things are when – and there’s a whole chapter in the book called Stay for Lunch which is where you manage anxiety about catering by only issuing very last minute invitations so like when people are already in your house, for instance because they’re picking up something that they’ve borrowed or dropping something off or you know they’ve just wandered by and then you just say oh do you want to stay for lunch? And then you can make something – I mean there’s a list of things in that chapter that you can do, typically things that are made from things that you are likely to have in your fridge or freezer and I’m never without green peas in the freezer, for instance, frozen peas are the world’s greatest easy entertainer.
L: And I spoke to Pamela Clark recently and she said – I said what’s your go-to thing that you – frozen peas.
A: Yeah. If you’ve got a bag of frozen peas you can make a dip because you just – boiling water over the peas, into a blender of some kind, some feta if you’ve got it would be great or sour cream. Even if you don’t, bit of oil, bit of garlic if you fancy, not if you don’t, squeeze of lemon, some mint in the garden, if you’ve got some of that whack it in and suddenly it’s a delicious dip and it’s really yeah fresh and colourful. You could put that on a bit of sourdough toast and it’s a bruschetta or you could then go the whole hog and make it into a chilled soup which would be tasty as well or if you’ve go the green peas you can also crack a few eggs and make a green pea frittata. That doesn’t take long, that’s in the book.
L: And the other one I made last night, two top class eight-year-olds said this is the new number one, Mum, the new number one. Risoni, green peas, squeeze of lemon, green peppercorns, parmesan cheese, mint, everything good going on there. And butter, I love butter.
A: So that’s the sort of you know where you just come up with something and there’s good ideas in the book for you know quite lovely things you could make out of quite basic ingredients and it’s good because you haven’t been worrying about it in advance, you haven’t felt bad about not tidying up because they’ve just dropped in, what can they expect? And they are not expecting any food at all so to have something tasty delivered to them is like awesome plus they’re all recipes that don’t take very long to make so you could be right there chatting and just you know putting things together and so everybody’s expectations are low and that is a good thing. Low expectations are awesome because high expectations are stressful.
L: And I think that’s what my takeaway message is.
L: Big on delivery – well this is not Special Delivery, that was the previous book but big on delivery, low on expectations.
L: Because they’re last minute guests, you haven’t had to as you say punch the wall before people have arrived, you haven’t had to go into a – what is it? A crying clean, what is it?
A: Yes, [crydearing], bit of [crydearing]. The other thing is - and you know if you think about your life and the things that you’ve got to juggle and deal with and who your guests are and so on you can come up with a solution that is the lowest stress that delivers the most pleasure for them ‘cause that’s what entertaining always should be about. It’s not a competition, it’s not to make you look good or say wow, look, I can make a croquembouche or whatever, it’s how do I bring the most pleasure to the person that I'm inviting over? And it might be just delighting them with an unusual ingredient or flavour combination. It’s not that hard to make but it’s just like they’re oh, this is interesting, isn’t it? That’s a nice thing to do for somebody, provide them with an idea that they can borrow and make other people happy with.
Other ideas are invite people ‘round at an atypical time of day, that’s also another idea. Don’t feel like you got to be locked into some sort of three-course dinner fiasco, invite them ‘round for breakfast if they’re morning people then you make one breakfast dish and you serve it, you serve it with coffee or orange juice or whatever and then you eat it and then they’re out, you know? You’re back on your own to enjoy the day.
L: And that’s the thing, though, isn’t it? We all like entertaining but there’s - nicer when they leave.
A: And what about afternoon tea? We’re both very, very passionate about afternoon tea and I think partly for Wendy who also grew up on a sheep farm the idea of this afternoon tea is great. Like we used to do a bit of visiting after school and there’d always be just a fantastic cake and it would be like a big slab cake or something really generous and you’d all hoe in, have a cup of tea and then off you go. Like and that’s a really great way of doing things ‘cause you make and you know if you’ve got a bit of time in the morning you can actually slap together quite a complicated cake if you want but the key is just do one thing, don’t be buggerising around with the finger sandwiches and the mini tartlets and the blah, blah, blah, just – if you’ve got a nice bunch of flowers put it on the table, make your cake, put that on the table and then make tea or open some champagne if you’re you know that way inclined. But don’t do too much ‘cause that’s the thing that gets you in the end is when you're like [sings] oh and the vegan will have to have this and the Coeliac will have to have this and then you’ve got a list of six dishes and you’re in tears like that’s not good.
