Vegetarian ready meals

WW mushroom and pumpkin risotto

I’m the sort of person who grows fruit and vegetables, kneads their own bread and cooks everything from scratch. In part that’s to reduce my environmental impact, but they’re also just things I enjoy doing! Recently I had to put these things aside. I had surgery on my arm and was able to do very little with that hand and arm for a while. I know it’s possible to cook with one hand – my uncle lost most of the use of his arm following a stroke, and he’s an excellent one-armed cook! However, he has a few special tools to help him along. It didn’t seem worth investing in those for my temporary disability, so I decided to resort to prepared meals. If I’d realised how limited I would be, I could have had a big cook up in advance, but I didn’t. Also, my place is not convenient for takeaways, and my nearby family were in Covid isolation. I decided to order ready meals from the supermarket. I tried lots of different ones, so it seemed a good idea to record my impressions, both to help anyone else who is interested, and for my own benefit in case I have to do similar in future!

First, a general comment: I feel uneasy about the energy emissions of food – especially frozen items – being shipped around the world, though the reality is that many frozen items in New Zealand supermarkets are imported, from frozen vegetables grown in China to frozen berries grown in Chile. People on a tight budget will choose these items because locally-grown options are usually much more expensive. Of course, that then raises the question of how poorly paid the growers and workers that produce some of the imported foods might be.

Plantry frozen meals

I tried three of these vegan frozen meals: Pad Thai; Spaghetti Bolognese; and Green Curry. Their regular price at my usual supermarket is $9 for each 350g meal, but one of them I got on special at $7. Made in Singapore. The flavours in the sauces were good, but my beef (pun intended) with these meals is that they are packed with fake meat. That may be fine for some people, but I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly twenty years and I have no interest in pretend meat and don’t like the texture. In particular, I would expect a vegan green curry to be packed with vegetables, but instead its main ingredient was pretend chicken. On the positive side, these meals are very filling – their calorie counts come in between 1590kJ and 2550kJ. The cardboard covering is recyclable, but the inner container didn’t look it to me and had no recycling number so I had to throw it in the rubbish. I wouldn’t buy these again because I didn’t like the meaty texture.

WW frozen meals

WW, as Weight Watchers foods is branded, has various frozen ready meals, but I could only find one that was vegetarian (not vegan), Mushroom and pumpkin risotto. This 320g meal cost me $5 on special (usually $5.99) and has 1170kJ. Made in Australia. The packaging is recyclable except for the plastic cling top. I expected this to have more of a mushroom flavour than it did. Nevertheless, this was very tasty and I would buy it again.

Naked Kitchen chilled meals

I tried a few of these: Peanut satay and kumara bowl; California wellness bowl with red lentils; Lentil, potato and caramelised onion soup; Malaysian laksa with rice noodles and coriander; and Tomato, aubergine and chickpea bowl. The ones called ‘bowls’ are essentially very thick soups, so I would class them all as soups. They come in 450 to 500g plastic pouches, each with two servings ranging in energy from 545 to 866kJ. One night I was quite hungry and ate two servings. Made in New Zealand. I paid various amounts, from $5 on special to $6.50 full price (cheap given there are two serves). They don’t claim to be vegan, but I couldn’t spot any non-vegan ingredients in the lists of those I bought. These are packed with nutritious ingredients and nicely spiced, except for the potato and onion soup which I found a bit bland. The others I really liked and would certainly buy again. I was puzzled about whether or not the packaging was recyclable. Some packets were marked as okay for soft plastic recycling, but some was marked as number 7, or the ‘other’ category, which as far as I know isn’t accepted for recycling here.

Rosie’s Kitchen chilled meals

I tried the Pumpkin and feta lasagne, the only vegetarian choice in my supermarket from this brand. It comes in a 350g packet of 1906kJ and I paid $6.50 on special (usual price $7). I couldn’t manage the whole serving and saved some for lunch the next day. Made in New Zealand (Paraparaumu). I liked the texture and flavour, though it was a little bland, so I wouldn’t rush to get it again. The cardboard and plastic packaging is recyclable, except for the cling film top.

Wattie’s Plant Proteinz

These come in a pouch and don’t need to be refrigerated. They have a long shelf life – the ones I tried had nearly a year to go before expiry. I bought them on special at $4.50 each, the regular price being $5. Each package is 330g and has one serving of 1070kJ (suspiciously identical for each variety). Made in New Zealand. I tried two varieties, Lentil and roasted kumara dahl and 7 veg soup with quinoa. These are packed with healthy veges and grains and the flavours and textures are pretty good. They don’t claim to be vegan, but I couldn’t spot any non-vegan ingredients. However, I would hesitate to get them again because first, the packaging is not recyclable, and second, they were too salty for my taste.

