It’s only a few more weeks before my daughter Victoire starts Leaving Cert exams, but what feels much more momentous is that she is my last child to leave the nest and I’m wondering, have I taught her enough about cooking? Is she equipped to master her own kitchen and feed herself properly when she goes off to university in September?
Years of stop-start parenting through joint custody (no, it’s not always easy, no matter how hard you try) left me with an unfinished feeling when my three boys left. I know they have managed perfectly well, food-wise, with two now working in the restaurant world and a third still regularly calling up from Madrid to check if something he’s left too long in his fridge might poison him. My answer, inevitably “Is it green? Is it grey? Is it blue? Just smell it!”
Somehow, given my work, which is much more about encouragement than teaching, it always felt like overkill to gather them all up and give them an actual lesson. I reckoned they were so immersed in food and cooking at home that they would naturally pick up enough knowledge, skills and above all, good palates and sensitivity to flavour. Besides, it has to be fun, not more school, or worse, a chore. A friend’s son, Oliver, 13, whose father cooks for him every evening they’re together, does not lift a finger in the kitchen, but merely watches, Masterchef-style, and has developed a terrifying critical sense which would put Jay Rayner to shame. He’ll be fine.
And with my books, you would think my boys would be sorted. After all, it was all written down in there, all the dishes we’d eaten together and many others they’d been obliged to finish when a photo shoot was done. But when it came to packing, none made the cut, they were all too full of embarrassing childhood pictures.
Recently, Tim, son two and now 23, cooked me dinner in my new French house. Sweet, newly picked, raw baby turnips were shaved wafer-thin with fancy olive oil and lemon, he baked whole leeks in foil in carefully constructed fire embers, and then made a sort of chunky, silky celeriac risotto with butter, honey and thyme. I can’t take any credit for this level of skill, it’s down to where he’s working at the moment in Paris, but I would certainly claim to have started something. And was I proud? Reader, my heart was bursting.
As for Victoire, of all the children, she has had to fend for herself most, with her three brothers gone and her parents often away for work. Not only has she had to learn to cook for one, she’s managed the kitchen and the pantry too. Having spent the last year working part time at Restaurant Chestnut in Ballydehob, she has already soaked up a culinary sensitivity far beyond her brothers’ at their age. But still, I do believe there is a simple list of dishes each youngster should master before going out into the world. Core dishes, containing basic techniques which can be tweaked and built on. How to roast a chicken, fry a steak, lightly steam vegetables, make a pasta sauce with the cooking water as thickener, homemade mayonnaise, shortcrust pastry, a proper ragù, fluffy mashed potatoes, rich chocolate cake … those sorts of things.
With this in mind, then, there are around 20 recipes I’ll be making over our last few weeks together, standing beside Victoire in our little Schull kitchen. Her notebook and pen will be out, and I’ll be trying, and probably failing, to keep my tears in.
In my children’s Christmas stockings this year were packets of Green Saffron spice mixes. These are your secret weapon in getting your kids to cook more – and cook more vegetables. The important learning in this recipe is how to layer the flavour gradually, and add the vegetables in a way that benefits textures.
10 minutes preparation
40 minutes cooking
2 tbsps olive oil • 1 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped • 2 onions, peeled, finely chopped • 1 packet good quality spice mix • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped into chunks • 2 potatoes, chopped into chunks (or 1/4 cauliflower cut into florets, or half a butternut squash) • 1 can chopped tomatoes • 3 courgettes, scrubbed and chopped into chunks • 1 can chickpeas, drained • 1 can coconut milk • Salt and pepper • Scallions and coriander for garnish.
1. Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Soften the onion and garlic and add the spices. Cook for a minute or so before adding the carrots and potatoes or cauliflower. Swoosh around for a minute or two to let the flavours coat the veg and everything get slightly brown in parts, without burning. Pour in the tomatoes, stir and top up with water. Bring to a low simmer and cook for 20 minutes or so, stirring from time to time.
2. Then add the courgettes, the drained chickpeas, the coconut milk if using and cook for a further 15 minutes. Check the seasoning, garnish with scallions and herbs and serve with fragrant rice, dusted with cumin and some nutmeg.
Strawberries poached in wine
An instant recipe and lesson in how heat can intensify, transform and release flavour. Also a wonderful way to use up unfinished bottles of wine – as if!
5 minutes cooking
1 hour resting/cooling
500g strawberries, hulled, sliced • 1 vanilla pod, sliced lengthwise – or other spices, mixed, a pinch of nutmeg, cinnamon • 500ml red wine • About 150g of sugar – more or less to taste
1. Put the strawberries in a heatproof bowl. Bring the wine to the boil with the spices and sugar. Let it simmer for four or five minutes until slightly reduced.
2. Pour over the strawberries, stir and leave to cool and macerate for about an hour. At this stage they can be chilled in the fridge or served immediately.
A slightly more complicated variation of an all-in- one sponge, which your offspring should be able to manage. The trick is the ingredients should be at room temperature and most vitally, the butter be soft, but
not too soft. Making this cake will show them how to
10 minutes preparation
25 – 30 minutes cooking
5 egg whites at room temperature • 125g melted salted butter • 125g ground hazelnuts (or almonds) • 175g caster sugar • 90g plain flour • icing sugar for dusting
1. Heat the oven to 200oC. Grease, flour (and/or line) a 22cm sandwich tin.
2. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. With a spatula, fold in the hazelnuts or almonds and then the sugar, then the flour, lifting the mixture to retain as much air as possible.
3. Finally, very gently, stir in the melted butter and pour the batter into the tin.
4. Bake for 15 minutes at 200oC, then lower to 150°C and bake for a further 10 to 15 minutes until the cake feels bouncy and a skewer comes out clean from the centre. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before turning out and cooling completely.
6. To serve, dust with icing sugar or accompanying with the poached strawberries or any fresh fruit.
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