And the book has got some ideas too about that stressfulness of catering for a crowd of people with different dietary requirements. Don’t feel like you’ve got to make a dish for each of those people, you can do dishes that work intelligently to that situation and – like some examples that I’ve used, I’ve got a really close friend who’s Coeliac and who doesn’t cook very much so she’s always at my house and – which I like ‘cause she’s excellent. I’ve got some vegans in the vicinity you know and if they’re all coming around then you just spend a little bit of extra time creating a strategy rather than heaps of extra time making them a dish each that also makes them all feel like they’re in different tribes.
So for instance one of my favourite ways of entertaining a bit of a crowd is to make a pokey bowl buffet which is where you make a you know a pokey bowl’s –
L: I thought it was called the poke bowls and I realised –
A: Is that what they –
L: No, pokey sounds much better than poke.
A: It’s more amusing, yeah. I have no idea how that word is pronounced but so much easier to write but – so you just make a huge amount of sushi rice and put it in the middle of the table then you have all of these little bowls of additional ingredients, you can have some chicken if you’ve got a you know someone who needs to eat meat, some tofu, some sashimi tuna maybe and then lots of edamame beans and carrot and herbs and a good dressing. And then they can build their little bowl with the stuff that they love, shunning the stuff that they dislike and otherwise would be polite about if you put it in their plate without asking and your Coeliac person’ll be fine as long you use a Tamari gluten-free soy sauce in your dressing and not a – ‘cause otherwise that won’t be good. And your vegans’ll be happy to have the tofu with all the other ingredients and then everybody feels like they’re included.
L: And you haven’t had to stress.
L: I think too when you invite people over with children –
A: Oh yeah.
L: - because – well then you’ve got –
A: We love children.
L: We do and –
A: Of our own, not other people –
L: But it adds an extra level of complexity and –
L: - greater mess you know there’s lots – they have amazingly ability to squash stuff through –
A: Plus on the whole like it’s quite likely that you’ll be then cooking a second sitting of dinner like where you have an early one where you feed the kids and then you get them to disperse and then you feed the adults. Now that is – look, I do that all the time so I’m not going to poke a stick at that process but if you aren’t up for it then there is another alternative which is actually Wendy Sharpe’s brilliant idea and it’s called Pudding Club. So she does this at her house where you invite your adult guests for adult guest o’clock like sort of 7:00 and you say can you feed your children dinner before you come? So that means that they’ll bang into their kids some quick meal that they know that their kid will eat so it’s not your responsibility to try and make their kid eat their five a day or whatever like – or deal with Mr I Only White Food or you know whatever.
So that’s done and what you do is you prepare the adults’ food but you also make a big pudding or a delicious big dessert and the kids all share that on arrival so they have got something incredibly delicious, they haven’t had to eat your improving – hidden vegetable pasta or whatever and they’re happy as a clam so then they go off and play board games or watch a movie or do whatever and you proceed.
L: I love talking to you, Annabelle, about food but yet you have so many strings to your bow you know you provide incredible political analysis, you write books, you write articles, you cook for friends, you’re volunteering at school kitchen garden to do something with the celeriac because I think the other level is our energy levels for the time for entertaining and exhaustion and just thinking I just want to watch tele. How do you balance that all out?
A: Well here I’ll let you in on a little thing. People often – if they see you on television sometimes they assume that you’re on television all the time and that in – like when their television isn’t switched on you’re still on there just talking, taking you know baskets to people’s houses and like you’re just on this total loop where you’re just talking about politics while you're cooking, I'm just there the whole time. And then they hear you on radio once and they’re like she’s doing that the whole time too. And then I casually mention oh yeah when I help out at school you’re like then she’s at the school every single day. And then you feel like oh – well I’m not doing that either, right? So the way that I work is very unpredictable and irregular so right now I'm on a book tour so I'm away heaps and it’s really awful and hard because I really miss my children and I have the most fabulous partner who – even he as he farewelled me grimly this morning, he said when are you home? I went on Saturday, he’s like are you for real, mate? We’ve had this talk but yes, I am for real and it’s – I know it’s bad, I'm sorry.
So – but I’m not – I don’t live like this all the time at all and I'm not always filming something somewhere. Some weeks are quite quiet and the advantage of my job is that I kind of fit in as much as I can and when it’s quiet I will like be there for school pickup and all that sort of stuff so – and I like to live and work like that because I have I think a shortish attention span and I like to have change and I quite like unpredictability so not everybody loves that but I find that it’s a way of keeping my brain distracted and ticking over and coming up with new ideas of things to do.
