An Artist’s gotta eat: Rat-a-two-toes


ARTbop’s Rosemary Balu, shares  her eclectic combination of ingredients in a local version of Ratatouille.

When my affluent friend peered into the basket of homemade food gifts I’d brought over for her she exclaimed “the dollar a day gourmet”. I don’t think she was being pleasant. But that’s what I am – a taste, flavour and food value maximiser!   Despite the fact that I’m the worst cook in the family, what I’d made was very good artisan product. And now I smile and accept my title “the dollar a day gourmet”.

And, why am I sitting writing this when I should be outside cutting the hedge? One of the saddest things I heard towards the end of 2018 was on radio more dead than alive. An announcer and a staff member were discussing the effect impending station changes and changed employment circumstances would have on diet and food choices. The young-sounding man commented on cheapness and availability of takeaway/fast food as his potential go to source of sustenance. The announcer put out a call  for ideas for cheap and good eating. My sympathy extends to whomever sent the text advising a diet of “mince and rice”.

I’m not against fast food – for economic reasons and a desire to stay alive, I’ve eaten Macdonald’s all over the world. I’ve nothing against mince and rice – actually I adore that old staple of savoury mince, mashed potato with something green. But the last time I looked in the wasp imitating supermarket, little packets of “best” mince along with lamb shanks and neck chops had become upwardly mobile.

That many in New Zealand are finding it difficult to afford “good” food is evidenced by the demand on our foodbanks, the rise of informal neighbourhood street pantries, community organised food redistribution centres and blogs and books on cheap eats and household budgeting. The announcer’s sidekick is not alone. And, what I’m writing does depend on a couple of things which are also no longer “givens” in New Zealand: that you have some regular income and you have access to a basic kitchen and a source of power (although you could make this on a camping stove).

I continue to plant vegetable seedlings in the expectation that I’ll be eating a quantity of free food. If I was reliant on what I “grow” I would have starved to death about 10 years ago. I had enough of my lettuce and herbs to make up my Christmas Eve dinner salad contribution: you’d think I’d won the Lotto!   And this year, to try to prevent predatory rabbits and Pukeko from having a good time at my expense, I planted in big pots dug into the soil in the paddock. It was with almost hysterical delight I discovered one of the courgettes had a courgette (baby marrow or zucchini) on it.     I took an incredible risk and left it to get a bit bigger – and it did – big enough to form the basis of my ratatouille knock off : Rat-a-two-toes!

I very much cook according to what I’ve got around. This time I had a couple of rashers of meaty bacon, one or two slightly flexible, large commercially grown mushrooms, a tin of sieved tomatoes, herbs in the garden (rosemary, thyme, parsley and something that is either a multiplying onion or a big chive), black pepper in the cupboard and some mouldy garlic.   Not sure why I couldn’t find an onion – I eat onions with virtually everything.

One of my favourite food additions a something or other….

Why have I told you that? I try to buy New Zealand and Australian produce and at first sight the large, pink streaked bulbs of locally grown garlic looked enticing.   Took it home and then discovered in a day or so that it was mouldy. I suppose the good thing is nothing had been sprayed on it to stop it going off. I peeled the mouldy outer cover and washed the cloves (a lot).   I also washed my mushrooms and herbs as if they were contaminated by plague – I know that’s not the accepted practice but I’m going to keep doing it.

Heated a spot of olive oil in a heavy frying pan kind of pan and browned the bacon, garlic and courgette and mushrooms I’d chopped up.   Stripped the leaves off the stems of the herbs as there is nothing so disruptive as finding skin penetrating woody stalks in your supper. Chopped up the obvious ones like the chives and the parsley and dropped those in with the sieved tomatoes and the rinsings of the tomato tin.   Counted between 10 – 16 grinds of the black pepper, gave it all a stir, put the lid on and turned the heat down low.  If you want to bulk up the protein content of this you could add a tin or two of drained chickpeas. Unlike the Women’s Refuge , I adore tinned tomatoes and tinned chickpeas.   I personally don’t add chickpeas to my Two-Toes as I like it to be more sauce-like than meal-like. But, I do use a very similar base with chickpeas to make a meal (with or without meat).

I boiled up a pan of penne (enough for a couple of meals) and when I thought the sauce looked and smelled good enough to eat – I ate about a third of it over the pasta. I don’t add salt to my cooking but I must be getting some of the salt flavour as the pasta is cooked in salted water. You can grate some parmesan over the whole lot if you want to. I love parmesan because it’s so sharp and tangy so you get the flavour of cheese without having to eat much dairy produce. Use the really fine grate section on your grater. I used one of the large white bowls abandoned at my home by one of my children – it’s just the right size for a “bowl dinner” (or lunch for that matter).  

I blame my Mother who insisted that the table was set and we sat down to eat. I like to sit at the end of my dining table with my food on one of the beautiful fabric placemats from a local recycle shop . Beautiful cutlery (recycled) and a glass of Pinot Noir.

If you hate eating the same thing more than once – freeze the left over Rat-a-two-toes for another day and think of something else to have with your left over pasta.   Make sure you start some kind of dating and labeling system. It’s so annoying when you find you’ve defrosted marmalade pulp instead of pumpkin soup. Or as a moment ago I found the “stewed rhubarb” is in fact some left over salmon and tomato concoction and in this heat I’m too scared to eat it – the news of my death would be enjoyed by too many!

