■ Donna Hay has signed copies of her new book, 'the new easy' (published by HarperCollins), one for each of the papers in the Fairfax Community Newspaper network around Sydney. To enter the contest to win a signed book, like us on our Facebook page and tell us briefly about one of your disasters or triumphs in the kitchen (maximum 50 words). Email entries to firstname.lastname@example.org (with Donna Hay as the subject) or post to Donna Hay competition, c/o Phyllis Macgraw, Your Home Editor, Unit 1, 1 Elyard Street, Narellan, NSW 2567. Include your phone number, email address (if you have one) and postal address (in case you win). The contest opens November 25, and closes December 9. Winners will be notified by mail. Full terms and conditions at the bottom of this page.
SUDDENLY, there are voices everywhere telling us what to cook, what not to cook, when to cook, how to cook and even why cook. A generation (or two) ago there was simply Margaret Fulton and Bernard King and, further abroad, Julia Child and Graham Kerr.
Now we have Jamie, Nigella, Maggie, Simon, Rick, Stephanie, Poh, Gordon, Curtis, Matt, Julie . . .
Yes, all wonderful cooks.
Possibly the worst example of celebrity chefery is the Academy Awards' Governors Ball catered by Wolfgang Puck. The Oscars sends film critics and journalists around the world a hyped press release announcing they'll give the leftovers to the poor. We're still waiting for the Oscars to donate all the food to the poor and let the movie stars, directors and hangers-on have their leftovers.
Donna Hay is nothing if not down to earth. I asked her about her new book and how important it is to stay in touch with the sorts of kitchen problems we all face on a daily basis . . .
You know, people need solutions the same way I need solutions for weeknight meals and entertaining on weekends. There's been so much TV and media around food for the past five, seven years that people's expectations of what they need to put on the table for a weeknight meal is so different from what it was.
It should only take them 30 minutes. They want it to look fantastic and they want the flavours to be amazing. So it's definitely made my job a bit more challenging just to meet those expectations of what to put on the table for a weeknight meal. It's definitely been a game-changer.
Your books make cooking accessible for the average person in the kitchen, on an average budget. And the meals are attractive and aspirational as well.
You've also got to be careful how you aim your recipes. There will be people with fabulous cooking skills and people with basic skills.
A word from Donna . . .
I try to aim between them because even if it's someone like me with good cooking skills it doesn't mean you want to stand at the kitchen bench, or you can stand at the kitchen bench, any longer than 15 or 20 minutes.
You know, how many herbs do you want to pick after all? And stand there chopping for endless hours?
I'm constantly saying to the guys who help me develop my recipes: "People chop probably at a tenth the speed we do so don't tell me all of that you just chopped is not going to turn them off the recipe and turn them to takeaway!"
After all, how many herbs do you want to pick? And stand there chopping for endless hours?
What inspired you in the first place?
My grandmother had a vegetable garden and we'd spend the morning in the garden picking beans and strawberries and whatever was ready and then we'd spend the afternoon in the kitchen. She didn't cook anything amazingly elaborate, it was very Anglo, but I think just being able as a young girl to play and stir, it was like real-life mud pies [laughs].
I was really lucky that she'd pull up a chair and let me stir and get involved. I was the youngest of three girls and my Mum sent us off to a cooking class run by the Sydney County Council one school holidays. I remember it and I remember thinking how wonderful it was to cook because it was like mad science.
Stir together all these ingredients and turn on the heat [laughs]. How fun it was! I was really encouraged to cook and even though I was a messy cook as a child Mum always just cleaned up and encouraged me and I started to do more and more, and eventually overtook what she was doing.
Do you remember some of your very early attempts?
I cooked my Dad steak Diane for his birthday once. I thought I was so fancy and cutting edge! And I used to do this chocolate blancmange in my Mum's dessert dishes. I don't know if it was edible or not but I do remember making it. I also remember some sweet-and-sour something with a can of pineapple in it. I used to think I was just so sophisticated! I was only 8 or 9.
Cooking can be hard work for all of us but particularly for you for whom cooking is your life. How do you prevent it from becoming a drudgery? How do you get the spark back?
Well, for me, I find cooking like meditating because usually I can do it without thinking too much but if I get recipe block or writers' block or I just don't feel like cooking the best thing to do is head out somewhere exciting and shop.
If I haven't been to Chinatown in a while I'll go there or Bondi markets or anywhere different where I might see something I haven't used in a while. Or something new. Then I'd probably buy a few different ingredients which changes my repertoire or makes me think "What shall I do with that great new asparagus?" or "Those greens look really fabulous, I wonder what I should do with them?" For me it's more I buy first and decide later.