L: This is a very mum question and my mum always asks it but how do you recharge?
A: I cook.
L: Is that it?
A: One hundred per cent. So whenever I get home after I’ve been away, if I’ve been away for a few days – and look, I'm never away for this long normally like I just – I really don’t like long absences because it’s just not fair on the kids but when I get back two things, one, the first thing I want to do is cook something like that’s what I miss you know doing when I’m traveling. But also when I get home my house is really tidy because Jeremy is a tidier and I always feel bad ‘cause I just think imagine the life he could have if I wasn’t in it like he would be living in like a house of surfaces –
L: With just one orchid.
A: With – like you want a phalaenopsis orchid just being beautiful and –
L: And a white leather couch.
A: Maybe there would be even white things, I don’t know. But like our house is like – it’s furnished with furniture that we had when we were students like I just – I still live like a teenager, it’s terrible.
L: But I think that’s the energy that you bring to everything you do.
A: It is, it’s a grubby energy of disorganisation and shambolia, yeah. Well I have you know I think life is a bit short to be that tidy, to be honest and I like a bit of –
L: Because you’re creative and I think -
A: That’s right, that’s what I often say to Jeremy.
L: - you can’t have creativity without –
A: I have other skills, darling.
L: It’s true.
A: Yeah so yeah, they’re the things – yeah, I do notice the tidiness when I get home and I don’t take very long to mess it up again, I'm afraid but – yeah.
L: I want to talk about why I love this book so much and why you will love this book so much –
A: I don’t even know why I’m bothering to be on this book tour, you should just go. You go home tonight, I’ll go home and mess up my house and you can just like –
L: I’ll wear the shoes, the slop shoes.
A: Yeah, okay.
L: Is - because you know how sometimes when you cook stuff out of a recipe and there’s – you always go to the shop to get one pesky ingredient and you think oh. I’ve done the experiment these last couple of weeks, I’ve read the book in the morning with my cup of tea in bed, I’ve read it at night going to bed again, I’ve read a few more, everything I love about it but then when I go to make the actual dish I don’t have to go to the shop, okay. So I’m going to set up here what I call VPL.
L: The visible pantry line because there’s – okay, everyone will have some slivered almonds or almonds of some description in your cupboard, whether it’s whole almonds – we don’t want blanched almonds, we want the whole skin and all, okay, the almonds. Spices that start with C, isn’t it?
A: It’s a great love of spices, yeah.
L: Chilli, cinnamon. Yeah?
A: Yeah –
L: <inaudible> 33:40 doesn’t start with C but it could. Look at that, another one, ground cumin, cumin, all ground, okay –
A: I have nightmares about running out of cumin in my house and so like whenever I go to the supermarket I’ll panic buy it and then I’ll remember that I’ve got eight bags of it. I just –
L: Yeah, Ottolenghi has ridiculous ingredients.
L: And so many of them, [crab and shark] 34:09. Salt. Salt. Oh smoked paprika which I’ve had I think for about 25 years but it still has a smoky flavour.
A: That’s an ambitiously large –
L: <inaudible> 34:17 the other day at the IGA so green peppercorns. What’s that? Oh [papita] 34:22 you’ll never know, [papitas], lots of those, coriander seeds. Oh I have gone through every single bit of mint in my garden.
A: Oh of course you have, yeah.
L: It’s been like the ferrets have been through because everything is gone because, Annabel, you use a lot of mint.
A: I do use a lot of mint.
L: Mint, kaffir lime leaf in lots of things.
A: Wendy’s, that’s Wendy.
L: This is the inspiration I think for me, the biggest take-home because there’s always something sitting on my kitchen bench that I just don’t know how to use it. Half a lemon.
L: Or nearly – not every recipe but it just calls for half a lemon. How delicious is that?
A: It’s a trick because once you’ve made one recipe then you have to make another one to use up the other half of the lemon.
L: Yeah so there is my VPL, thanks to Annabel Crabb of – this is all you need and you can make every single thing practically –
A: It’s so interesting that you should do this because we when we were writing the book we wanted to include a fancy pantry which – and in the end we did not write it in time. And it was just like oh it’s a bit late, isn’t it? And they went yeah.
