By Annabel Langbein
It's a discomforting fact of modern life that industrial, processed food is cheaper than fresh, real food. Fizzy drinks, potato chips and other processed snacks have taken the place of a glass of milk and a piece of fruit, delivering a slug of sugar, fat and salt that provides instant gratification but little nutritional value.
New Zealand households now spend proportionally a third less on fruit and veges than we did 40 years ago, and less than half as much on meat, fish and poultry. Overall, the proportion of our money we spend on food is about the same, making up around 17.5 per cent of our expenditure, but these days a big chunk of it goes on processed foods and takeout.
There's a well-worn saying - you pay now or you pay later, but you will pay. You only have to look at New Zealand's mushrooming stats around obesity and diabetes to know that we are already paying for the flaws in our modern diet.
I've thought about this a lot in putting together my new Cheap Thrills annual, which gives today's time-poor and budget-conscious cooks the tools and recipes they need to eat well without compromising their diet and health to an industrial food chain.
When I was in India a couple of years ago I visited a little farm where the family insisted that my kids and I share a meal with them. A cauliflower was picked from the field and in less than 20 minutes we were sitting together enjoying a fragrant cauliflower curry, accompanied by a quick millet flat bread, a soothing nutty dhal and a freshly pounded coriander chutney. Delicious and nutritious, this satisfying meal was cooked over a fire with nothing more than a couple of old pots and pans, a knife and board and a wooden spoon. What struck me about that meal, apart from the generosity and graciousness of our hosts and the utter deliciousness of the food, was how quick and easy it was to prepare.
In peasant cultures all over the world, this is how people eat - they have only the simplest of ingredients, but they eat well. Traditional peasant cooking fills your belly cheaply and nutritiously, with amazing flavours. You don't need to get out your wallet and head to a takeaway shop to get a fix, it's quick and easy to make at home.
In writing Cheap Thrills, I've sought out some of the flavour trails that I discovered and loved when I was a student backpacking my way around the globe, and applied them to ingredients we can source cheaply and easily here in New Zealand. For example, there's a whole chapter of interesting ways with mince, including Mexican beef burritos, Burmese curry, Spanish pasta bake, Turkish flatbread pizza and the Moroccan meatball subs I'm sharing here this week. So many different directions using just a packet of mince, ingredients you have in your pantry and less than an hour in the kitchen.
I've also included lots of recipes that make the most of fresh fruit and vegetables when they're in season and at their cheapest, including a chapter of delicious baking and dessert recipes that use only apples and a few storecupboard staples.
This week I'm delighted to share three recipes from Cheap Thrills - an easy Pad Thai I call Hangover Noodles because it's such a soothing morning-after breakfast, but which is equally useful as a weeknight meal, plus my super-tasty meatball subs and my delicious new Apple Crumble Muffins. Enjoy.
Ready in 20 mins
150g dried rice noodles
2 Tbsp neutral oil
4 rashers streaky bacon, finely chopped
4 spring onions, finely chopped
2 fat cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp fresh ginger, coarsely grated
3 eggs, lightly whisked with a little salt and ground black pepper
1 cup bean sprouts or finely shredded cabbage
1 Tbsp sesame oil
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
½ cup roasted peanuts or cashews, coarsely chopped
¼ cup coriander leaves
A little hoisin sauce or sriracha sauce, to serve
Lime cheeks, to serve (optional)
Cook or soak rice noodles according to packet instructions, drain, rinse under cold water and drain well. Set aside. Heat oil in a wok or large frypan over a medium-high heat. Add bacon and cook until starting to crisp. Add spring onions, garlic and ginger and cook until they smell aromatic (30-40 seconds). Add eggs, stirring to break up as they set. Add drained noodles, beansprouts or cabbage, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, most of the peanuts or cashews, and most of the coriander. Stir-fry for about a minute, then transfer to a serving platter and garnish with the remaining peanuts and coriander. Serve with a drizzle of either hoisin sauce or sriracha sauce and a squeeze of lime juice, if desired. Leftovers keep in the fridge for up to 2 days and can be reheated for snacking.
Annabel says: You don't need a hangover to enjoy these easy pad thai noodles - but they are the kind of food you want when life feels a bit dusty round the edges.
Moroccan Meatball Subs
Ready in 30 mins
500g beef or lamb mince
400g can lentils, drained
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp tomato relish
2 Tbsp rice flour
2 tsp Moroccan spice mix
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1 French loaf, quartered then halved horizontally, or 4 subs or long bread rolls
1 cup tomato relish
½ cup cheddar cheese, grated
Flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
Preheat oven to 220C fanbake. Combine beef or lamb, lentils, spring onion, garlic, egg, tomato relish, rice flour, spice mix, salt and pepper in a bowl, mixing well with clean hands to break up the lentils a little. Form into meatballs and place in a single layer in an oven dish. Bake until golden and cooked through (15 minutes). Toast French loaf or subs or rolls lightly if desired. Divide meatballs between the 4 rolls and top with relish and cheese. Return to oven briefly until cheese is melted and top with parsley to serve.
Annabel says: Comedian Michael McIntyre has a very funny skit that many people will relate to - about spices languishing unused in the pantry for decades on end. In fact, spices are one of the cheapest ways to transform everyday ingredients. You can also bake these meatballs in a sauce made by mixing 1½ cups tomato relish and 1 cup water, then serve them on pasta or couscous.
Apple Crumble Muffins
Ready in 40 mins
Makes 12 big muffins
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
¾ cup milk
½ tsp baking soda
250g apples, grated (skin on)
2 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
Brown sugar topping
60g butter, melted
½ cup soft brown sugar, firmly packed
½ cup slivered almonds or chopped walnuts
¼ cup flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake. Grease 12 muffin pans and line with baking paper or paper cases.
Mix brown sugar topping ingredients in a bowl.
Set aside. To make the muffins, melt butter in a medium pot or in the microwave, then remove from heat and whisk in eggs, sugar and vanilla. Combine milk and baking soda and add to egg mix with all remaining ingredients. Stir to just combine (don't beat or the muffins will be tough and rise unevenly). Divide mixture between muffin pans then sprinkle with brown sugar topping. Bake until the muffins are risen, lightly golden and bounce back when pressed (20 minutes). Allow to stand for 10 minutes before turning out.
Annabel says: Adding apples to the muffin mix keeps them moist and a little crumble topping on top means they can stand in for dessert as well as a little treat snack.
Cheap Thrills (Annabel Langbein Media, $24.95) is on sale now at Paper Plus, The Warehouse and all good bookstores. Find out more at annabel-langbein.com or follow Annabel on Facebook or Instagram.