SodaStream mon amour



Or how I slashed my bottled water bill from $100 a month to $12.99.

SodaStream - Sparkling water with European style

SodaStream – Sparkling water with European style

BY ALEX COLBY. It looks like the love child of Darth Vader and the acid-dripping monster queen from the Alien movies. It’s too tall to fit in the appliance garage or beneath the cupboards above the kitchen bench so it sticks out like the proverbial. Its sci-fi styling clashes with everything in the room. Its CO2 gas carbonation system makes indecorous farting noises whenever I use it. But I still love my “Evolution”-model SodaStream machine because I love sparkling water and I drink it every day.

I blame my SodaStream fixation, like many of my indulgent habits, on a long sojourn in Europe in my youth. There, you find sparkling water everywhere you go. The French have many brands of l’eau pétillante or l’eau gazeuse; the Italians also have molto brands of acqua minerale, especially in the chic spa towns, and even the Germans like it: think seltzer water. It’s a civilised accompaniment to dining and an aid to digestion.

When I returned to New Zealand I quickly picked up on SodaStream, which under its then-ownership featured dinky little washable glass bottles. The company’s fortunes flagged for a while in the 1990s and a global craze for bottled water took over, so I cheerfully bought local and overseas water brands that a cost-conscious friend told me cost more per litre than petrol. At one point – because I can drink up to three litres of sparkling water a day – I was spending around $100 a month.

And then the Great Recession arrived. Bumped down to drinking eau de Waikato tap water, I figured that a sound economic argument could be made for investing $69 in a new SodaStream machine from Farmers. Revisiting the product range after some time I found that the styling of the drinks makers had improved and the reusable high-pressure bottles (made from BPA-free and polycarbonate-free plastic) had grown into a handy one-litre size.

The company also puts more emphasis these days on its flavoured syrups and concentrates – but since I’m a soda water-purist I ignore these – and a lot of emphasis on its sustainability credentials, which are backed by independent research. Some things haven’t changed though: once a month I trot into Farmers to swap an empty SodaStream CO2 gas cylinder for a full one. It currently costs me $12.99.

Not so long ago I stayed at a flash luxury lodge in the South Island whose host and hostess mentioned how much sparkling water they go through because their international clientele demands it. I quietly told them how I had slashed my bottled water bill. I saw the light go on. Never mind the farting noises, I said, just get busy with the fizzy.

Photo: John Corbett



Hooray for Hollywood

In Los Angeles, John Corbett encounters the perfect salad for straitened times.

It was the most unprepossessing bar and grill, so low-key in fact that when I Googled it afterwards it didn’t come up. Located near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and North Bundy Drive in the Brentwood district, it was full of lunching office workers and I barely managed to get a seat.

As I studied the blackboard specials, a waitress went past with a tray for the next table. I turned and eyed its contents as closely as politeness allowed. There was no mistaking it. The lively colours. The neat rows of chopped lettuce, tomato, turkey, hard-boiled eggs, avocado and bacon arranged on a large square platter. There was also a liberal sprinkling of crumbled blue cheese and the signature whiff of French Dressing. I hadn’t eaten one since childhood but I knew immediately what I was having for lunch!

The Cobb Salad - Ready again for its close-up

The Cobb Salad – Ready again for its close-up

The Cobb Salad, let me say right now, is a Hollywood legend, with a back story about its creation that is as resonant as say, Lana Turner’s alleged ‘discovery’ while working in Schwab’s Drugstore. One evening in 1937, restaurant manager Robert Cobb went in search of a snack. Combing his restaurant’s refrigerator for leftovers, he pulled out lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, watercress, celery, chives, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, Roquefort cheese and French dressing. He started chopping, swiping some crisp bacon from a nearby chef.

That night, a culinary legend was born. The friend Cobb happened to share his impromptu salad with was Sid Grauman, the impresario behind Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where celebrities still leave their hand- and footprints in wet concrete to this day.

The Brown Derby

The Brown Derby

And the restaurant Cobb was working in was the Brown Derby, a one-time Wilshire Boulevard landmark that in its heyday was almost as famous as the A-list stars who frequented it. (Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard there in 1939 and Marlene Dietrich once caused a scandal by turning up in trousers). Such was the pop-cultural weight of the Brown Derby that a recreation of its unique LA ‘roadside vernacular’ architectural style lives on today at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Thanks to Grauman’s enthusiasm, ‘Cobb’s Salad’ quickly found its way on to the menu of the Brown Derby and thence to restaurants around the world. I remember eating Cobb Salads as a child in New Zealand in the 1960s, partly, I now realise, because it was an effective way for a family to use up leftovers, and also to ensure we ate a good variety of things. And nowadays, of course, in the middle of the biggest economic setback since the 1930’s, the Cobb Salad is a perfect recessionary choice. Its thrifty aspect is no downside because it scrubs up well and like many classics it is very forgiving: it offers a near-infinity of ingredient substitutions.

