For me food has always been the most important conduit in life, linking us to nature and the world around us, and to each other - family and friends, culture and community. Also, and I think most importantly, cooking and preparing food connects us to our own creativity and offers a wonderful sense of being grounded and fully alive in the moment.

I never trained formally as a cook or a chef, but when I was in my 20s I took a couple of residential courses at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. One was on nutrition and another was on regional American cooking. Both shaped the way I cook today: the nutrition course in giving me the skills and knowledge to prepare food that's flavour-packed without resorting to lots of sugar and fat, and the regional cooking class in shaping my ideas on "cooking the landscape" - being resourceful in the way I approach food and ingredients, and tuning in to the seasons and the influences around me.

When I was putting together my new Share The Love winter annual I gave some of my signature dishes a modern twist in this way. Instead of my favourite 10-minute-dinner trick of flash-roasting fish fillets on an oven tray, I encased them in pretty paper parcels with capers and lemon for an even more succulent result.

Because limes are at their most affordable in winter, I swapped the lemon juice in my famous honey lemon creams for lime juice, and instead of topping them with expensive out-of-season fruit I used oranges and a crispy ginger crumb. And instead of flavouring slow-cooked lamb shanks with a rich, wintry tomato sauce, I opted for a lighter touch with white beans, thyme and artichokes.


I thought I'd share these with you in this first column, as great examples of recipes that offer a method that you can springboard from with different flavours.

Foolproof, easy and delicious, they're such useful building blocks in my cooking toolkit and I hope they'll quickly become part of your repertoire too.

Provencal Fish Parcels

I've gone on a French tangent in this recipe with capers, lemons, parsley and a little bit of butter but you could also make it Italian-style with pesto, cherry tomatoes and olives, or give it an Asian twist with some finely shredded leeks, ginger and a splash of soy sauce. If you're on the run and don't have time to make the parcels, just arrange the fish fillets on an oven tray, top with capers, lemon, butter and parsley and roast in a super hot oven.
Serve with a green salad, baby carrots and lemon wedges for squeezing - and some vin rouge, of course!

Prep 20 mins. Cook 10 mins. Serves 4

4 skinless boneless fish fillets (about 120-160g each)
2 tsp capers
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
4 tsp butter
4 tsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp chopped parsley leaves
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 egg white, lightly whisked

Cut 4 circles of baking paper to about 30cm in diameter. Place 1 fish fillet off-centre on each circle, tucking the thin end of the fillet under to make an even thickness. Sprinkle with capers and lemon zest. Top each with 1 tsp butter, 1 tsp lemon juice, ½ tbsp chopped parsley and a little salt and pepper. Brush egg white around the outside edge of each paper circle, fold in half over the fish and, starting at one end, make small overlapping folds to seal. The parcels can be prepared to this point and chilled for up to 4 hours before serving. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Bake parcels for 10 minutes (they should puff up with steam inside). Serve in shallow bowls or plates, with a pair of scissors so your guests can cut the parcels open and savour the fragrant aromas while they tip out the fish and its juices.

Lamb and White Bean Cassoulet

I like to roast the meat hot and fast first to brown it, adding flavour and also rendering out the fat. If you don't do this then it works best to make it a day ahead and then chill it - the fat will rise to the top and can be easily removed.

I've opted for Mediterranean flavours with white beans, artichokes and lemon in this recipe but you could make it Spanish with chorizo, smoked paprika, white beans and lots of rosemary; or use spices and chickpeas for a taste of India. Remember, you want about 3-4 cups liquid and those couple of key ingredients that will drive the direction of the flavours. You can also swap the lamb for pork shoulder, rabbit legs or chicken thigh quarters (bone-in).

Prep 15 mins. Cook 3¼ hours. Serves 6-8

1.5kg boneless lamb shoulder (approx), or 6 lamb drums or shanks
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
3 x 400g cans butter beans or 4½ cups cooked white beans, rinsed and drained
400g can cherry or chopped tomatoes
320g can artichoke hearts, drained, or 6-8 cooked small artichoke hearts, halved
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup white wine
6 pickling onions or shallots, peeled and halved crosswise
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
2 stalks celery, cut into thin batons 6cm long
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
2 tsp thyme leaves
2 cups fresh or defrosted frozen peas

Preheat oven to 220C fanbake. Place lamb in a large roasting dish that will hold it snugly in a single layer. Season well then roast until lightly browned (about 45 minutes).

Remove dish from oven and reduce oven temperature to 160C. Lift out the lamb and set aside. Drain fat and discard. Return lamb to dish, stir in all other ingredients except peas, cover dish tightly (use tinfoil if you don't have a lid) and cook until tender (about 2¼ hours). Stir in peas and return to oven for 15 minutes to heat through.

Chilled Lime Creams with Oranges and Ginger Crumb

Chilled Lime Creams with Oranges and Ginger Crumb. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Chilled Lime Creams with Oranges and Ginger Crumb. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

To make this luscious creamy dessert in advance, prepare the lime creams, cover and chill until needed, then top with orange and biscuit crumbs just before serving.

Prep 15 mins + setting. Cook 10 mins. Serves 6

2¼ cups cream
½ cup sugar
½ cup lime juice, strained
4 oranges, peeled and segmented
3 gingernut or speculaas biscuits crushed to coarse crumbs (recipe,
Strips of lime zest, to garnish

Combine the cream and sugar in a medium pot over a medium heat. Boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice. Divide between 6 serving glasses or cups, cover and chill until set (about 2 hours). Serve chilled, topped with fresh orange segments, sprinkled with biscuit crumbs and garnished with lime zest strips.

Recipes extracted from Annabel's new autumn/winter annual, Annabel Langbein A Free Range Life: Share The Love (Annabel Langbein Media $24.95).