Monthly Archives: September 2012

Retro Food For Modern Times: The Busy Woman’s Fish and Spinach Challenge

Most of the time, I can make a snap judgement as to how awful something will be just by reading the recipe.  Take, for instance, the Oyster Soup mentioned in the previous post.  I don’t actually have to taste it to know it will be repulsive.  I can mock a lot of things without having to hand over cash for the privilege.  Sometimes though, the line between good and evil is not so easily drawn.  So it was with the Busy Woman’s Cookbook recipe for Fish Fingers in Sauce Verte.

I have a soft spot for fish fingers.  They were a staple of my childhood and even now, particularly if I come home a bit boozy, fish fingers are a guilty pleasure of mine.  So, I wasn’t entirely averse to giving this recipe a try.

The result:

I had a dilemma with  how exactly to eat this though.  The recipe is not particularly helpful.  Serve sauce with fish fingers it says.  How?  I’d made two fish fingers so I tried it two ways.

Of the two, the dip was preferable as the slather made the crispy crumb coating on the fish fingers go soggy.  In all honesty though, selecting one of these as being better than the other  was a little bit like choosing between being punched or kicked in the face.  Given the choice, you may prefer one over the other but neither would always be a better option.

As mentioned, I was unsure about how the Fish Finger dish might turn out.  And the idea of the  challenge was born – put a  borderline  recipe up against one with similar ingredients that sounds ok.  Compare the two.

A search of my cookbooks lead me to a different fish with spinach sauce recipe  – Fish with Spinach Hollandaise –  from another AWW cookbook – The Best Seafood Recipes.

Incidentally, the Fish Finger with Sauce Verte recipe  did not make it into The Best Seafood Recipes.  Quelle surprise.  Also, I used salmon in my version of the Fish with Spinach Hollandaise sauce recipe,  because I had some in my freezer.

The result:

 I compared the two recipes  on 5 parameters: Taste, Ease of Cooking, Overall Look, Cost and Nutrition.


The retro food did not compare well.  The fault was in the Sauce Verte.  The next sentence is something I have never actually uttered before. Here goes.

It would have been better without the wine.

Wow.  I’m still here.  I thought for sure a bolt from the blue would have struck me down for so flagrantly defying my prevailing ethos.  The combination of wine and lemon made the sauce too sour,  a little bit bitter and combined with the spinach made my  teeth go a little furry.  It was not pleasant.  The wine would have been much better just being drunk, preferably in copious amounts prior to eating the Fish Fingers in Sauce Verte.

The other surprise was that the sugar in the Fish with Spinach Hollandaise really worked!  It somehow brightened the sauce up and I think also worked well with the toasted macadamias.  The nuts were great and added some crunchy texture into the modern dish.

Fish with Spinach Hollandaise won this round easily!

Ease of Cooking

One of the problems with cooking fish is that it can be hard to get it just right – ie not overcooked.  For that reason alone, the Fish Finger dish won this challenge.

They were both very quick, with the sauce being able to made whilst the fish was cooking.  One note though – the Fish Finger with Sauce Verte recipe states to cook the fish fingers for 20 minutes.  I cooked mine for under ten  and they were fine.


Let’s start with the sauce.  Only one of these can really be called a sauce Verte.  The other is more of a Sauce Not So Verte.

Aesthetically, the Fish with Spinach Hollandaise was  far more pleasing to my eye.  I loved the combination of the bright green sauce and the pink salmon.  I thought this was a really pretty looking dish and it won this round hands down.


Fish Fingers and frozen spinach are cheap.  Salmon and macadamias are not.  Lets move on.

Nutritional Value

I’m not a nutritionist but I’m probably not wrong in suggesting that fresh salmon and spinach are better for you than frozen spinach and fish fingers.  I’d also hazard a guess that macadamias are more healthy than whatever the hell they crumb fish fingers with.   Even with the butter and sugar I think the modern version wins out.

