Travelling around the South Island on my book-signing tour this month, I've been reminded of how many passionate book lovers there are behind the counters at bookstores around the country. Today is New Zealand Bookshop day, so it's the perfect time to celebrate the important role that bookshops and their dedicated staff play in our lives.

I have more reason than most to be grateful to our country's many wonderful booksellers. It's 30 years since I stood in my garage looking at the thousands of copies of my first book that had just been delivered, hot off the press, wondering how on earth I was going to sell them. Since then I've been lucky enough to be strongly supported by bookstores across the country, and together we've sold literally hundreds of thousands of cookbooks and helped put millions of tasty meals on the tables of New Zealanders.

When I look at the cover of my first cookbook, with its bowl of green-shell mussels sitting on a balcony looking out past banana palms to Auckland Harbour, everything about the making of that project comes flooding back. And that hair! Oh yes, I remember that hair, and all the padded shoulders that went with it! Just like that, I'm back in 1987, sitting on the floor of my living room with designer Sally Hollis-McLeod, surrounded by layouts, undertaking the painstaking process of cutting out strips of copy that had typos or grammatical errors, and pasting new ones back on to the layout. It's hard to imagine now, but before the digital era, that was what we had to do! Deciding which recipes to include from the columns I'd written for the NZ Listener, and curating them into chapters around events and rituals, was a giant, complex jigsaw puzzle. But I was hooked - from that moment on all I wanted was to make cookbooks.

Between book number one and number 26 (my latest annual, Cheap Thrills) there have been some amazing moments. Making my TV show, The Free Range Cook, and the books that went with it was another high. The first, The Free Range Cook, broke New Zealand publishing records, selling more than 160,000 copies in less than a year. Wow, that was a moment - for me and for the book industry!

Advertisement

More recently I've enjoyed exploring a soft-cover "bookazine" format that reads more like a magazine than a book (but without all those annoying ads!) I love the way annuals like Cheap Thrills allow me to layer in lifestyle inspiration with ideas and recipes around a theme or series of themes, and my bookseller friends tell me the affordable price tag has helped my recipes reach a whole new audience. The idea of helping to create change in people's lives is what makes me want to leap out of bed in the morning.

When I look at Essential, my biggest and most beautiful book project ever, I see the culmination of this journey in a comprehensive collection of the best of all the recipes I have cooked over the past 30 years.

Food is like fashion. While the dishes I have cooked may have looked different over the years, and increasingly embrace a global pantry of flavours, at their heart is the idea of honouring and respecting nature, and a belief in nourishment, love and friendship. I look forward to sharing that as I continue my tour of South Island bookshops in the days ahead.

This week's recipes feature on the covers of three of my milestone books, and tell the story of how our cooking has changed over the years - from a traditional mussel dish from my first book (fondly known as "the pink book"), to the Kiwi favourite roast pork from 2010's The Free Range Cook, and an on-trend fried rice with fried egg and sriracha from the newest publication, Cheap Thrills. Enjoy!

Catch Annabel on her South Island book tour this week! For details and dates see her blog.

Sriracha Sesame Fried Rice

Ready in 25 mins
Serves 4

400g chicken, beef or pork mince
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp sriracha sauce
2 Tbsp fish sauce
½ tsp sugar
2 Tbsp neutral oil
1 Tbsp sesame oil
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
¼ cup water
6 handfuls spinach leaves, de-stemmed and chopped, if large
1 cup peas (optional)
4 cups cooked rice
To serve
4 lightly fried eggs
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 handfuls coriander leaves
2 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tbsp sriracha sauce
1 tsp fish sauce

Mix mince with garlic, sriracha, fish sauce and sugar. Heat oils in a large, heavy-based frying pan or pot and cook mince over a high heat, breaking it up with the back of a spoon, until browned (6-8 minutes). Add carrots and water and cook until water has fully evaporated (1-2 minutes). Stir in spinach and peas, if using. As soon as spinach is wilted, mix in rice and stir-fry until fully warmed through. Divide between four bowls and top each with a fried egg, spring onions and coriander. Mix lime juice with sriracha and fish sauce, drizzle a little over the top of each bowl and serve the remainder at the table.

