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Annabel Langbein: The Free Range Cook
Recently, I got to interview Annabel Langbein, author of multiple cookbooks and the star of “The Free Range Cook” TV series. I found out some fascinating information!
If you like learning about good, whole foods, and how to prepare them, then Annabel Langbein’s cookbooks are for you.
How did you develop your cooking style?
I think I’m lucky that I never formally learned to cook, as it enables me to have a very free-spirited approach to my cooking. From a young age – probably about 14 – I was cooking, experimenting and always trying new recipes. I learned pretty quickly that if I followed a recipe and it didn’t work I lost a lot of confidence, so nowadays I make it my mission to write recipes that are really easy road maps for people to achieve success.
When I was in my 20s I got really chunky (I had a croissant business in Brazil and my passion for it showed on my hips!) and so I took myself off to the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York to learn a little about nutrition. It was there that I learned to make food that was healthy but still had loads of flavor (fat carries flavors and gives food a yummy mouthfeel, so when you take it out or reduce it you run the risk of your food tasting bland or boring). Since then I have used lots of natural umami, fresh herbs and aromatics to give my food zing and focused my recipes around fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables. I call it health by stealth, as none of us want to feel we are having a health message pushed down our throats – first and foremost food has to be delicious!
Did you always cook this way, or has your approach changed over the years?
I have always found that cooking is a great way to anchor my life, connecting me with family and friends as well as other cultures, nature and my own creativity. As a busy working mother I also realized that I needed to make time to enjoy family meals around the table. The food needed to be delicious and nutritious but it had to be really super easy too – when you come home from work late you’re tired and you don’t want to have to think or have things go wrong.
I have also learned the benefits of a well-stocked pantry and recipes that use everyday storecupboard ingredients. One of the best things about home cooking these days is the range of ingredients at our fingertips – by just going to the supermarket you can pretty much access a global pantry of flavors. And that makes it so easy to transform daily meals – once you know how to cook a piece of fish or roast a chicken you can just add a few ingredients from your pantry to take it into so many different flavorways. So it’s really easy to make interesting delicious food that’s fuss-free too.
The other thing that’s changed for me is really understanding that being a home cook is not about trying to be a chef. Being a chef is a profession, and it’s about performance and clever tricks. At home it’s all about nourishing, and creating a space for people to relax, and about providing nutritious meals that will build strong healthy bodies. It’s also about embracing a spirit of resourcefulness. In less than 100 years we have lost the craft and instinctiveness of cooking, which used to be learned and passed down from mother to daughter.
In some ways I think there is a ‘con’ in convenience. Women, in particular, have been made to feel that they are too busy to cook, that there are more important jobs to be done, and then we end up missing out on the whole idea of building strong families, which happens in the simplest way around the table (whatever form that might take – it could be a rug out on the lawn or the floor). Kids who spend time eating with their families around the table benefit on so many levels.
With the stresses of everyday life it can be difficult to feel useful or successful so I love that food and cooking can give us both those things so easily – people just love it when you cook for them, no matter how simple the fare. I aim to make it really simple for people to engage in the process of cooking so they achieve success with ease and feel useful and gain confidence.
Why did you decide to go the self-publishing route with your cookbooks?
I had been writing a column for a magazine and had kept all my copyright. One day I thought I could make a cookbook from all my recipes but it never even entered my head to approach a publisher. I just thought, I can do this, I want to do this! So I hired a designer and a photographer and started the journey. Twenty-two books later I’m still hooked! I love the jigsaw puzzle element of it all – joining things up to make a collection that feels whole, coherent and exciting, that takes in new trends and ways of cooking and distils them into easy recipes for busy people at home. It’s also probably fair to say that I’m a bit of a control freak – I didn’t want anyone else telling me what paper stock to use, or how many pictures to take or pages to limit myself to. I wanted to make those decisions and craft the project myself until I was happy.
What are the recipes you make most often for yourself?
If I’m home on my own I usually make quite simple, fresh meals. I really love seafood so I might roast a piece of salmon and then let it cool a little before tossing it with various salad ingredients – I might slather it with Thai sweet chili sauce mixed with lime zest and a little fish sauce and then make an Asian-inspired salad with soba noodles and snow peas and sprouts and carrots and a zingy dressing. Or I might take it into more of a Mediterranean zone with some chermoula flavors, crisp salad leaves, roasted peppers, shaved fennel, olive oil, lemon and some dukkah scattered over the top. So usually it ends up being a kind of one-dish platter meal I can snack on and have the leftovers for lunch the next day.
How does living in New Zealand influence your cooking?
There are a couple of things at play here. Certainly living in New Zealand has an influence because as a young country that doesn’t have a rich culinary history we as a people are very open to new ideas. Living in a small country so far from the rest of the world, we tend to be great travellers – lots of young people will head off with a backpack for a couple of years after they finish their studies. Along the way we’ll taste the food of lots of different cultures and when we come home we’re excited to cook with all these ethnic flavors and ingredients that we’ve discovered. So at the supermarket we seek out interesting ingredients and products, from quinoa, faro and black sticky rice to Indian lentils and artisanal Italian pastas as well as flavors such as saffron, pomegranate molasses, wasabi, Thai fish sauce, tahini… it’s such a treat to have the world’s pantry at your fingertips.
But perhaps more than this it’s my garden that is the biggest influence. My husband Ted and I pretty much live out of the garden and what we eat is whatever is in season right now. I head up there and wander around to see what’s ready and ripe and then build my menus, recipes and ideas around those ingredients. It really makes me feel connected and tuned into nature’s simple rhythms.
Check out Annabel Langbein’s new cookbook!