L: What would have been in it?
A: Well so my idea was a fancy pantry just like a list of items that are not like as everyday as eggs or sugar or butter or whatever but things that are really disproportionately useful to making imaginative scratch dishes that aren’t just cheese on toast, right? And my fancy pantry, in no particular – it has things like halloumi cheese, I’ve always got halloumi in my fridge because it is incredibly useful and it keeps forever so – I mean I haven’t tested how – okay, it keeps for as long as it needs to before I need halloumi which is a bad example ‘cause that’s every day.
Capers, salted capers I prefer but fine with the brined kind. Olives, green peas, see above discussion, slivered almonds absolutely, spices obviously, what else? Oh sardines, Wendy’s obsessed with sardines.
L: I have got that crumpet in here –
A: Okay but don’t sneer at that because I did. So Wendy wrote to me – ‘cause Wendy lives in London now, sadly so we wrote the book sort of by correspondence and she said oh I’ve got this brilliant recipe for crumpets. I’m like okay, still listening, I love a crumpet and she says so you make a - sort of a savoury butter out of – you mash butter and Vegemite and mustard and – exactly. That rumble of disapproval is exactly what I was feeling.
L: It has been photographed –
A: I know, right? And I just said – and chopped up flat leaf parsley and so she sent this recipe to me and I said mate, I’m not eating that, that sounds disgusting and she said no, no, really, it’s great, I’m like come again. And then we photographed it at the shoot and then I ate about 14 of them because it is unbelievably delicious, really and it’s the sort of thing that you will invite someone over and serve and it’s so easy to make and they’ll just be like what, are you for real? I mean I’m – try it, give it a shot. But this is the thing you know sometimes you can – if your rule is how do I delight my guest sometimes it’s just adding some Vegemite and mustard to some butter and putting it on a crumpet ‘cause it’s weird but like – so a good example from the book is the roast potato recipe, right?
So everybody has a roast potato recipe that’s their go-to and before about a year-and-a-half ago mine was this sort of quite – I’d sort of perfected, I thought, this method that was quite time-consuming and involving a lot of fiddling so I’d get my potatoes, peel them, chop them up into big chunks, parboil them until they’re like a little bit falling apart you know at the edges, drain them, shake them a bit to rough them up and sprinkle some semolina over them or rice flour if I had a Coeliac person or gluten-free person in the area. Then baking tin, olive oil in the tin preheating ‘til it’s really hot, put the potatoes into the hot oil, dress the third degree burns that I would acquire in this process, turn the potatoes so they’re all coated, into the hot oven, give them a bit, bring them out, turn them, have them fall about a bit more, be anxious, back in, out again, are they ready? I don’t know, turn them, I don’t know. Salt. Anyway you get some good potatoes that way but you spend a bit of time you know fretting about them and tending to them.
Here’s the thing that I had at my friend, Alice’s house. Now Alice is a massive meat fan, she just likes to eat steak with some carbs you know and so I went there and she was having a dinner party which was like these giant kind of dinosaur-looking steaks. You know they’re called tomahawk steaks or something like – madness. Anyway but she made this huge tray of roast potatoes which I quite happily would have just had as the whole meal. She made me some salad and stuff and it was not necessary, I would have absolutely just eaten these potatoes ‘cause they were the most golden, crunchy – ridiculously calorific but delicious potatoes ever. And she shared with me the secret of making these bad boys which is that you get two kilos of Kestrel potatoes – got to be Kestrel potatoes. They’re quite a de jour potato, actually.
You can get them in two kilo bags at supermarkets and you put them into a big pot of water, you don’t peel them, you don’t do anything to them, you boil them until they are soft, until you could stick a knife right through easily and their skins have split a bit and they’re starting to look a bit – I might fall apart, I don’t know, thinking about it. And then you drain those and then you get a completely dry baking tin like a roasting tin – you’ve got to sort of select one that will fit all of your potatoes quite snugly so they’re kind of a bit cheek by jowl with each other and then you get a big spoon and you just squish them down so that each of them’s got a sort of dent in the top. And they’ve split a little bit, totally fine. And then I’m sorry but you add a cup of oil. I mean it’s a lot of oil but just think it’s like about 18 largish potatoes so you know your amortisation of the Mediterranean diet –
L: Sure, exactly.