Countdown frozen pizza

I got the supermarket’s own brand Mozzarella, tomato and pesto stonebaked pizza and shared it with two visitors. It weighed in at 445g and was recommended for 4 people, with an energy count of 928kJ per person, though the three of us had no trouble finishing it. I paid $5.50 on special and the usual price is $6.50. This was a very good pizza and we all really liked it, but you expect a pizza made in Italy to be good! I couldn’t quite get over the idea that we were eating a meal that had been made on the opposite side of the planet and shipped to us frozen. It comes in a recyclable cardboard box, and I can’t quite remember, but think it also had a plastic wrapping which had to go in the rubbish.

Coupland’s pies

Coupland’s bakery sells various chilled and frozen single-serve pies and quiches. I tried the frozen Creamy vegetarian pie (200g, $3.90) and also the fresh Feta and caramelised onion quiche (140g, $2.90). The pie contains 1910kJ and I forgot to note the energy count for the quiche. Made in New Zealand. I enjoyed both of these, especially the pie – they are tasty and filling, if not the healthiest choice thanks to their fat content! The pie has lots of veges in a rich and creamy sauce, with a vegan pastry. Coupland’s also sells a frozen vegan pie, but I haven’t tried that – it looks as though it has a brown gravy filling. These items come in cellophane-type wrapping which has to go in the rubbish.

Wattie’s tinned beans

In my small emergency food stash I discovered two cans of Wattie’s Salsa chilli beans. I have no idea what I paid for these, but they cost about $3 a tin now. Each tin contains two servings, at 965kJ per serve. Made in New Zealand. These are a mixture of beans and corn in a delicious salsa sauce and I love them hot on toast. They have a lot going for them – they’re cheap, nutritious, filling and tasty! The tin is of course recyclable. I did have an issue with these, though, as I discovered how difficult it is to open a tin with one arm and managed to cut myself! Special tin openers to help with this issue are available, but I wasn’t going to bother with that for a temporary thing, and decided to avoid further tinned foods until I recovered.

Naked Kitchen peanut satay and kumara bowl

Well, there you have it. Other ready meals are available, but I have now recovered and can cook properly again. The prepared meals I relied on for about a month definitely made life easier, and most of them were pretty good. However, I have resolved to make sure I always have a few home-cooked meals in the freezer, just in case of unexpected temporary disability!

Gluten-free bread recipe

I love making bread and have been baking it weekly for years now. However, I’ve been trying a low-FODMAP diet recently and really struggled to find a good gluten-free (GF) bread recipe. Eventually I found a half-decent one in a library book ( Bette Hagman, The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread, published 1999) and did some playing around with the ingredients and method in that. I’ve made quite a few successful loaves now, so I’m sharing the recipe to help anyone else who wants to make their own GF and FODMAP-friendly bread. I reckon it’s as good as the GF bread sold at the supermarket, if not better! Of course, it’s not as good as regular bread, but it’s pretty tasty when it’s warm, and delicious toasted for several days after baking.

I can get all the ingredients except one at the local supermarket. The exception is xanthan gum, which is often used in GF baking to help bind the ingredients. You can find it at health food stores, but mine was out of stock so I bought it online. It comes as a powder – try not to spill it, as it can make a gluey mess if it gets wet!

This recipe makes one medium-sized loaf. It takes less time than regular bread to be ready as it has one rise rather than two.

INGREDIENTS

1 ¼ cups warm water

2 ¼ tsp active yeast

1 whole egg plus 1 large egg white

70ml oil

¾ tsp vinegar

1 tbsp maple syrup

1 cup rice flour

1 cup tapioca flour (sometimes called arrowroot)

1 cup cornflour or cornmeal

1/3 cup almond meal

2 ¼ tsp xanthan gum

1 ½ tsp salt

1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)

2 tbsp poppy seeds (optional)

2 tbsp pumpkin seeds (optional)