After my re-encounter with the Cobb on the street of its birth, I looked around for it on other menus in Los Angeles and when I got back home. It was infrequent in LA and non-existent here, so undeservedly unfashionable has it become. When I did find it, it was in diners and other informal eating places, but I think that smart restaurants could easily make refined versions. The acme of accidental cuisine, the Cobb Salad has much to commend it. It’s easy to make, it appeals to kids, and it’s fun for a group to enjoy. I can’t help thinking that in a world that now readily embraces the retro, the Cobb Salad is like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, ready again for its close-up.

No caption needed ;-)

No caption needed ;-)

Cobb Salad
Serves 4

Typically, a Cobb Salad consists of chopped chicken breast or turkey, bacon, celery, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, avocado and lettuce, drizzled with a crumbled blue cheese or vinaigrette dressing. It can be embellished with chives, watercress or Roquefort cheese and be as large, small, simple or elaborate as you like, so experiment away.

The key thing is that the ingredients should be arranged in rows – preferably diagonally across the serving platter so that the visual appeal of the dish is shown to best effect. A Cobb Salad can be a meal in itself – and in America, that is often a very large meal indeed! Several versions of the ‘original’ Brown Derby salad are in existence, so this recipe is a compilation from a number of sources.

You will need:

1/2 head iceberg lettuce
1/2 head cos lettuce
1 stick of celery
1 small bunch of watercress
2 tomatoes, sliced
6 strips crisp bacon, chopped
2 cooked chicken breasts, diced (I prefer to use thighs: there’s more flavour)
3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
1-2 avocados, peeled and cut into a fan
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese (or Roquefort if available)
2 tablespoons chopped chives
Choice of French, Ranch, Blue Cheese or other salad dressing.


Fry the bacon until crisp and drain on paper towels. When cooled, chop and set aside.

Chop the iceberg, cos, celery and most of the watercress (if using) into bite-sized pieces. Place as a bed on a large, flat serving dish.

Chop the remaining ingredients and lay them in diagonal strips on top of the salad greens from left to right, starting with the tomato, then bacon, blue cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, diced chicken breast, et cetera.

Sprinkle the chives and remaining watercress on top of the salad and arrange the sliced avocado in a fan shape. Drizzle with your dressing of choice and serve.

Special Cobb Salad Dressing

If you want to make an ‘original’ Brown Derby Dressing, here is one I found at

‘1/4 cup water
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon (tsp) sugar
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup full-flavored olive oil
3/4 cup salad oil

A note from the Brown Derby: “The water is optional, depending upon the degree of oiliness desired in the dressing.” Blend all ingredients together, except oils. Add olive and salad oils. Mix well. At the table pour Special Cobb Salad Dressing over salad, toss and serve.’

– wikimedia commons.
– Brown Derby photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

And another kind of boulevard altogether… ;-)


The offal truth

Nigel Lawton on why New Zealanders don’t like organ meats – and why they should get over it.

‘It’s organ, organ, all the time with him!’
– Mrs Organ Morgan in
Under Milk Wood (1954), by Dylan Thomas.

A restaurateur of my acquaintance says that every time he puts offal dishes on his menu, they sell out. That’s very encouraging, because offal is one of the Cinderellas of contemporary cooking. In New Zealand, where roasts, steaks and other prime cuts have traditionally ruled the roost, offal has long been looked down upon as cheap meat. To add insult to injury, we’ve suffered through a couple of generations of unimaginative home cooks whose efforts have given offal dishes a bad rap. And on top of that, there are now tons of picky eaters around (most of whom, in my opinion, simply need firmer parenting), whose princessy behaviour can wreak havoc with the eating choices and enjoyment of an entire family. The last reason is probably why offal dishes do so well when diners in a restaurant can freely choose what they eat.

Offal, nevertheless, is meat with a PR problem. Because it comes from sometimes unglamorous parts of the animal (think kidneys, brain, heart, liver, lungs, tongue, marrow, nose, head, glands, trotters, large intestine, tripes and yes, testicles) it has traditionally been viewed as ‘dirty’ and somehow suspect.