Is there an interesting ingredient you've just rediscovered?
I've just seen some really niche ingredients I wouldn't write about because I think it's nasty because people can't get them! Down at Bondi markets they were selling fresh camomile. I brought it into work and we brewed some fresh camomile tea. It tasted beautiful! So much better than dried in-the-bag.
Keeping your eye out, I guess that's what I'm always doing. Waiting for something to become a little more accepted so we can use it. Asian chilli jam and things, but I'm holding back to put them into recipes until people can access them easily.
Some cooking books are so beautiful people snap them up to look good in the kitchen. But they're designed to be practical as well as decorative and aspirational. How many people buy your books and use them?
Well, in my perfect world, Ian, everyone! [we laugh]. I hope if you buy a book you would eventually get around to cooking something. I think once people see how few ingredients are needed and how simple and straightforward the method is, I'd like to think I can convert more and more.
For a while where I was househunting and I'd see a lot of my books on coffee tables with no splatters on them! But people turn up to book-signings and they've got a couple of old books they want signed and they say "Oh, I'm so embarrassed, my book's really splattered" and I take that as an absolute compliment!
Your latest book is 'the new easy'; what was wrong with the old easy?
It's all about keeping people inspired, which is what you and I have been touching on in this interview. How do you keep inspired? Are there things that are new? What can you offer people? Is there a different way? A shorter way? A better way? Can you pack more flavour in easily? What sort of ingredients are coming out? What twist is there?
To me it was about finding a new way to do things that were easy but still following all my guidelines – that it delivers on flavour, and time.
Please tell us you have disasters in the kitchen!
Oh, yeah. All the time. Of course, we work in a test kitchen and that kinda happens on a regular basis!
That's so reassuring.
If you don't push the boundaries you're not going to come up with something new. Or you're not going to find that brining chicken breasts for 20 minutes is not going to work. Maybe you put in five times more salt than you needed and it's inedible. But you just start again.
I guess it takes a certain type of person to work with me in the test kitchen. It's not personal, it's actually science and you've got to get to the end of the scientific equation to make it work. So, yeah, things go wrong all the time. All the time. Sometimes it's just little adjustments that are needed. Other times it's just way off the mark.
It's easy to lose confidence in the kitchen. How do you encourage people to get back there after a bad run. What's your philosophy of recovery?
Well, funny you say that. I always tell people to choose something really simple and to master it. People should choose something they've either eaten at a restaurant they like or a type of cuisine they like or have a bit more connection with and try just one thing and master it.
I know how difficult it is to get a recipe into people's repertoires. That's why I came up with the idea in this book of the restyle section.
So if you can master something like the lemongrass chicken salad then I've given you two each extra ways and it's not complicated and it's not simply take out the chilli and replace it with something because that's just annoying.
It's cook it again but you can take it to the park or a lovely picnic lunch as a baguette and you can also serve it another way as an elegant starter for a dinner party.
I know people get comfortable with dishes in their repertoire and they don't really want to add a brand-new one for a dinner party because, you know, they could stuff it up, it could fail, something could happen.
So that's why I added a whole stack of restyles, just hoping I could get a couple of recipes into people's repertoires and then they could use them a couple of different ways.
On Brothers & Sisters . . .
Oh, I love that show! I used to watch it late at night.
. . . Senator Robert McCallister [played by Rob Lowe] addresses a women's group on the subject of cooking and says it's not just a chore, it's one of the greatest ways you can say I love you to those who are important to you. Do you have time to cook for others?
All the time. And I absolutely agree with Senator McCallister! I cook for my family, for my friends.
And I think it's not just saying I love you, it's saying I care about you and I care about what you're eating and I care about your health and I care about how your little body is going to grow up. Absolutely.
The first thing I try to do if there's anything going on in someone's world, whether it's their birthday or they've had a bad day or whatever, I always turn to food. If they've had a baby, if they're not feeling well, I've always gotta go drop over a big food package.
And even one of my girlfriends who lives up the street, I was really, really busy and on deadline the other day and everything just seemed to be getting busier and busier and clouded. We had a problem with one of our software programs for the app and we had to do all this work.
She said what time are you going to get home? I said I'll have to come home for the boys [Angus, 11, and Tom, 9]. When I got home she was in the driveway and she'd cooked me this beautiful roast chicken that she does. It was so nice, I nearly wept in the driveway. She said "I knew you were too busy and I don't want you to cook tonight. It sounds like you've had a terrible day. I made this for me and I put on extra for you." How nice is that?!!
