Cookbook Extract: Special Guest: Recipes for the Imperfect Host, by Annabel Crabb and Wendy Sharpe

Sample two delicious recipes from the new cookbook and guide for the imperfect host, by Annabel Crabb and Wendy Sharpe: a Halloumi, Lime & Rocket Spaghetti for mains, and a Salted Caramel “Crack” for dessert.

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If you are someone who prepares for guests by sweeping bills, laundry and newspapers behind sofa cushions, take heart! It’s possible to be an imperfect host, but happily so.

The essential ingredient is not, paradoxically, the food, nor the perfect house to host in, but the sentiment you convey when you open the door. Do your eyes say: ‘I like you and I enjoy your company,’ or does a weepy cloud of visceral horror descend as pine nuts burn gently in the kitchen?

Special Guest is a gentle guide to turning easy basic fare into something of a celebration. For when you want to say to your friends with their spouses and ten small children, ‘Why don’t you stay for lunch?’ without hating yourself afterwards. Learn the lesson of ‘one splendid thing done well’ without regard to the hundred other things, and call the day a success. Pick up some pointers for the modern conundrum that is cooking for people with seemingly incompatible dietary requirements.

Hosting your friends is not about showing off; it is about delighting others. Your dining table might be decorated with a pile of unmatched socks and kids’ homework, but that’s no reason not to invite friends in for a chat, a sit-down and something delicious to eat.

Presented by one of Australia’s most loved TV and media personalities, Annabel Crabb, and Kitchen Cabinet consultant Wendy Sharpe, Special Guest is available now from all good bookstores and, thanks to Murdoch Books, we’re happy to share two delicious recipes from it, just in time for the holidays: a Halloumi, Lime & Rocket Spaghetti for mains, and a Salted Caramel “Crack” for dessert.

Halloumi, Lime & Rocket Spaghetti

Serves 4

I know it’s shockingly predictable for a non-meat-eater to return so often to halloumi, but it really is such a useful cheese. It’s sort of like the vegetarian peacetime equivalent of pemmican: it keeps for ages and is both tasty and easy to use. This recipe was first made for me in Canberra by my friend Zoe, who used to host viewing sessions of The West Wing for a small group of political staffers (and Jeremy and me). The staffers all loved The West Wing, but did tend to roll their eyes a bit about how unrealistic it was. A decade later, when Aaron Sorkin made The Newsroom, I finally understood their frustration.

In any event, this has – ever since – been my go-to weeknight pasta when I’m pushed for time, and a popular last-minute dish for drop-ins. It’s got heat, salt, acid and pepper and a good helping of greens to make you feel a bit less gluggy. Lord, it’s delicious. I feel like a bowl of it right now.

  • 250 g halloumi, cut into 1.5 cm dice
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons small salted capers, rinsed then drained well
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 medium or 2 small red chillies, thinly sliced
  • 1 juicy lime
  • 100 g wild rocket leaves
  • 500 g dried spaghetti

First step: tip the halloumi, olive oil, capers, garlic and the chilli into a bowl and stir about. Using one of those zesters that takes off the zest in long thin strips, add the zest of the lime. (If you don’t have such a contraption, use a potato peeler to take the zest off and then cut it into thin strips, or alternatively you could do whatever you please and ignore my excessively controlling views on the subject.)

Squeeze the lime and reserve the juice. Arrange your rocket in a large serving bowl.

Cook the pasta according to its packet instructions. Now you’re ready for the final assault.

While the pasta is cooking, heat a heavy frying pan over medium heat and tip in the contents of your bowl: the halloumi will become golden, so turn the bits over regularly and keep a sharp eye on it. It’s done when all your halloumi is nicely browned. This should take about 5 minutes, so when it’s done you’ll be ready to drain your pasta. Dump the spaghetti into the pan and swirl it about to mop up every little bit of sauce. Working quickly, dress the rocket with the lime juice, then add the pasta to the bowl and give the whole lot a toss.

Serve straightaway!

Salted Caramel “Crack”

Serves 10

This is a very wrong sort of dessert concept, involving as it does a salty cracker that was promoted during our youth for its easy snappability into ‘bite size, snack size and man size’ portions. However, it turns out the Salada biscuit is gnawingly addictive when blanketed with hard caramel and given a shiny topcoat of dark chocolate. I’m not going to waste any time trying to reason with you as to why it’s good. I’m just going to testify that when a ‘Chat 10 Looks 3’ podcast listener sent in a box of this stuff, I briefly scoffed at it before taking a cautious bite. Next thing I remember is being found semi-comatose under the empty box. It’s not called ‘crack’ for nothing.

You can serve ‘crack’ just as it is, but this version is tarted up with some festive pistachio slivers and dried raspberries. You could use any sort of nuts. Or use half dark, half white chocolate and swirl to mix! You can use other saltine-style crackers for this recipe; I’ve also had good results with Schär gluten-free crackers. For pudding club, I would dole out bowls of bought ice cream with a couple of crack shards stuck in like wafers.

  • 1 x 250 g pack of Salada biscuits
  • 200 g butter
  • 185 g (1 cup) soft brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • generous pinch of salt
  • 200 g dark chocolate, chopped
  • 50 g slivered pistachios
  • 15 g dried raspberries

Rummage through your baking trays to find one that will fit three Salada crackers in one direction and four in the other. You can of course snap them to fit if you can’t find quite the right tray, but this is the sort of surface area you’re after. Line your baking tray with foil and then baking paper, and lay out the Saladas in a single layer.

In a saucepan, melt the butter and sugar together over medium heat, then cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. The caramel should be thick and gloopy, and bubbling away sullenly. Stir in the vanilla and salt. Take the caramel off the heat and quickly pour it all over the Saladas. Smooth with an offset palette knife or spatula, if you have one; if you don’t have one, get one immediately – for real, it will change your life. (Also, this would be an awesome time to remember that you forgot to preheat the oven. All is not lost: jack
it up quickly – 180°C/160°C fan, okay?)

Now, into the oven with the lot for 15 minutes, or until the caramel has darkened to a deep gold. Keep an eye on it, as the caramel can quickly turn. When it’s a good dark colour, remove from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes, then sprinkle the chocolate over the toffee. As the chocolate melts, use your spatula to spread it out evenly – this is extremely satisfying. While the chocolate is still soft, sprinkle over the pistachios and raspberries.

Allow your salted caramel ‘crack’ to cool (not in the fridge, please), then snap into pieces and store in an airtight container.

  • Read our review of this cookbook

Special Guest: Recipes for the Imperfect Host, by Annabel Crabb & Wendy Sharpe, Murdoch Books, RRP: $39.99, November 2018, available from all good book retailers or online at murdochbooks.com.au.

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