A: I mean this is not an everyday potato. It’s not a slimming potato either but it’s a delicious potato. And so you just pour that all over the top and then equally criminal amount of salt follows that and then into the hot oven and you do not touch them again, you don’t turn them, you don’t interfere with them, you don’t speak German to them or do anything that you might otherwise do. And then after about an hour – and if you’re not ready then you can just turn them down a bit and they’ll potter along quite nicely – you’ve got the most crunchy, insanely delicious potato ever created and on the underside - they’re called blast potatoes because the underside is so incredibly cracklingly crunchy and they’re a bit translucent you know like the best chip in the hot chips packet. They’re so good.
And you can – like I have done a last-minute stay for dinner thing where I think I’ve got two kilos of potatoes brilliantly because you just put them in and then they do their stuff without you doing anything so you’re free to return to drinking wine with your friends and then I’ve done that with a green salad, that’s dinner. And because you know it’s not the sort of thing that you would serve at a dinner party that you’d spent the day preparing for but if you feed hungry people who have already had two glasses of wine that’s real, they’re just like I’ve moved straight to the fish and chip shop on the way home model of catering. Also there’s a salad so it’s not all bad, right?
L: I want to move onto the vexed issue of washing up.
A: Oh yeah.
L: Okay so I am of the type that think the best gift you can give your host is to wash up after dinner. I’ve even travelled with the rubber gloves, flock-lined, yeah. I can’t rely on those sort of horrible silver-lined – no. And I do the washing up and I think it’s the loveliest thing but then I resent it. Oh my goodness, I leave the party and go oh why did I do the washing up? Why did they let me do the washing up? Where do you stand on washing up?
A: Well whatever I’m going to say, it’s not going to be as psychiatrically complicated as your arrangement, is it?
L: I don’t do that anymore.
A: I think that’s really healthy for you and your hosts because seriously I mean I adore you already but if you turned up at my house with a little like handbag <inaudible> 43:34 with your flock-lined gloves and then like I hate you, I’m going to do the dishes, I wasn’t expected this at all, how dare you? My technique when I'm a guest is to do that whole kind of you know as you’re about to leave, oh carry one thing into the kitchen. Helping, this is me helping. Bye-bye. I’m such a bad guest.
L: And you wouldn’t ask it of your guests.
A: No, I wouldn’t but then again if we have people over I’m probably doing about 60% - maybe 60 to 70% of the cooking, Jeremy’ll normally commandeer responsibility for the meat but then he is like a gun tidier as I said so he’s just like a machine with the clear-up.
L: Team. That is it, isn’t it? Entertaining as a team.
L: I'm well aware that you have so many questions that you all want to ask yourself so –
A: I think we’ve pretty much covered everything, haven’t we?
L: We have. Let me tell you about my favourites again. No, I have got a lot of favourites here but –
A: On the halloumi thing, can I say that the halloumi recipe that I most love was first made for me in Canberra when I lived in Canberra by a friend of mine and I’ve been making it for probably 20 years and it is the easiest thing, it’s just a block of halloumi, chopped up into cubes, into a bowl, olive oil, some minced garlic, some chilli flakes, some capers and the zest of a lime. You take that lime and you squeeze it and you pour the juice over a bunch of rocket that you’ve sort of picked and cleaned up. Cook your spaghetti, big pan, hot, tip the whole bowl of marinating deliciousness in and it will fry and fry and fry and your halloumi will go golden, your garlic will cook, your capers will get a bit crispy and then you drain your spaghetti, tip it into the big pan with all the crispiness, toss it around, put the whole lot into the big bowl of rocket with lime juice, toss, toss, toss and it is the greatest dish because it’s salty, it’s spicy –
A: It’s limy and it’s got carbs so –
L: That’s it. It strikes me that entertaining and food is so generous and I think we have lost - with our busyness we’ve lost that generosity and with that you lose the community –
A: That’s true and also I think you know when you’re wanting to do something nice for someone you know there’s this – it’s so easy to go and buy them a pointless gift or something which they’ll sort of say thank you and then you know I don’t know, it just seems like a – cooking something for someone is the ultimate act of generosity because you’re committing time to it which is the – it is the commodity of our age. So if you're happy to spend a bit of time looking after your friends – I always remember when I went to Tanya Plibersek’s house for Kitchen Cabinet, she was a great host. And she’s also provided me with the baked olives in cheese pastry that’s up the back of the book. Man, that is a great canape and you can make it in advance and then freeze it and forget that it’s in the freezer and then people come ‘round and you think oh my God, I’ve got nothing like - no, I’ve got these, they’re the greatest thing ever. And then next thing your house smells like cheese straws and hot olive which is just a good smell.