And how courageous! How many people would dare cook for Donna Hay?!
Heaps, I hope! Let's get that out on the bandwagon! [laughs]
What about dishes you've dreamed up but midway through making them you realise they're not working?
Yeah, absolutely that happens. Sometimes combinations just don't work. Clearly I'm getting better at it now but I remember when I was a lot younger you'd think that coriander was a great idea with something and it was just a disaster! And then there's just the technical thing of baking – you try to push the boundaries but baking is science and sometimes it's never going to work.
Are there any herbs and spices you'd warn people about?
I think it's open slather because people have such different personal tastes. There are people who are chilli-mad and people who are spice-mad who are kind of more towards curry, with lots and lots of different layers of spices. It's really hard to put rules on people and personal taste.
How do you share the cooking responsibilities at home?
Well, I'm a single mum – with a 9- and 11-year-old – so it's all in my hands [laughs].
Are you teaching them to cook?
Yeah! Absolutely, yeah!
What have you done with them so far?
Angus  is really good at a barbecue. They’re both really good at rolling stuff like their own pizza bases and things to cook on the barbecue. What was he making the other day. Yes, he was making meatballs, because he likes to roll them with a little bit of mozzarella in the middle. Surprise meatballs.
And the other thing – they're actually better than me at – is rolling sushi. They've had more practice, and they love making extra to put in their lunchboxes. Thank goodness there are all these sushi chains and kids have it now as a snack instead of a sandwich or a bread roll in their lunch.
My partner Dane is a primary school teacher and teaches cooking to his kids. What are some things you would suggest he and other teachers and parents focus on?
Oh, that's marvellous! I've always thought you need to bring kids into cooking first of all with fun and then you have to overlay on top of that the growing and the nutrition.
But I don't think you can come in first with "We're gonna cook this because it's good for you" or "It's better than takeaway!"
With my kids, if I say it's better than takeaway they'll say "I don't care, we wanna order pizza!" [laughs] Because, you know, their taste buds aren't that developed. But I always think the way I got into it is that I just genuinely thought it was fun.
That often means coming to it with sweets, or things you can get your hands into, like rubbing butter into flour to make rock cakes and really traditional CWA recipes and then you can overlay the next bit, like this it how it grows and how fresh is that and here's a carrot from the garden and here's one from, er, wherever, and don't they taste different? Appreciating quality I think is a really good thing for kids.
He did rock cakes last week, and the kids loved it!
Did he? Unreal! I'd love a rock cake right now actually. Gosh, I haven't made them in years!
So, that's the next book? Donna Hay: Rock Cakes.
I think I'll have to go back to them! ❏
■ FULL TERMS AND CONDITIONS | Donna Hay has signed copies of her new book, The New Easy (published by HarperCollins), one for each of the papers in the Fairfax Community Newspaper network around Sydney. To enter the contest to win a signed book, like us on our Facebook page and tell us briefly about one of your disasters or triumphs in the kitchen (maximum 50 words). Email entries to email@example.com (with Donna Hay as the subject) or post to Donna Hay competition, c/o Phyllis Macgraw, Your Home Editor, Unit 1, 1 Elyard Street, Narellan, NSW 2567. Include your phone number, email address (if you have one) and postal address (in case you win). The contest opens on November 25 and closes on December 9. Note opening and closing dates. No Fairfax Media staff or relatives eligible. This is a contest of skill, not chance. Spelling and creativity are important. Only open to entries from Australia. All entries will be judged. All winners will be notified by mail and names published on this page. CONTEST NOW CLOSED
HERE ARE THE WINNERS, in alphabetical order | Kathleen Attard, of Silverdale, NSW; Lisa Barnfield, of Engadine, NSW; Vanda Bellissimo, of Cabramatta, NSW; Meredith Cross, of Menangle, NSW; Emma Jones, of Ambarvale, NSW; Mick Kojic, of South Penrith, NSW; Christine Lazarevic, of Castle Hill, NSW; Renee Moroz, of Carlton, NSW; Louise Mulvey, of Cherrybrook, NSW; Melanie Murray, of Erskine Park, NSW; Darren Peel, of Cambridge Gardens, NSW; Lisa & Jarrod Plant, of Jannali, NSW; Joanne Rae, of Blacktown, NSW; and Cindy Sugden, of Wilton, NSW.
SEE WINNING ENTRIES HERE.
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