By Annabel Langbein for Canvas magazine

When I was learning to cook, I would follow every recipe to the letter. If the formula for, say, a casserole, called for two stalks of celery and I did not have them at hand, then I would not make that dish. Ditto a teaspoon of cumin or a handful of parsley. Back then I didn't know that behind most recipes (except baking, where it's essential to be precise) is a process or technique that can be applied to a variety of ingredients to create a range of different dishes. I think of it as a road map that helps you get to your destination and lets you know the important things to look for along the way, but doesn't determine the kind of car you're driving.

If you're making a casserole, for example, once you know the general direction you're heading you can ad lib the ingredients to suit the season, your preferences and what you have available in the pantry. The things you're looking for are tenderness and flavour, so choose a tough, muscular meat cut as this has lots more flavour than a tender one and, as a bonus, it's also likely to be less expensive.

Brown it in a pan with oil or butter, or roast it in a hot oven to brown before slow-cooking - the caramelisation on the surface is known the Maillard reaction and produces a lot of flavour. Add aromatic vegetables such as onions, leeks, celery and carrots for flavour (remembering carrot is very sweet). Next, add liquid - wine, stock, a can of tomatoes, or even water - and any other flavours or ingredients you want and let it cook over a low heat until tender. The time it takes to cook will depend on the cut and its size. At 150C, most tough cuts will become tender in around three hours - you can lower the temperature and increase the time, but don't try to cook it at a high temperature as the meat will just dry out.

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Spices, herbs and flavourings are the means to move your casserole around the globe. Use curry pastes and coconut cream, perhaps some chili or aromatics such as kaffir lime, lemongrass or coriander and you take the dish into Southeast Asia. Use Moroccan spices and dried fruits and you're in tagine country, or add olives, lemon, garlic, oregano, rosemary and a little vinegar and you have all the makings of a classic Greek oven bake.

I like to call these versatile techniques "spring-boards" as they provide a grounding that you can bounce off and explore your own creativity. In my new book Essential I've provided a bunch of them, covering everything from how to make tender stews, to no-stir risottos, one-pot pasta meals, stir-fries, noodle bowls, flash-roasted fish, the perfect steak, vegetable soups, and so on. My aim is to inspire confidence and help you build the skills that will enable you to use the ingredients you have at hand and develop your own cooking style, rather than being a slave to a recipe.

At the Auckland Food Show next weekend I'll be demonstrating the following three springboard recipes, suggesting ways you can take them in different directions, and sharing some stories along the way. I'm looking forward to meeting you there!

Beef Pho

Ready in 20 mins
Serves 2-4

100g dried vermicelli noodles
12 button mushrooms, sliced
3 stalks lemongrass, bruised with a rolling-pin, or 1 Tbsp lemongrass paste
1 long red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped, plus extra thinly sliced to serve
1 kaffir lime leaf or finely grated zest of 1 lime
4 cups beef stock
1½ Tbsp fish sauce, plus extra to serve
1 Tbsp finely grated fresh ginger
½ tsp five-spice powder
A pinch of ground cloves
150g raw or rare-cooked beef fillet, cut as thinly as possible across the grain
4 handfuls bean sprouts
½ cup coriander leaves
2 Tbsp lime or lemon juice, or more to taste
2 spring onions, very finely shredded mint and/or Vietnamese mint leaves, to serve
Wedges of lime, to serve

Place noodles in a bowl, cover with boiling water and allow to stand for 10 minutes while you make the soup. Place mushrooms, lemongrass, chilli, kaffir lime leaf or lime zest, stock, fish sauce, ginger, five-spice powder and cloves in a large pot and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain noodles, snip with scissors in a few places and divide between heated serving bowls. Top with beef slices, bean sprouts and half the coriander. Remove and discard lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, if using, and divide boiling hot broth between bowls. Add ½-1Tbsp lime or lemon juice to each bowl, or more if desired. Top with spring onions, the remaining coriander and mint and garnish with lime wedges. Pass around extra fish sauce for seasoning if desired, and accompany with a bowl of sliced chillies.

Annabel says: Once you've mastered this beef pho you can use much the same technique to make the chicken tom yum and miso salmon and noodle bowl that are also in my book Essential. You can use whatever type of noodle you like, but remember to cook the noodles separately and not in the soup broth.

Happy Heart Bowl

Happy heart bowl. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Happy heart bowl. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 10 mins
Serves 1-2

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1 spring onion or ¼ small red onion, thinly sliced
1½ cups cooked Le Puy lentils or 400g can lentils, rinsed and drained
2 cups roasted kumara and/or pumpkin chunks
1 roasted red pepper, thinly sliced
2 handfuls spinach or watercress leaves
¼ cup finely chopped parsley leaves
½ cup pumpkin seeds, toasted

Tahini Dressing
1 small clove garlic, crushed to a paste with a little salt
Zest of ½ lemon or orange, finely grated
2 Tbsp boutique extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp tahini
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger
½ tsp ground cumin
Ground black pepper, to taste

To make Tahini Dressing, place all ingredients in a small jar and shake to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings. Spoon dressing into the base of a large jar or bowl or, if serving 2, divide between 2 medium jars or bowls. Layer in all other ingredients in order listed. If using bowls, toss gently before serving. If making in jars, screw on lids and, when ready to eat, invert into bowls and toss gently.

Annabel says: This bowl meal has Middle Eastern flavours, but you can follow the same technique using ingredients and flavourings from other parts of the world. The essence of a good bowl meal is to start with the dressing in the base and then mix through your cooked grains so they soak up the flavours. Layer in other ingredients with the most fragile on top, along with anything crisp and crunchy. These kind of meals can also be layered into a jar as a portable lunch.

Miso-Glazed Fish

Miso Glazed Fish. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Miso Glazed Fish. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 15 mins
Serves 4

4 boneless, skinless salmon or white fish fillet pieces
2 tsp black and/or toasted white sesame seeds(to garnish)
Chopped chives, to garnish (optional)

Miso Glaze
2 Tbsp mirin
1 Tbsp miso, preferably white miso or instant sachets
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger

To make the Miso Glaze, mix together all ingredients until the miso is evenly incorporated.

Preheat oven to 220C fanbake and line a large, shallow oven dish with baking paper for easy clean-up. Arrange salmon pieces in a single layer in the prepared oven dish and spread Miso Glaze over the top. Roast until salmon is just cooked through and glaze is just starting to caramelise (about 8 minutes). It should give when gently pressed. Serve immediately, garnished with sesame seeds and chives, if using.

Annabel says: Flash-roasted fish is my go-to meal on a busy weeknight - it's just so fast. As I walk in the door the rice goes on to cook, the oven goes on to preheat and the veges are prepped. The flash-roasting principle stays the same whether you're using salmon and miso, gamefish steaks and pesto, or white fish fillets with a crunchy crumb - roast in a superhot oven just until the fish has a little give when pressed in the thickest part (8-10 minutes), rest for a minute or two and presto, dinner is served!

Essential Annabel Langbein

(Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is a beautiful compendium of Annabel's best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips and it's on sale now at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores. Find out more at

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