But anyway she said look, my job is really busy and involves being away a lot and I miss things you know I miss things in my friends’ lives and in my kids’ lives and what I really love is to get them together and spend some proper time on making something wonderful for them to really communicate that even though I’m not always there when I’m here I’m here and I’m spending time on making something for you and I think that’s a really great philosophy.
L: And that’s what I’ve been experimenting with. What I’d love everyone else to experiment with is just to do exactly as Annabel said, say stay for dinner, get your Risoni out and frozen peas and it works and it’s delightful and you will sit down as well which is often a rare thing to do as an adult. Kids, no problem but adults, to sit down and enjoy the company without the struggle.
A: With the scurrying, yeah.
L: Can we open the floor –
A: Yeah, sure.
L: - for questions ‘cause I’ve banged on.
E: And I will just ask people to wait for the microphone to come to them, please –
A: We’ve got just such an early starter over there –
L: ‘Cause sometimes there’s a bit of a oh I don’t know.
A: Absolutely not in this crowd.
Au: Hi, thanks.
Au: I’m Alison.
A: Hi Alison.
Au: Firstly I’ve got treats for you and for you too, Lish.
L: Treats. We did say out the back I bet - do you think there’ll be any treats for you?
Au: I did have to bring treats ‘cause I did bake – I bake for my work colleagues next week ‘cause that’s my last week at a job so – anyway I brought some today. But I have two things, one, when kids come to my house when they have – ‘cause we’ve got a neighbourhood full of kids, there’s 16 of them and when they come to my house I put out a big plate of stuff like carrot sticks, cheese, cucumber, capsicum, celery, whatever and I'm like I don’t care what you eat guys but you have to eat five things off this plate and that’s my thing.
A: That’s great.
Au: And they usually do like Harriet usually eats 10 tomatoes and Henry goes I only eat yellow capsicum and I’m like great, there’s yellow capsicum, knock yourself out so that’s you know that works for me.
A: Great job.
Au: But you know when you’re going somewhere for dinner and your host goes oh don’t bring anything and you know they actually really mean can you please bring something that’s completely delicious? And they go oh don’t bring anything, what do you do?
L: Oh yeah, good one.
Au: Do you go yeah, no, I’m not bringing anything or do you go –
L: It’s like flock-lined gloves.
A: It’s like the flock-lined gloves, I don’t know.
L: The resentment.
A: Well see because I’m a vegetarian – well pescatarian, actually, I'm a cheap vegetarian – I am full of anxiety about foisting myself as a guest onto someone who really just wants to roast a duck, you know? Really wants to make some wildlife suffer so I’m always the person who’s like would you like me to bring a nut loaf or something which you know is my attempt to not feel so awkward about foisting my dietary requirements on them. So I'm also just a bit – I hate walking into someone else’s house emptyhanded and Jeremy like – the number of times where we’ve been nearly ready to leave, he’s like what are you doing? I’m like making biscuits. It’s like what? You don’t need to take this – I need to take something.
So – and I don’t know, I think it’s actually from growing up in a rural pocket where whenever you go to someone else’s house if you’ve got chickens you take them a dozen eggs, particularly if they don’t have chickens. If they have chickens that’s just weird. Or you know if you’ve got an apricot tree and you’ve just made all this jam then you take a jar of it along like that is baked into my bones, man like it’s not cool to turn up to someone’s house without something to eat. And I just would struggle – I can’t remember what - there’s some cultures where it’s rude to take food to someone else’s house because it seems to imply that you’re not expecting to get decent food there. I would not thrive in that culture, very, very weird.
So I would say the politest thing to do in that circumstance is to take something that is a low maintenance thing that could be used but isn’t a disaster if it isn’t used right away so I would – I mean in our last cookbook I produced my mother’s recipe for spicy nuts which is like – it’s an awesome spicy nut recipe and like so many good things it starts with almonds and you just make a little spice mix which is all the C spices and curry powder, it’s got a really embarrassing secret spice like the Keen’s curry powder which I love and will not hear a word against whilst acknowledging that it is a 1970s deal. And then with sugar and salt and then you whip up one egg white and – this is enough for about six cups of nuts – you toss the nuts through this sort of meringue and they get all coated and sticky and then you put the spice mix and mix that through so it all sticks to the nuts, right? And then you bake them and what you end up with is sort of like a hard toffee that’s a sort of spicy, salty, sweet, right? And you just get that in a jar and that keeps forever and you can turn up with that to your friend’s house because it is a canape but it also could be a gift for later. I reckon that’s what I’d do.
