Q&A with Karen Martini

November 3, 2013

You know the drill. Rushing through the door, late home from work, kids follow two steps behind you into the kitchen. You open the fridge and sigh as the ‘what’s for dinner mum?’ chorus begins. A quick survey of the fridge’s contents and it’s not looking good. Sounds like a job for Karen Martini.

Chef, restaurateur, TV presenter, recipe columnist and busy mum of two, Karen Martini knows your pain. She understands. She has penned five cookbooks, is the resident chef on Channel 7’s Better Homes and Gardens, judges others culinary skills on My Kitchen Rules and has rattled pans in various iconic restaurants including Melbourne’s Tansy’s, Melbourne Wine Room, Icebergs Dining Room & Bar in Sydney and her St Kilda pizzeria mr. wolf.

Taking a twist on the classics, Karen’s new cookbook Everyday will inspire you to come up with mealtime inspiration with more than 120 no-fuss recipe ideas for salads, pastas, pizzas, curries, roasts, one-pot dinners, puddings, cakes and even biscuits. It’s all about keeping it simple and delicious, of course.

Karen Martini tells SHE’SAID’ how she gets inspired in the kitchen and reveals how to get the ‘wow’ factor into an everyday, impromptu dinner party…even on a budget!

Tell me why every Australian kitchen needs a copy of your book Everyday?
My aim was to give super-quick ideas for stress-free cooking. I’ve tried to simplify the recipes but keeping them interesting. Sometimes things can get too tricky and it turns people off but they still want a good result, something exciting and delicious on the plate, with a bit of a twist they haven’t had before. It was also important to me to use accessible, every day ingredients that are familiar and easy to purchase. There are a few dishes in the book that can ‘challenge’ but the majority of the recipes are tried and true and the essence of what has kept me interested over the last few years when I’ve been busy and flat out!

The book is an insight into my head, I sometimes stand in my kitchen staring blankly into the fridge and pantry wondering what I can cook – just like everyone else! All of sudden I get inspiration and I go from a blank stare into cooking and making a dish. This book documents those moments.

What’s the best tip for getting yourself out of a cooking ‘rut’?
Spending time reading and refreshing your mind about food – with books like this! There are many great Australian cooks out there who are expressing their views and opinions which will get you starting to think about the way you look at a chicken thigh and how you don’t always just pan or stir fry it.

I think shopping in a different environment can also inspire. Take yourself out of the supermarket and go to a small green grocer or local farmer’s market. Even changing the supermarket you shop at – just breaking your routine can inspire! It’s a good place to start.

What’s the best way to deal with a family of fussy eaters – each with their own different ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’?
I’ve actually talked to a lot of people about this. A few have had good results by actually handing over my book and saying ‘OK…what looks good to you guys?’ And they (the kids) might pick something you wouldn’t even begin to think they’d like! Once you get them involved in the selection process, you’re on the road to having something else interesting for dinner!

If your children are young – it’s a hard thing. One of my daughters who is 5 is going through a ‘I’m not eating fish’ phase at the moment. And I’m like ‘Well, darling, this household eats fish twice a week so it’s going to be a long road for you!’ I just keep presenting it and I make sure there are a variety of salads, rice, pasta, cous cous or whatever it is, going as well, and I do always insist she at least tries it, because I don’t always buy the same fish. It’s persistence! Sometimes I think parents give up too quickly. You need to present something 20 times (sometimes) for them to get a grasp of it.

Family members always have their ‘favourite’ dishes – what’s the best way to persuade folk to try something ‘new’?
Sometimes something as simple as altering the environment like dining outside can switch things up. I’ve done that with my children – Amber is 5 and Estella is 7 – we did a BBQ outside recently and we don’t have an outdoor table yet so we had a picnic on the tiles outside because the grass is still growing too! We all sat cross-legged and they tried everything! It sounds kooky but it works in my household!

What are your family’s favourites?
My girls love the Slow-Baked Lamb shoulder with Horta-style salad (p.199), or I serve it with yoghurt, feta, Greek-style salad or a boiled barley side instead of potatoes or the pita bread. They love to assemble their own souvlaki style dishes. That is something that’s on the agenda at least once a week at the moment.

