Kitchen Spy: Mat Pember

Mat Pember, kitchen gardener and author

 "I love growing the food and the idea of going out into the garden and picking whatever it is - and getting that intangible feeling that you've provided."

Given the three Little Veggie Patch Co gardening books he's co-authored with business partner Fabian Capomolla, their burgeoning business installing raised garden beds made from recycled timber apple crates and work designing and promoting edible gardens such as the Pop Up Patch at Melbourne's Federation Square and Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden at an inner-north suburb in Melbourne, it's odd to hear Mat Pember admit he's "not really a gardener". For Pember, 34, it's all about growing food so he can share it with friends and family, which includes his partner Joka and daughters Emiliana, 2, and Marlowe, 1.    

The staples 

My pantry We do a lot of carbs – pizzas and lots of pastas, so there's always lots of dry pasta and flour. For my pizza bases I use flour, sugar, salt, a drizzle of olive oil and a bit of dry yeast dissolved in water for flavour (I don't let it rise, just 15 minutes before cooking). Our one-year-old doesn't like any sort of lumps or strands in her food – she actually gags and spews it up – so we have to buy these Ella's Kitchen baby foods. Otherwise, we eat a lot of salads from the garden. But our food creativity has really taken a slide since having the kids because it really has to be accessible. 

My fridge We like cheese, perhaps a double cream Fromager d'Affinois and we use loads of butter: Lurpak spreadable for bread and Danish-style Girgar butter mixed with olive oil for cooking lamb shanks. There's usually a jar of Nonna's three-two-one recipe pickled something, which means vinegar, water and sugar with some mustard and coriander seeds, lemon rind and cloves for flavour. In the freezer there's plenty of meat, Bulla frozen yoghurt treats for Emiliana and berries from our friend Paul Casey's the Big Berry farm in the Yarra Valley.

Secret vice

Pork belly. I used to be able to eat a-kilo-a-week but these days my body doesn't cope as well. Maybe my mind and my body – I'm not sure which one is deciding anymore.  

Last night's dinner 

Chilli con carne. It's a real comfort food. It's one of those things I always had as a kid, it's like a party dish. I know I can sit down and drink a couple of glasses of wine while I cook it. Our tip: use lamb mince because it has more oil and doesn't dry out as much as pork. 

I'm drinking

I love earthy red wines – French and Italian-style reds – and my dad makes his own homemade "Pemberry Estate" red wine and port. They're always big wines – cabernet, merlot,  shiraz – and mature quickly. After three or four years they're amazing to drink. I love gin and tonics and putting cucumber in them was a revelation I had a few years ago. I also make a lot of tomato juice virgin marys. And I don't drink enough water, that's for sure.  

My toolkit

I bought an Elektra coffee machine for a mate's wedding a few years ago and kept raving about it so my mum bought me one for my birthday. It's pretty loud and wakes up the kids in the morning but I love the Italian slightly kitsch style of it. I love sharp knives, that's super-important, so I have a set of Scanpan blades and our new Cuisinart kettle looks awesome but it's a bit tedious – it's not as quick as the electric and when you have to heat up milk (for the baby) in the morning and at night it's a bit painful – and it whistles really loudly.  

My inspiration

Really fresh, smelly and tasty produce gets me excited about cooking. That's why I love this book The Heirloom Tomato, by Amy Goldman. It's tomato porn.  

Favourite 

The only thing I'm really attached to is my coffee cup. I stole it from an ex-girlfriend's family about 12 years ago. It's a Villeroy & Boch, part of a set and I told them only recently. It's just the perfect size for the coffee that I like. 

Most unforgettable meal

When Joka and I first started dating we had a nine o'clock booking at Cutler and Co and I really gorged myself on snacks at home beforehand. Then I ordered tripe with calamari for entree and pork belly for main course. The dishes were incredible but I was so full.  

Recipe stalwart

Every Sunday night, unless Joka and my mum kick and scream, we have pasta ragout, which gets on the stove at about 10 in the morning. It's slow-cooked pork belly, lamb shanks and forequarter lamb chops in our homemade tomato sauce. 

Discovery

Pureed nasturtiums. I've always grown them purely for the flowers, now I'm in love with the leaf, in raw or pureed form. Go for the younger leaves, though, they're peppery but not overwhelming.