L: Thanks Alison.
A: Thanks Alison.
L: Any other questions?
A: Oh Alison, if you just pass that microphone across.
Au: Hi. I’m with Alison.
A: Is Alison coming ‘round to your house tonight because that would be awkward.
Au: Can I just say she never just brings spicy nuts? She usually brings a mascarpone fig cheesecake.
A: Well actually that would have been my other recommendation. Also Alison, can you come to my house?
Au: I’ve got two questions, one, do you ever have fantasies of sneaking capers into Leigh Sales’ dinners?
A: I’ve done it. She hates it.
Au: And if Ottolenghi was coming to lunch what would you make him?
A: If who was?
A: Oh. I actually have lost hours of sleep wondering about this very question and I met him as anyone who listens to our podcasts for three seconds will know, I did meet him and I met him because I had just finished doing the book tour for our first cookbook and the publicist that I was travelling with, her next author was Ottolenghi and so I just cried and whined at her and so she agreed to invite me to this dinner party that he was attending. It was so great and he was so lovely and I was just you know when you meet someone that you’ve always admired and you think what am I going to – like what are my conversation points going to be? What am I going to – I can’t just ask him something really obvious, I’ve got to like – and I thought I’m going to initiate a conversation about unfashionable ingredients and loving them and I went straight out there and said I really loved smoked oysters, what do you think of that? And he said oh you too?
And it was the greatest moment like either he’s just the world’s most polite man but then – which is possible – but then he told me this great story about how his dad used to make this weird potato salad with sort of crushed potatoes tossed with lemon, of course, everything he makes has lemon in it and herbs and smoked oysters. I’m just thinking that sounds like a weird salad but okay, I reckon that could actually work but it was certainly not what I was expecting his response would be. And anyway I got so completely thrilled by this encounter that I went home and I made the abovementioned spicy nuts and I also – at the local market ‘round the corner from my house, there was this smokehouse place that did the greatest hot smoked salmon but they also made smoked olives, really big fat kalamata olives that were smoked, oh my god. They are such delicious olives so I’ve made a little jar of those and I put them in a bag with a little note and I dropped it to his hotel – not in a stalkery way, just – and then he emailed me to say thank you and I was just like – so I don’t know.
The truth is that cooking dinner for him would be up there with tidying the table, I reckon, I’d be – I reckon I’d be stressed to the max. But I guess I would probably try and observe my kind of self-imposed rule which is don’t try to do too many things. If you’ve got a list of things that you’re going to cook that is more than three take something off.
Au: Those potatoes would go well, the classy potatoes.
A: The potatoes, yeah. Yeah.
L: I think we’ve got time for one more ‘cause then we got to go and eat afternoon tea because – this is bringing back afternoon tea –
A: I know.
L: - that Annabel has done –
A: So approve.
L: Oh and -
Au: Thank you, hi, I'm Bianca.
A: Hi Bianca.
Au: You’ve got such a wonderful style. Tell us about what aprons you have in your house.
A: Oh I have many aprons. Yeah, I have a lot. So I have a couple that belonged to my grandmother, she was a major apron haver and she was more the pinny-type person and in fact – and my – this is my paternal grandmother who just was not a cook at all, she was like a family joke for the cooking. She was like the warmest, most funny like mischievous individual, she was really hilarious but her culinary expertise extended to – she made crumbed chops all the time that she would like deep-fry which was like – and – but weirdly enough the things that I remember about her – like I’m really connected to a couple of things that she used to make. For instance she would make tomato sandwiches with white pepper and so good like – so she’d use multigrain bread, bit of butter, sliced up fresh tomato and heaps of white pepper and salt and I cannot – white pepper is just absolutely associated with her in my memory, I cannot get it – I cannot disentangle those things.
Also every Christmas she used to – her canape would be she would open a packet of Nobby’s beer nuts and a packet of sultanas and she’d mix them together and then it’d be hand them ‘round. And honestly I cannot – if I eat those it’s like I’m back there. And it’s delicious as well because you know salty and sweet so yeah. Sorry, what was the question?
L: What’s her apron?