Spaghetti Bolognese was one that was requested to the point where I cooked it so much and I had as a ‘back up’ all the time, they don’t actually want it anymore! If you present what they love often they can make the decision to ‘move on’.

Roast chicken is another favourite. I am trying to get them onto light-style curries or dhal – they will have a little taste (I don’t make it hot, I take the chilli out but keep the spices in) they might not particularly like it but I always put a little taste of whatever the base sauce, gravy or dressing is on their plate. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t but at least you’re trying to develop their palate. It’s a real headache when you have to cook different meals. I don’t do that anymore because my girls are old enough. You have to start thinking like that from 3 onwards but always making sure you’ve got the simple, staples on offer so they don’t go hungry!

You decide to host an impromptu weekday dinner party. What are your ‘go-to’ dishes that always impress?
A Thai-style fish curry like the Coconut Curry with Blue-Eye Trevalla (p.132), it’s quick because you put everything in the one pot, the flavours are amazing because of the Asian ingredients you add to the sauce. You can always substitute chicken too. I might do something a little ‘extra, extra’ if I come across an ingredient that’s special – like perhaps, Spicy Fried Quail with Sichuan Pepper (p.143). If clams are in season, I can’t go past Linguine alle Vongole (p.63). I will make a really big pot of pasta, pop it in the middle of the table with a salad, that could easily work for mid-week dinner party. The idea of not serving individually but putting a platter on the table keeps everything convivial and casual!

What are the biggest mistakes you can make planning an impromptu dinner party?
Picking too many dishes you’ve never attempted before! You need a staple dish in your repertoire that you know you can nail every time. Think about dishes you can prepare a little ahead of time so you’re not working away in the kitchen the whole time.

Can you get the ‘wow’ factor into a dinner party on a budget?

There are simple jelly recipes in the book like Berry Jelly (p.213) and Blueberry and Orange Jelly (p.213), anything turned out of a mould always gets a bit of a ‘wow’ when you present it! Always hone in on ingredients that are in season to keep costs down. Old favourites – like Sweet and Sour Chicken (p.147) – I have revamped in the book – I use chicken thighs which are inexpensive and you can feed a lot of people with that! I’ve also done a mince chapter – with a lot of different dishes. The Lebanese Lamb and Peas (p.179) is something I pull out occasionally and if you serve this up with steamed or Dirty Rice with Lentils (p.72), yoghurt and a shredded carrot salad, it can be a little exotic and fancy but you haven’t spent a fortune. I also love the Beef Kofta (p.176). Sometimes you need to apply a little more ‘skill’ when you’re cooking on a budget – in other words, making things from scratch like the kofta, pressing them onto the skewer yourself. I also love to deliver a fancy way to present dishes. You’re still using simple ingredients but you’re thinking about how you put it on the plate.

What food items should you always have in your pantry and fridge?
On my kitchen bench, there is never a lack of salt flakes rather than iodised table salt. I use flakes to finish dishes and whilst they’re cooking sometimes too. I find iodised table salt can be ‘too salty’ and it ‘burns’ the palate, in a way. The Australian Murray River salt – I use all the time – a little goes a long way.

Good olive oil is essential. Australia is making some fantastic olive oils and it makes everything taste better at the last minute! I always have a bowl of lemons kicking around and a selection of cheeses on the go – a chunk of parmesan, fresh ricotta or fresh goats cheese – you can apply them to so many dishes and change the dish entirely. Base spices like cumin, cinnamon or coriander are essential in your kitchen. I always have a zip lock bag of bay leaves, parsley and other herbs  in the fridge. If you can’t grow your own herbs – which are pretty easy to do in pots – keep a few in the fridge. Mint can transform a lot of dishes. In my freezer, I always have a bit of an ‘Asian section’. People sometimes find cooking Thai or Asian a little daunting because they have to go out and buy 27 ingredients but if you come to my house, you’ll always find in the freezer in little zip-lock bags, a little tub of shrimp paste, lemongrass, chillies, lime leaves, dried shrimp, curry leaves, galangal (Asian ginger).

Get Karen Martini’s easy panna cotta recipe here!

 Everyday by Karen Martini, RRP $39.99, is available now.

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