I know what she's going to ask me even before she opens mouth. She's hot and bothered after a day at school, I'm hot and bothered after a day at work. "Mu-um," she says, drawing out the syllables in a way that indicates trouble ahead, "what are we having for dinner tonight?"
"Something delicious," I say brightly as we walk up the hill home. "Oh," she says dejectedly, "I was hoping we could have fish and chips."
I remember doing this to my mother. My favourite answer was when she said we were having chao fan, a fancy form of fried rice with tiny shrimps, delicate strips of omelette, little cubes of red pepper, baby corn and peas. I dreaded it when she would say "something in the Crockpot".
For the last two years or so I've written a weekly recipe column, and I often eat out in the course of my work. Because she's an only child, and babysitters can be hard to come by, my 8-year-old daughter Eve occasionally gets to come too. For the most part, she's what the Plunket nurse would have called "a good eater". She has no allergies or intolerances, just a set of strong opinions and a fondness for the deep-fried. She detests avocado, asparagus and milk, and flat-out refuses to try anything remotely spicy, but can be persuaded to try most other things.
"I sort of like it but I sort of don't," she will offer diplomatically. Or, "I like it, but I don't love it", which is another way of saying: "Please don't ever make me eat this again."
Like a lot of parents, I often find myself following the path of least resistance when it comes to fast after-work dinners. I'm home first, so I do 95 per cent of the cooking. Most of the time, I enjoy it. But one evening when I found myself barking, that "unless you're cooking, you don't get to complain", I thought it was time to take a break. Eve and I struck a deal: she could choose what we ate for a week, as long as it was "sensible" (in other words, not the six-layered unicorn cheesecake she found in a book at the library). She also has to give me fair warning so I can get the ingredients, and there must be some vegetables (I am such a killjoy). She disappears happily to look at some cookbooks, resisting my attempts to steer her towards my favourites.
"This is going to be fun," she says. "But I'll tell you now, we're not going to have any avocado!"
FRIDAY: My copy of Bill's Everyday Asian, by blond, bronzed Aussie chef Bill Granger, has 10 Pokemon cards sticking out of it as bookmarks. I veto the barbecued prawns with three dipping sauces and the coconut and lime slice before we reach mutual agreement on Vietnamese pork chops. This is a doddle to make (marinate pork chops in sugar, garlic and fish sauce, then fry and serve with rice and raw vegetables). Eve ate, or at least was offered, a lot of overcooked rice at daycare as a pre-schooler and it has taken her a long time to recover. Tonight, however, she scarfs the lot and tells me how delicious it is. "The pork is very juicy. You can really taste it," she says thoughtfully. "I chose this one because I like pork, and I liked the picture in the recipe book, plus I checked to make sure it didn't have any of the things I don't like in it."
One of last year's nicest cookbooks was Kate Young's The Little Library Cookbook, in which she is inspired by literary meals from a wide range of titles. Eve adores this book as much as I do and we love planning imaginary feasts from it. When I ask her what we should have for dinner she flips the book open to page 59: roasted pheasant inspired by Danny, Champion of the World. I gently explain that it is a little difficult to source pheasant from Pak'nSave and suggest that she finds something else.
She seizes on an oppressively gendered "cookbook for girls", where more than half the recipes seem to contain marshmallows or chocolate. Mercifully, she settles on some simple sliders — mini beef burgers in buns with sliced tomato, cucumber and lettuce. I amp them up a bit, adding grated onions and parsley to the patties and a few more salad vegetables. We eat them in baguettes because we don't have the right kind of buns and everyone wolfs them down. "Ever since my friend gave me that cookbook I thought these looked really nice," Eve says happily. "Can we have these again?"
SUNDAY: I'm beginning to realise why Bill Granger's books turn up in the "withdrawn" pile at the library. You cannot trust a man who says a recipe for prawn, ginger and spring onion wontons will make 24 when the real sum is somewhere north of 40. I know I should be finding some kind of mindfulness in this task but there is no joy, only wontons and the nagging feeling that I should be doing about 20 other things, including lying in a darkened room with a cold cloth on my forehead. Eve wanders in every now and then to check on my progress, giving me a reassuring pat on the back and reminding me to leave the chilli out of Bill's helpful recipes for soy and chilli dipping sauce and quick cucumber pickles.
