Vanya Insull isn’t afraid of putting basic meals on the kitchen table for her family – think chicken lasagne, fried chicken, stir fries and plenty of mince dishes. The Taupō-based food writer and entrepreneur also often pulls meals out of the freezer and reheats them.
Insull runs a growing food empire as the founder of VJ Cooks – a recipe website which she posts on daily, which has an average of 15,000 hits a day and had 4.7 million views last year. With 148,000 followers on Facebook and 63,000 on Instagram, her first cookbook, Everyday Favourites, is out now, boasting family-friendly, everyday recipes including baking and desserts.
Insull thinks we’ve become too sophisticated and snobbish with our recipes and meal plans; so much so that many of us aren’t confident in the kitchen and get intimidated in front of a stove.
After all, most of us can’t serve up the equivalent of a Michelin-star meal or one which might get us a spot on Masterchef.
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“Many people say things to me like ‘I’m not much of a cook’,” says Insull.
“One of the things I love the most is the feedback I get. That’s the best thing about my day, when I hear from someone who has zero confidence in the kitchen who now has confidence and feels good about cooking for their family.”
In Taupō, Insull tests recipes on her husband Mike, a builder, and sons Archie, 8, and Henry, 6. It’s a sweeping shift from her earlier years, when she never liked cooking and was a fussy eater.
That all changed when she studied design and got a job as a designer at the food magazine, Taste, in the early 2000s. When she got home from a food photography shoot, she would often cook herself dry pasta and throw in a jar of sauce for dinner. She set herself a challenge one day – to try to make a salmon pasta dish she was photographing.
“It turned out well,” she recalls. “I was so proud of myself. I had convinced myself I didn’t know how to cook at all.”
Insull got the kitchen bug, taught herself to cook, and in 2016, posted one of her recipe videos on Facebook – a Weet-Bix slice, which has now amassed 3.3 million views.
“Yes, that was a big surprise. I think that slice appeals because it’s nostalgic, easy baking. It’s all about the tags and the comments, and once it got shared, it went off from there.”
Insull was inspired to quit her job and launch her recipe website and social media platform VJ Cooks, which she employs four staff to run – including two of her sisters.
Her food philosophy is to provide recipes that are easy to cook, boasting ingredients most of us have in the fridge or pantry. Some recipes are deliberately big so they can be frozen and reheated later.
Popular dishes featured in her cookbook are Tuscan chicken, sticky lemon chicken and Mediterranean meatballs (which gives the option of homemade or store-bought meatballs). Nothing is too fancy or too spicy – if you want more spice, throw it in, she says – and she likes her recipes to appeal to fussy eaters like she was. Paying members get an e-book sent every month with recipes like ’10 ways to cook mince’.
“People say to me things like: ‘I’m not much of a cook’. I just like to break down the steps so people get the confidence to give something a go,” Insull says.
“I’m also not scared to use sugar or butter or cream. My grandmother always put butter on her toast and she was healthy. People are also scared to eat pasta. If anyone asks about the calories in something, I say: ‘just have one piece of the slice if you’re worried’.
Insull is about to launch a freezer course – she often freezes meals in her deep freeze in the garage, pulling a meal out at another time to warm up and serve again, possibly as a new incarnation.
She argues that Kiwis aren’t good at freezing meals or eating and serving left-overs. Part of it is knowing how to freeze food (containers, zip lock bags) and what is best to cook.
“You can pull some cooked mince out of the freezer and reuse it as tacos. This approach to meals is really popular in America, where people love leftovers.”
Insull is also conscious of food inflation, and aware that many of her members and followers are price-conscious. Her cookbook deliberately has a soft cover, and she encourages people to reach for cheaper cuts of meat and even to include supermarket coleslaw for her hawker roll recipe rather than to buy the raw ingredients.
On her blog, she once showed how to make $180 worth of food stretch across 64 different portions. Now a brand ambassador for Countdown supermarket, she also offers a price breakdown for some recipes which her followers love.
Her site and cookbook won’t work for adventurous cooks, who might find some of her tips and recipes too basic. But some of his advice is warmly reassuring. How many food writers include a tip like this on a chicken recipe: “When preparing the chicken, the egg doesn’t need to be whisked, just crack it over and mix it through – it will all work out.”
Everyday Favorites by Vanya Insull is out now.