METHOD

  1. Put the warm water in a small bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Set aside to start activating while you complete the next step.
  2. Put the egg, egg white, oil, vinegar and maple syrup in a large bowl and beat together well. I use a handheld electric beater, but if you have a flash cake mixer you could use that.
  3. Add the water/yeast mixture to the egg mixture and mix a little more.
  4. Add all of the remaining ingredients, including seeds if you are using them, to your wet mixture. It will create a dough that is too wet to knead by hand – it looks like a thick cake batter. Beat together for 3 minutes using an electric beater or cake mixer.
  5. Pour the mixture into a lined loaf tin – I use a scraper to spread it evenly. Cover it with a clean tea towel.
  6. Put the tin in a warm place to rise for 60 minutes. I set my timer for 45 minutes to remind me to turn the oven on to heat!
  7. Bake at 200ºC fanbake for 10 minutes, place some foil loosely over the top of the tin, and bake another 40-45 minutes.
  8. The loaf can be removed from the tin as soon as it comes out of the oven. Put it on a rack to cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting. Once I’ve cut into it, I wrap the remainder of the loaf firmly in a clean tea towel to stop it drying out. Once it’s completely cool you can store it, still wrapped in the towel, in an airtight container.
  9. If you’re wondering what to do with the leftover egg yolk, my favourite thing is to add it to another whole egg plus a little milk and make scrambled eggs for lunch!
A loaf after rising, ready to go into the oven.
The finished product – this loaf doesn’t have the optional seeds.
A finished loaf with seeds included.

First footers and Christmas pudding

Plum pudding
Can label from Dunedin’s Irvine & Stevenson’s St George Company, 1890s-1940s. Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Eph-B-FOOD-1940s-01

Over on the History interests and publications page I’ve attached the text of a talk I gave at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum on the history of Christmas, New Year and Easter in nineteenth-century Dunedin. It considers how colonists from different ethnic and religious backgrounds adopted and adapted their holiday customs to fit with their new cultural and physical environment. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

The quest for black bun

OW 21 Dec 1899 p 57
Recipe from the Otago Witness, 21 December 1899, p.57, from Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

Will you be eating black bun this New Year? I’ll be trying this Scottish delicacy for the first time, having just done a little research on its history in New Zealand. It all started when somebody asked me if I’d be mentioning black bun in a talk I’m giving soon about seasonal festivities in nineteenth-century Dunedin. Michael mentioned that his grandmother and aunts made it as ‘the proper thing to eat at New Year’. I hadn’t come across it previously, so this got me curious and I set out on my quest for black bun.

A straw poll at work revealed that New Zealanders under 60 haven’t heard of black bun. When I checked with my mother, she couldn’t recall it ever being made in our family, but remembered a Scottish migrant friend, Flora, making it and commenting that most New Zealanders didn’t like its peppery taste! I ventured to Wikipedia, which informed me that black bun only acquired that name in 1898 – it was more often known as Scotch bun until more recent times. I’m happy to say that the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed Wikipedia’s date, defining black bun as ‘a rich fruit cake in a pastry case, eaten esp. in Scotland at New Year’.

Armed with this alternative name, I found plenty of references in old New Zealand newspapers. The earliest advertising I’ve found so far is from 1868, when Dunedin pastry cook and confectioner J. Proud included Scotch bun and shortbread among the items he offered for sale for Christmas and New Year. Five years later a Scotch Bun featured as third prize in a ‘Christmas gift enterprise’ draw, run by Parnell confectioner Charles Burton (in case you’re wondering, first prize was a wedding cake, with a gold wedding ring inserted, and second was an iced cake). Advertising was often directed at Scottish migrants, as when William Hogg of Whanganui, a district with a significant Scottish population, had on view for his ‘Brither Scots … several samples of their favourite dish’ in time for New Year 1897.

Scotch/black bun sometimes appeared among food items entered into competitions at A & P shows, or as an item for sale in Scottish-themed stalls at fundraising events. At a ‘pageant fair’ in Palmerston North in 1912 the Scottish stall was ‘filled with many fascinating wares such as snowy table linen, Scotch woollen goods, shortbread and most dainty sweetmeats. Also Scotch bun which sold very readily, owing to its novelty’. In the same year Scotch bun featured at a Burns supper in Glenham, Southland: ‘Oat cake, Scotch bun, and haggis were among the national viands prepared for the guests’ delectation’. Evidently in New Zealand it featured when a distinctly Scottish dish was required, and not only at New Year.

Ellesmere Guardian 19 Oct 1937 p5
The account of a Women’s Institute meeting in Brookside, Canterbury, shows how Scotch bun sometimes appeared at Scottish-themed events in New Zealand. From the Ellesmere Guardian, 19 October 1937, p.5, on Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

New Zealand newspapers published recipes for Scotch bun. The recipe at the top of this post appeared in the Otago Witness several times in the 1890s. It was for an older version of the bun, where fruit and spices were added to three-quarters of a buttery bread dough mix, which was then wrapped in the remaining plain dough. Later recipes called for a rich fruit cake mix to be cooked in a pastry case. Four such recipes appeared in the ‘information exchanged’ section of the New Zealand Herald women’s page in 1935, in response to a request from Mrs D.M. of Epsom. The readers who responded were Mrs D. Robb of Bay of Plenty, Mrs Kelly of Epsom, Mrs R.H.S. of Opotiki and ‘Interested’ of East Tamaki, ‘who has been married to a Scot for 11 years’. The latter confessed that she usually omitted the pepper, one of the distinctive features in the traditional recipe, and two of the other recipes made no mention of pepper.