A: So she had this one that went kind of like over the shoulder and then buttoned at the side so it was like full coverage front and back just in case she was –
L: Why do you need the back? Why –
A: ‘Cause she’d be like frying something like this, I don’t know but then it had this pocket that went all the way across and she just had everything in that pocket like she’d be like oh here’s a dollar, here’s a hairpin, here’s a you know here’s a bit of baling twine to fix that thing with, here’s a pocket knife, she had a lot of stuff in that pocket. And anyway but I’ve collected aprons a little bit over the years, I have some sort of flouncy ‘50s housewife-type ones that I really only – they’re really just for personal use. And actually the best one, I can’t even – am I supposed to tell this story? I’m sure I am allowed to. I went to speak at ASIO. After I wrote The Wife Drought they asked me to come and speak to discuss workplace gender issues at ASIO so I got to go to that cool building and look inside it which is awesome, they took every single thing that I owned off me before I was allowed in there but anyway I gave this talk and you know it was exciting and – everybody just looked like normal people, I was expecting them to be a bit more <inaudible> 59:20 –
L: Hiding behind couches.
A: Yeah. There’ll be somebody in this room that was there that day. And at the end they gave me an ASIO apron that they’d had made for me.
L: What were the features? Probably -
A: It’s so good. It’s a really attractive linen apron with sort of like a sort of a mar – sort of a stripe in blue and grey and then it just says ASIO. So cool. But how about this? Like last year – no, earlier this year – we live in the inner-west of Sydney – I know, how predictable – and in Newtown they’ve got this refugee centre and it’s an awesome place. They are a centre for refugee families to go in there like for employment and there’s like a – donated clothes and kitchen utensils and things that are helpful if you’re setting up a house and once a week they put on a big lunch and you can just come and eat. And there’s a program there called Kids Giving Back where they get kids to prepare all this food and then serve these families. It’s awesome.
So we got together and our kids did it, right? And we collected all these aprons for everybody to wear and then my friend, Miranda, was you know dishing out rice, chicken curry or something and she said oh I need an apron so I threw her – and it was the ASIO one, I’m like oh maybe that’s not the right one. Maybe we should just like – so yeah, it’s a great – one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given for speaking atmosphere, I think.
L: Keeping tabs on her ever since.
A: It’s interesting because my friend, Duncan, brought me back a souvenir apron once from Washington DC which was a – must have been a CIA apron and –
L: I reckon there’s a theme here and I don't like it.
A: - it said Director of Whisk Assessment. So good.
L: So good. I think well you’d like to wrap up – unfortunately, we could talk, couldn’t we?
A: Yeah but there’ll be afternoon tea now so that’ll be good. Thank you.
L: Thank you, Annabel –
A: It’s been a joy.
L: I’ve got – before we go I want Annabel in the front, I want her to do a smug shot because you know she’s all about the smugness but – purely in comedy but I do want a smug shot so if she could just stand – is that alright?
A: Yeah, sure.
L: Can I get you with this lovely crowd behind you?
A: Yes. Do you want me to like lie down the front –
L: Yeah, 100% smug. Oh no, we just need – oh that’s smug, that’s definitely got it. Alright, there we go. Very smug. Oozing, oozing.
A: Thank you.
L: Thank you, Annabel.
A: You’re definitely –
L: Please put your hands together for Annabel Crabb.
E: I don’t know about you but I’m really hungry now. So thankfully we have Swell Catering up in the foyer who have catered a beautiful afternoon tea inspired from Special Guest and our bookshop is selling Special Guest this afternoon for a 10% discount and Annabel has kindly agreed to sign copies so I hope you can all join us in the foyer. Thank you again, Annabel and Lish.
L: Thank you.
A: Visible pantry line is such a good idea.
A: Visible pantry line. So good. I really wish we had done the special pantry like the fancy panty.
L: I think there’s a need for it. Thank you, you were fabulous.
A: But the green peppercorn is such a revelation too, isn’t it?
L: Oh really –
A: ‘Cause I don’t think I’ve ever really cooked with them and that was Wendy and she’s like just smash it up and –
L: Yeah, got the mortar and pestle <inaudible> 3:29 inspired, everything.
A: Thank you, that was great fun.
L: These people want to meet you but thank you. I grew up on a sheep farm as well, there’s so much – the parallels are uncanny, Annabel.
A: Yeah, wow.
L: In country New South Wales.
End of recording