Because I just adore Rat-a-two-toes – I had another third with the second half of the pasta for lunch the next day and then (in my dinner bowl) over a large Agria potato that I had “baked” in the microwave.   My beautiful purple lettuce had also recovered from the shock of my Christmas Eve marauding and provided a handful of perfect little leaves which I dropped onto the potato before adding the sauce – don’t do this if you think lettuce has to be eaten cold.     And if you think ratatouille should be eaten cold – do what makes you happy! And if you want to eat it over rice, brown or otherwise, just do it.

What do I think these three meals cost?   I’m not entirely sure but probably a lot less than a burger, fries and a fizzy drink at some internationally branded outlet.   I try to buy Countdown’s really cheap Australian grown wheat pasta – I think it’s less than a dollar a packet.   I also like their Macro organic tomatoes ($1.50 a tin) but last week I used a tin of good old Watties NZ grown ones – they have plain and flavoured ones. You can find imported and budget branded tinned tomatoes, pasta and rice in both major supermarket chains which considering how far they’ve travelled are more than competitively priced.

The bacon rashers were part of a “going mad for Christmas” purchase of mid-eye cut (something like that) which cost about $6.50 for the pack.     If you don’t want to buy a pack of bacon you could buy a slice or two or a piece of thick ham from the deli counter – it’s nicer than “shaved ham”.     I buy about 6-8 medium-sized “button mushrooms” each weekly shop. I love them, they make my meals feel glamorous.   If you have a freezer you could buy the courgettes now they’re cheaper and wash, chop and freeze for later or go mad and make a huge pan of Rat-a-two-toes and freeze 95 containers (how scary is that?). As for the garlic, I’m still going to buy only New Zealand-grown garlic but I’ll be buying it wearing my glasses!

An artist’s gotta eat….so we might as well eat the best we can!   Happy New Year 2019 – you can become a dollar a day gourmet!

Rosemary Balu. Rosemary Balu is the founding and current Managing Editor of ARTbop. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand

I’d like to blame the very changeable weather for this but in reality I’m not a great tomato grower.   Like the appearance of the lone courgette I almost fell over with delight when I spotted this one acid free tomato lurking among the leaves.  This was the smallest of the three tomato plants I bought down at Grower Direct, Te Puna in rural Tauranga.   This year the plants are growing in recycled café coffee bags filled with homemade compost – weeds and soft prunings I put in used potting mix bags and leave out in the paddock under the hedge until voila – there is this free scrumptious brown stuff!   I also bought my determinedly growing lettuce plants at Grower Direct. They have a more usual place – first load in the back door garden and the second lot in terracotta planters.  

First load of lettuce now seeding happily in the garden

One thing I noticed this year was that the birds kept getting in among my transplanted seedlings and the coffee bags (who would believe it) and scratching everything out on the cobbles. I made little fences of hard, prunings from one of the cherry trees – that fixed them!

This is New Zealand spinach – went mad this year – loves a shaded spot

Best takeaways?  Bananas and avocados.  Upcycle the water:   I like to boil my drinking water or drink bought “sparkling water” as I am on tank water.  Fill a jug (you can get those big heavy glass ones really cheaply) add a chopped up or sliced unsprayed/unpolished lemon and a handful of the washed lemon balm leaves.  Looks sensational and tastes even better.  Lemon balm is a herb that “seeds freely” – that is it grows like a weed.  Here it is on the cobblestones.  I cut this back every year now as I love to brush past it and release the fragrance.  

Looking for a wonderful but inexpensive gift for someone special – my go to is the beautifully graphiced and wonderfully tasting Whittaker’s chocolate range.  Exotic combinations of flavours.  They are so good I ate two of the blocks before I got round to wrapping them and giving them!  Sorry people who only got two blocks instead of three!  This year I wrapped them in my original cards printed on brown card and tied with the most beautiful heavy twine.   I also made up a batch of my potpourri – it looks stunning in glass or in a long open container. 


You’ll also enjoy reading Rosemary’s recent article about the art and creativity of Christina Magsig whose work you can find at the Affordable Art & Artisan Fairs at the Black Sheep Whakamarama and online through Christina’s own website (details at the end of the article).

And Rosemary’s visit to Pilot Bay

Going Down to the Sea: Pilot Bay on a Summer’s Day

ARTbop promotes

   (or we think you should check this out!)

    Travelling down SH2 towards Tauranga check out the thriving arts scene in Kati Kati.


The Carlton Gallery at The Arts Junction

In and around Downtown Tauranga make sure to visit the wonderful, vibrant exhibition in the Atrium of the TAG by Emma Prill.   ARTbop’s Lee Switzer has just published some images of this exhibition and the artist.

You’ll also want to check out The Historic Village at 17th Avenue with its increasing boutique shops, galleries and The Incubator Creative Hub

Check out what’s inside the People’s Gallery

Toymakers to the nation: The Men’s Shed

One of my favourite beaches to visit is Waihi Beach north of Kati Kati.  The day I went to visit their weekly Sunday market the weather was not good. Don’t ever let that deter you.  It’s such a cool place you’ll just love your visit.  Check out these images.

This vintage sign bears no resemblance to the ticking and vibrant summer vibe of Waihi Beach!

This is more like it!

And this!

And this!

And this!

And this!

Or this!

And this!

ARTbop favourite!

Weekly Sunday market

Beautiful flowers

Superb graphics



Boutique style

Creative fibre talent

Traditional toys

Fresh artisan produce


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