The Busy Woman’s Fish Finger recipe did not fare as badly as I thought it would.  Personally  if I had to rank the parameters, I would probably place taste and nutritional value towards the top of the list but I also recognise that sometimes cheap and cheerful is exactly what you need.  Even under these circumstances I would not make the Sauce Verte again.  It was not good.   The remainder of the box of fish fingers is in my freezer and when the time is right will be eaten with this busy woman’s preferred combination of mayonnaise and tabasco!

The Busy Woman’s Cookbook – Australian Woman’s Weekly (1972)

Strange things happened in the ‘70’s.  And for my next revelation…water is wet.  Yes, I know.  My acuity today is on fire.  I have a horrible headache.  It came on whilst reading this book.  Possibly due to the number of times I beat myself about the head with it exclaiming “WTF?  For the love of God, why?”

However, I digress.  One of the things that happened in the 1970’s was a glut of cookbooks aimed at the  growing number of women entering the full-time workforce.  They all touted their ability to save women time in the kitchen through the use of processed foods.  The result, in many cases, was a book which sacrificed taste and nutrition for what was often a false expediency.  The current wave of people wanting to do everything from scratch – bake their own bread, make their own preserves and pickles, cure their own olives etc,  may well be a backlash from the children of these busy women of the ’70’s!

Before I continue, I would just like to take a moment to say how much I love the Australian Women’s Weekly.  There is rarely a bad recipe in the modern-day magazine.   Their test kitchen is amazing and, just in case you’re reading AWW, the kind of place I would really like to work one day.  Disclaimer and hints for future employment over, sadly, this book mostly provides examples of the worst faults of this type of cooking.  Before we launch into the horror though, lets start with a positive.

This book has an awesome cover.

Just look at it.  The busy woman has a fabulous dress and great hair and makeup.  She has some amazing ceramic casserole dishes in a glorious 1970’s pattern on the dresser in the background.  Don’t look for too long though, or you may start to ask yourself some disturbing questions.  Like what EXACTLY is the busy woman doing?  Because it looks like she has made a tower of fruit and is now topping that tower with some flowers.

The message intended by the AWW in selecting this cover may have been something like :

“No longer a slave to the stove, the modern-day busy woman can spend time on creating a  delightful ambience for her guests”

The messages I took away after reading the book were:

“If you have time to faff about making flower towers you have time to cook something decent”


“I would prefer to eat those flowers than some of the meals contained in here”


“Good thing that candle’s not lit.  Material in the 1970’s was not known for its resistance to fire”


The Busy Woman’s Cookbook repeatedly commits three crimes against food.

Crime Number One: Gilding A turd

I tried for a long time to think of a more delicate phrase for this.  I failed.  For those of you not familiar with this delightful expression, urban dictionary defines it as

“Wasting your time trying to  turn something completely worthless into something that looks (or tastes) good”

This is exemplified by the recipe for :

Culprit:  Gourmet Chicken Soup, page 4

To make gourmet chicken soup, you add tarragon vinegar, cream and a stock cube to a can of cream of chicken soup. So, not only is this recipe guilty of the crime of gilding, it is also guilty of the misdemeanor of redundancy.  Using soup to make soup is…stupid.  It’s even more stupid if you are time strapped.  You already have soup.  Why bother?  Ah, I hear you cry but we want this to be gourmet chicken soup.  Let me give you a clue.  Adding vinegar, cream and a stock cube will not make your canned cream of chicken soup gourmet.  It will make your canned cream of chicken soup taste like a more creamy (again with the redundancy), more vinegary and more salty canned cream of chicken soup.

There is not a single thing you can do to make canned soup taste like home-made.  So, if you must have canned soup,  ditch the accoutrements and revel in the tackiness of it.  Whilst your soup is heating, practice your best death stare in the nearest reflective surface.  If your guests are rude enough to comment on the cannedness of your soup, fix them with this death stare and say very coldly.  “Yes, it is canned soup.  You can eat it or wear it.”  Alternatively, you could just not serve canned chicken soup to guests.

