This article was published in The Newcastle Herald ‘Weekender’ print edition on September 5, 2020. Image by Ashleigh Hays.
Ashleigh Hays’s love of food has seen her live and work across Australia and around the world, from Sri Lanka and Indonesia to across Europe. But it was in Newcastle, over a decade ago, that the talented cook and caterer first honed her culinary skills.
“I was studying at uni for a few years trying different things and not really loving any of it. Then I deferred to go to Central and South America for a year to travel.”
It was while she away, between backpacking and housesitting, that she began to cook more frequently and discovered her passion for it.
“You can just learn so much about a culture by their food. I started getting really excited about discovering new ingredients and new cooking methods.”
Hays’s journey into cooking professionally from that point was very much an organic one. Arriving home after her trip, she worked in the kitchen at the original One Penny Black.
Opportunities continued to appear – friends asked her to cater their wedding; others encouraged her to set up a blog to share her recipes; new catering clients approached her via Instagram.
“It just kept on flowing from there.”
Hays continued to travel and work as a cook.
“I worked in Sri Lanka and Indonesia for a year-and-a-half. It was really good for learning more about different cooking methods and was the total opposite of cooking in kitchens in Australia.”
All the experience she garnered through her travels is evident in the beautiful, flavoursome food she creates through her catering business For My Senses.
Anyone who has tasted Hays’s food will attest to her appetising dishes and creative culinary approach. (Indeed, this writer was a regular at her takeover nights at Scotties.)
“I like to make things that aren’t too difficult or fancy but have a lot of flavour and colour and are generally pretty healthy, with lots of veggies,” she explains.
“I love texture and contrast. Big, bold and fun stuff that people can share. A lot of the time it ends up being Middle Eastern or Eastern European food.”
She encourages people to use local ingredients and “what you have at home before you go and buy more stuff” to avoid or lower food waste.
With COVID putting travel on hold, Hays is staying put in Newcastle for now. She is busy catering local events, as well as others up in Byron (where she previously lived), alongside doing some food photography, styling and recipe development.
“A lot of the time, all the things that have happened along the way have just come up and they’re a beautiful surprise and I just go with it.”
Perhaps the biggest and happiest surprise for Hays and her partner, Ferry, a chef, was learning they were expecting a baby. Their daughter, Ari, was born in April.
Hays says she has already begun researching how best to introduce food to Ari.
“I am excited to include her in our mealtimes so she gets used to eating the same food as us, as much as we can.”
She’s hoping to create a series of recipes around this, whereby at some stage in the cooking process, food can be taken out to feed children.
With a cook and a chef for parents, Ari is bound to grow up knowing that food is exciting, creative and special.
Hays developed this recipe during the first COVID lockdown when her baby was two weeks overdue.
“I was keeping busy cooking at home but trying to avoid the shops.”
“Everything in this recipe – apart from the pasta – is something lots of people would already have in their cupboard and fridge.”
She describes the dish as “comforting while not too heavy or unhealthy”, and a “good low waste recipe too, using the whole pumpkin and some old bread”.
“You could also change some things around in it depending on what you have at home, like replacing the pumpkin with sweet potato or the basil with parsley or dill.”
Hays suggests using cannelloni if you can’t find large shell pasta or even making your own pasta, which she and her partner Ferry do weekly.
“I really hope to inspire people to be adventurous with their home cooking, use what they have, and experiment. Maybe it won’t always work but you’ll learn for next time.”
Visit @Formysenses on Instagram for a step-by-step guide on how to make this in Ashleigh’s Stories.
1.5kg organic Kent pumpkin, washed and cut into wedges, leaving the skin on and seeds in
2 tbs olive oil
2 tbs honey
375g smooth ricotta
150g vintage cheddar, grated
Zest 1 lemon
½ tsp fresh ground nutmeg
1 cup fresh basil, chopped, plus extra leaves to serve
500g conchiglioni or other jumbo shell pasta
Fresh rocket and pumpkin seed salad, to serve
2 tins diced tomatoes
1 bottle tomato passata
¼ cup olive oil (I used the oil from a jar of sundried tomatoes)
2 tbs red wine vinegar
2 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs dried mixed Italian herbs
½ tsp chilli flakes (optional)
½ loaf old bread, processed to crumbs
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Zest 1 lemon
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Preheat oven to 200°C. Place the pumpkin wedges on a large roasting tray, drizzle with the olive oil and honey and season with salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Roast for 40-50 minutes or until very soft. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Scoop out the seeds and set them aside (see the end of the recipe for how to prepare crunchy pumpkin seeds). Chop the pumpkin and its skin and place in a large mixing bowl with the ricotta, cheddar, lemon zest, nutmeg, basil and some salt and pepper and mix well. Reduce oven to 180°C.
In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, combine the tinned tomatoes, tomato passata, olive oil, red wine vinegar, brown sugar, herbs, chilli flakes (if using) and some salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 40-50 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.
Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook, for 10-12 minutes or until just cooked. Strain and place in a bowl of cold water, if you’re not using straight away.
When ready to assemble, strain the pasta. Spread the tomato sauce evenly over the base of a large deep baking dish. Stuff pasta shells with stuffing, placing them in the sauce as you go. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Take foil off, drizzle with olive oil and bake for another 15 minutes or until starting to crisp slightly on the edges.
Serve with pangrattato, reserved basil leaves and fresh rocket and pumpkin seed salad, if desired.
To make the pangrattato, toss the breadcrumbs with the olive oil, garlic, lemon zest and a large pinch of salt. Spread onto a baking tray and bake for 5-10 minutes, stirring halfway, until golden and very crunchy. Remove and allow to cool. Process the parsley until finely chopped. Add the bread crumb mixture and pulse until just combined.
To make crunchy pumpkin seeds, remove the seeds from the remaining pumpkin flesh and dry on paper towel. Toss with a little olive oil and salt and roast in a low oven (120°C), for about 45 minutes, or until golden and crunchy. Allow to cool.