For a long time in New Zealand, offal was widely considered as only suitable for dog food. It’s been given a variety of euphemistic names, including organ meat and the American term variety meat. The Italians call it quinto quarto, the fifth quarter. But even etymology works against it. The word ‘offal’ comes from the C.14th century words ‘Off + Fall’, referring to parts fallen or cut off, and which are linked to the German word Abfall, meaning rubbish. Oh dear. The suspicion remains that offal is something that kicks about on the floor of the abbatoir and is uplifted for sale.

This is certainly not the case in New Zealand, where animal rearing and processing practices are stringent. Nor should you worry that animals here, unlike in many places overseas, are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones and growth enhancers which concentrate themselves in glands and other dodgy-seeming bits. Here they are not so pumped. The use of growth enhancers is illegal and has been for decades and antibiotic use is sparing and hedged about with safeguards. Offal from New Zealand-raised animals is therefore perfectly safe to eat and is utterly delicious – a fact which our thrifty European cousins have long known because offal dishes are one of the glories of French, Italian and other Continental cuisines – and many Asian ones to boot. In Europe, you’ll often find offal on the menus of the most haute restaurants.

Next time you’re in your local butcher shop too, have a look at the labelling on any boxed packs of brains or sweetbreads you might see: chances are it’s in French and is mostly destined for export. So, turn your nose up at offal and you’re not only depriving yourself of delicious and nourishing taste sensations but you’re also missing out on a bargain because offal meats remain determinedly cheap. For the sustainability-obsessed, eating offal also ensures that all of the animal is used and avoids waste.

Which brings me to kidneys – an organ which of course suffers by association from its role of filtering urea, mineral salts, toxins, and other waste products from the blood. The flitering function also means that it comes with membranes, which are unappealing chewy and can be tricky to remove, even with a sharp knife. If you are buying whole kidneys and are not confident about removing the membranes effectively (it is fiddly), ask your butcher to do it: he or she will be happy to do so.

It’s also true that, perhaps because of their filtering function, kidneys have a slightly unusual taste – which makes Dijon mustard the secret weapon for the following dish. Dijon mustard, by the way, is one of the Desert Island things I must always have in my kitchen. Its flavour is divine, it’s very good for you (especially spread on bread as an alternative to butter) and there are now several brands available in supermarkets and speciality stores – a very good thing. Choose and use the brand you like. I like the smooth, non-grainy ones.

The recipe below, which I first enjoyed about 30 years ago, is intended as a pathway to more offal eating. It can be whipped up in about 30 minutes and once you have it under your belt you can start looking up recipes for brains, sweetbreads, liver and (if you are really courageous) tripe.

One thing you must take care with is that this recipe uses flour to make a roux (a mixture of flour and fat – usually of butter or oil or milk, used to thicken a dish). You must ensure that you cook the mixture sufficiently so that the flour taste goes out of it – it tastes awful if you don’t. If in doubt, keep cooking and tasting – the dish can handle it. Try and get hold of lambs’ kidneys if you can, but if not, ox kidneys are just as good.

Kidneys à la Dijonnaise

Serves 4

You will need:
3 tsp (teaspoons) unsalted butter
3 tsp extra-virgin olive oil or vegetable oil
6 tsp plain flour
1.25 cups (300ml) milk
6-9 tsp smooth Dijon mustard
Small handful (30g) of chopped parsley
3 cups steamed rice (Basmati is good)
750g lambs’ (or ox) kidneys, membranes removed and roughly chopped.

Turn on your oven warmer drawer or put your oven on low. On the oven top, place the oil and butter in a large, heavy saucepan, add the chopped kidneys and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn the kidneys frequently to ensure they cook evenly. Remove on to a plate and place in the warmer drawer/low oven.

Do not deglaze the saucepan and leave the element on medium heat. Add the flour to the saucepan, stir well, and then add the milk and stir until the mixture forms a smooth, thick sauce.

Stir in the Dijon mustard, season with salt and pepper, add the chopped parsley and simmer gently for five minutes.

Return the kidneys and their juices to the saucepan and stir them in to the sauce. Cook till warmed through and check that all the flour has cooked out: if it hasn’t, let it cook a bit longer. Keep tasting.

Place the mixture in the middle of a serving dish and surround it with a ring of cooked rice. Serve with a simple green salad, or have the salad afterwards, the way the French do.