Hutt News 13 Dec 1928 p2
Recipe from the Hutt News, 13 December 1928, p.2. From Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand

Some might suggest that only Scotland, home of the deep-fried Mars bar, could create a recipe combining a rich cake with pastry! It is, however, a very old dish, and it is likely that the pastry was once discarded. A 1904 article in the Mataura Ensign, on ‘a quaint New Year custom’ in the ‘Land o’ Cakes’, noted that Scotch bun was ‘ensconced in a crust which is not eaten’. In medieval times many foods were cooked in pastry (or ‘paste’) that wasn’t intended for consumption – in the absence of fire-proof containers, it was simply a case in which to cook things. That may well explain this recipe. The pastry case of course helped retain moisture and made the cake longer-lasting. Like Christmas cake it improved with keeping and in 1939 Wellington’s Evening Post included a recipe for Scotch bun among those recommended as ‘transportable fare for soldiers’.

Scottish folklorist Marian McNeill suggested black bun had originally been ‘the Scottish Twelfth Cake’, eaten on Twelfth Night, the last of the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ (6 January). As Otago anthropologist Helen Leach and her co-authors explain in their wonderful book on the history of Christmas cakes, this modern Christmas delicacy evolved out of an older twelfth cake tradition. Sadly they make no mention of black/Scotch bun in this book (I can, however, personally recommend its recipe for Howick Christmas cake, with its ‘secret’ ingredient of blackcurrant jam!). In Scotland, where the religious holiday of Christmas fell out of favour after the reformation, many of the festive aspects of the season shifted to New Year, and Scotch bun seems to have been one of them.

On Hogmanay – New Year’s Eve – food treats were often associated with first footing. There’s a great description of first footing in the Catlins district in the diary of Charles Hayward. He was an English ship’s captain who settled in the south and married a Scottish migrant; he commented in his diary on the goings-on of this largely Scottish community. At New Year 1866 Hayward wrote:

Robt & I were out early this morning, to take the round of the Flat to wish them all a happy New Year, this though not practised in England, is the regular custom in Scotland, and is called the first footing. The person calling must manage to be at the house or houses at which he intends to call as early as possible to prevent being forestalled by anyone else, and he is also supposed to take with him a bottle of spirits and a piece of cake, and to help everyone in the house to the same.

In their history of the Scots in New Zealand, Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon note seed-cakes, buns and shortbread as traditional foods served on the traditional occasion of Hogmanay. They were part of a fondness for baking among the Scots, whose major contribution to New Zealand cuisine may have been ‘an overdeveloped fondness for sweet things and baked good of all kinds’, suggest Patterson and co. The ‘Land o’ cakes’ has a lot to answer for!

First footing probably didn’t survive much past the first generation or two of Scottish migrants in most parts of New Zealand, though it lasted longer in some families and a few communities. I suspect the same applies to Scotch/black bun, which became a curiosity to most New Zealanders.

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Black bun mixture in the tin, waiting for its pastry lid.

In the interests of thorough research, I decided to have a go at making black bun myself. I selected a recipe in the cookbook put out by the Gaelic Society of New Zealand (now defunct, sadly) in 1998. Betty Ferguson contributed this recipe and it appealed to me as it had metric measurements and a good measure of whisky! It has all the classic ingredients, among them raisins, currants, peel, almonds, cinnamon, allspice and black pepper. The result looks and smells good. Now I’m waiting for it to mature so I can have my first taste of black bun, and inflict it on my family.

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The finished product looks quite edible and smells good. I’m waiting for it to mature before the big taste test.

A big thank you to Michael Wallace who set me off on this quest. Do you have a black bun tradition in your family? If so, I’d love to hear about it!

 

Sources:

Charles Hayward diary, AB-023, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.

Old New Zealand newspapers on Papers Past.

Celtic cookbook (Dunedin: Gaelic Society of New Zealand, 1998).

Helen Leach, Mary Browne and Raelene Inglis, The twelve cakes of Christmas: an evolutionary history, with recipes (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2011).

F. Marian McNeill, The Scots kitchen: its traditions and lore with old-time recipes (London & Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1929)

F. Marian McNeill, The silver bough: a calendar of Scottish national festivals Hallowe’en to Yule (Glasgow, William Maclellan, 1961).

Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, From petticoat tails to Arbroath smokies: traditional foods of Scotland (London: HarperPress, 2007).

Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon, Unpacking the kists: the Scots in New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013).

William Sitwell, A history of food in 100 recipes (London: Collins, 2012).