We eventually sit down to eat and I forgive Bill instantly; the wontons are a marvel. "This is like going to yum char but there's no crispy squid," Eve says rapturously. "These wontons are very delicious and crunchy. You are the best mum ever."
MONDAY: This is always a tough night — we're usually home late from work and after-school stuff. As luck would have it, Donna Hay's new kids' cookbook is waiting in the mailbox. I set Eve some fairly limiting parameters ("pasta might be good tonight") and she chooses orrechiette with "mean green pesto". This is easy to make — whizz up lots of broccoli with herbs, cook pasta, stir through pesto and top with a shower of cheese. What could go wrong? Turns out my pint-sized critic is not so sure about Donna's take on the Italian classic. "Is there garlic in this?" she asks suspiciously. "No," I say. "Hmmm," she says, chewing for a moment. "I think there should be garlic in it. And Mum, I'm not being offensive to you but there was so much broccoli that you can't taste anything else. Can I have some more cheese on mine please?"
The initial excitement of this game has worn off and Eve would rather lie on the sofa after school and read a book than think about what to eat. I feel the same way, then I remember that we had devised a plan for tonight's dinner in the weekend.
Like so many others, we must give thanks to Nadia Lim. It's not that I've succumbed to My Food Bag, but that we are eating beef and peanut noodles from her first post-MasterChef book, Nadia's Kitchen. This is a hit with the cook (you marinate and sear some sliced sirloin, then stir-fry a bunch of vegetables and egg noodles before topping the lot with peanuts) and the other diners. "I love noodles and I love beef," Eve says, slurping up noodles like worms. "I like how the noodles are all slippery so it's like they're trying to wriggle away when you eat them." As tasty as this is, there's not a huge amount of it and later on I find the two other adults sneakily eating cheese on toast. Does this happen to My Food Bag-gers?
WEDNESDAY: "Mmmmm," she says appreciatively, "it smells like the Fisherman's Plate in here!" This is high praise — the Wellington institution, famed for its Vietnamese pho and fish 'n' chips, is one of her favourite places to eat. Even so, tonight's dinner is nearly a disaster. There's very little in the fridge apart from a packet of pork mince and a few random vegetables. By consensus we decide on crunchy pork and noodles.
I used to make this a lot — essentially you just fry up some pork mince until well browned with ginger and garlic, throw in some spinach, a splash of soy sauce and a bit of chilli for the adults, then toss the lot through some noodles. But tonight I make the fatal error of simultaneously trying to cook the dinner, answer a few work emails, talk to a friend who's just been in hospital with heart troubles and find a missing library book. I boil the noodles to near-mush, I burn the mince in parts and the shredded red cabbage turns to limp violet string. It is edible, just. "I've got one tip for you, Mum," Eve says, "next time, don't overcook the noodles!"
THURSDAY: She looks at me in a winning way she has learned from her father. "Mum," she says, as we walk home hand-in-hand from school, "maybe tonight could we have something that isn't ordinary for dinner?" I have to laugh. "Not ordinary?" "Like a unicorn cheesecake?" She is horrified. "No!" she says. "Like fish 'n' chips."
I think this is the best idea she's had all week.
Later we walk down to our decidedly average local fish 'n' chip shop, racing home surrounded by the evocative scent of hot newsprint. We sit on our straggly lawn in companionable silence as tui fly overhead. The fish is overcooked and the chips are a bit pallid, but we eat every last, crispy morsel. She wipes her greasy hands on her trousers and regards the crumpled paper. "I think it's nice to have fish and chips once in a while, but if you had them all the time they would taste disgusting and you would feel urghhhhhhh," she says, pulling a sick face.
As I struggle to my feet she looks at me hopefully. "Mum, do you think you can choose what we have tomorrow night?"