Annabel says: I'll often cook extra rice and store the leftovers in bags in the freezer - it thaws quickly and is great for stir-fries. Kick-starting the mince with sriracha, garlic, fish sauce and sesame oil is a simple way to transform an everyday ingredient into a satisfying meal. For a vegetarian version use firm tofu instead of the mince.

Roast Pork with Fennel, Onions and Apples

Roast pork with fennel, onions and apples. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media
Roast pork with fennel, onions and apples. Photo / Annabel Langbein Media

Ready in 2½ hrs
Serves 6-8

1 whole pork rack (approx 2.5kg), skin scored finely
1 tsp fennel seeds
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 red onions, peeled and cut into thin wedges
2 apples or pears, cored and sliced into thin wedges
1 head fennel, thinly sliced (optional)
4-5 bay leaves
2 cups white wine or verjuice

Preheat oven to 240C fanbake. Pat the pork skin dry with a paper towel. Grind the fennel seeds and rub them into the exposed flesh (not the rind) of the pork. Season with salt and pepper. Place the onion, apple or pear and fennel, if using, in a large roasting dish and top with the bay leaves. Place the pork on top, skin-side up. Pour the wine or verjuice around the pork, avoiding the skin of the pork as it needs to be dry to create crackling. If desired, wrap the exposed bones with tinfoil to prevent browning. Roast at 240C for 25 minutes until the pork skin begins to crackle, taking care it does not burn. Reduce the heat to 160C and cook for another 1½ hours. Check occasionally, adding a little water to the dish if it looks like it's drying out. There should still be quite a lot of liquid at the end so you can spoon the juices over the meat to serve. Remove the pork from the oven, remove the foil, if using, and stand for about 5 minutes before carving. Slice between the bones to separate into cutlets. Serve on a bed of polenta or mashed potato and the cooked onion, apple or pear and fennel from the roasting dish, with the juices spooned on top.

Annabel says: When I see a recipe with an encyclopedic list of ingredients and a method with lots of steps, I switch off. The results might be amazing but it's not for me. A dish like this that can be prepared in advance appeals. I like to serve it with creamy polenta or mashed potato to soak up the juices, and braised red cabbage.

Mussels in a Tomato Broth

Ready in 30 mins
Serves 4-6 as a main or 8-10 as a starter

4 dozen fresh mussels in their shells
2 large onions, finely diced
2 Tbsp oil
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup vermouth
2 x 400g cans tomatoes in juice
Zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon, finely grated
2 cups orange juice
2 Tbsp wine vinegar
1 Tbsp honey
3 Tbsp fresh thyme
Ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup finely chopped basil or parsley leaves, to garnish

Clean the mussels, discarding any that do not close after being placed under running water, and remove beards. To prepare the sauce, saute the onion in oil until soft, add garlic and cook another minute. Add the vermouth and allow to simmer. Puree the tomatoes, add to the pot with the zest, juice, vinegar and honey, and bring to a boil. Cook mussels in batches in a large pot. Half-fill the pot with mussels, add half a cup of water and cover tightly. Cook about 5 minutes then stir to distribute the heat evenly, removing the mussels to a serving platter as they open. Cover and keep warm. When all are cooked pour the mussel juices into the sauce, toss through the herbs and season with pepper. Pour the sauce over the mussels and serve. Accompany with finger bowls and plates for the mussel shells.

Annabel says: In many parts of the world people cook in the same way their parents, grandparents and generations before them cooked, feeling none of the compulsion or restlessness for new flavours that defines our cooking. But even for the most acquisitive of palates, some dishes, like these mussels in a herby tomato broth, stand the test of time.