I’m not a complete food snob.  There is a time and a place for canned soup.   It is when you are sick and are too ill to make something decent. Canned soup should be only eaten when you are wearing pyjamas and have a runny nose / sore throat/ cough / headache / hangover etc.

See also: Creamy Tomato Soup (made with tomato soup), p5, Orange Sorbet (made with orange squash), p40

Crime Number Two:  Hiding Your Love Away

Otherwise known as the anti-gilding a turd.  This is when you have some great ingredients and do your best to fuck them up.

Culprit: Oyster Soup, also page 4

Ok, so  here’s a little test for you.  You have a dozen oysters.  You have some bacon.  You are a busy woman and your guests are sitting in the dining room waiting for their first course.  What are your options?

1 The  Romantic: Put the bacon in the fridge and have it for breakfast tomorrow.  Serve the oysters as naked as God intended, maybe with a squeeze of lemon to tantalise the taste buds.

2 Spicy Salty Goodness: Whip up a quick Kilpatrick – chop the bacon, add a drop or two of Worcestershire sauce to the oysters (personally, I also like a drop of Tabasco) add the bacon, grill.

3.  The WTF.  Alternatively titled the  AWW Option.  Incidentally, in a book for the supposedly busy woman, the this  option takes longer to cook than the either of the ones I’ve suggested. And is disgusting to boot.

Oysters and bacon are good.  Don’t add them to instant mashed potato.  Don’t add anything to instant mashed potato.  It’s an abomination sprung from the deepest recesses of hell. And, if you weren’t already feeling ill, try imagining how this would look in a bowl – beige, lumpy and gluggy….ewwwwww.

See also: Cheese Wine Dip p6 – made by mixing wine with a jar of cheese spread.  Wine is a delightful substance and has given me many hours of happiness.  It should never be subjected to such horrendous treatment.

Crime Number Three:  Sometimes A Rose isn’t a Rose

This is the crime of taking a perfectly decent concept and ruining it.

Culprit: Asparagus Mornay, page 7.

I’m not sure why I find the idea of  heating the canned asparagus in its own liquid the most repulsive part of this dish.  It’s not as if I wasn’t spoiled for choice.

See also: Easy Chocolate Mousse , p36; Pears Belle Helene, p41


Despite its many faults,  this book  is not  a complete waste of time.   The salad section is perfectly fine, there are also some good standard beef and chicken dishes, including one of my favourite childhood meals – Apricot Chicken made with a packet of french onion soup and a can of apricot nectar.  Delicious.  This was the first meal I ever made for my family.  I must have been about seven and found the recipe in one of my mum’s magazines – quite possibly a Women’s Weekly – and then badgered her to buy the ingredients so I could cook it.   After this original outing it became a family favourite.  We made a posher version than the one in this book where  we sprinkled flaked almonds over the top.  Now, that’s gourmet living!  The only reason I am not making it as part of this experiment is that if it turned out to be  horrible, I would feel like a my childhood had been stolen from me.   And a fairy would die.

The food styling in “The Busy Woman’s Cookbook is also delightfully odd.  How do you make your spaghetti and meatballs look authentically Italian?  Serve it with a backdrop of a Renaissance painting!

So, how to present your Kidneys Bordelaise?

Bordelaise means from Bordeaux (I had to Google that)so  maybe some a painting of some wine?  Grapes?  Rolling hills of French vineyards?  No?  What about a  random backdrop of a river scene?  I”m not saying it’s not Bordeaux.   Just not obviously so.

We’ll end with my favourite photo from the book, a photo that, unlike the Kidneys Bordelaise above, is for a perfectly edible dish too.   Over the next few weeks I”ll be trying out  a few more of these.   But for now, enjoy the psychedelic 1970’s delight of these funky mushroom glasses as the backdrop for a spinach and mushroom salad.