Food: Eating In - Easy does it

Most children love cooking, yet now that home economics has been knocked off the curriculum few are given the chance. Michael Bateman finds a wonderful book of recipes that are simple to follow and delicious to eat: perfect entertainment for the school holidays
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The Independent Culture
WILL A generation of children grow up ignorant of real food? This is the question asked by Mary Contini and Pru Irvine, two women who feel passionately about the issue and who have recently published a cookery book for children.

Since cooking, or home economics as it was called, was knocked off the curriculum, this aspect of a child's education has been ignored. And now that dinner ladies have been replaced by catering firms which serve pre- packaged food, children are less likely to eat fresh food or develop their palates than ever before.

"The whole school meals service is a fiasco," says Irvine. "Catering firms are paid out of the education authority budget. They put in tenders and you can bet your bottom dollar that decisions are made on grounds of cost, not quality."

So how will our children learn about food? It is not as if modern children learn about food within the family, she says: "I don't want to be boring or frumpy about this, but we don't have a food culture in this country. It has never existed."

Her co-author, Mary Contini, agrees. She belongs to the Italian family which has run the delicatessen Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh, Scotland's finest food store, for more than 60 years. In an Italian family, says Mary, children's palates develop as they taste what the parents eat: "Just try to stop grandma feeding pasta to the baby." Yet in Britain, children generally don't eat with the family. Children are ghettoised.Whether you're eating out or at home, there's adult food and there's children's food.

"Marks & Spencer have just introduced a range of children's dishes from the chill cabinet. I'm sure it's not junk, but why shouldn't children eat adult food?"

In Scotland in particular, they say, the situation is serious. Junk food is prevalent. The Scottish eat too much fat, and almost no vegetables. Glasgow has the highest rate of heart disease in the world.

Pru has two boys, aged nine and six, and Mary two girls, aged 18 and four. Both feel so strongly about the effect of food policies on the very young that they have urged the Scottish Office to make food education a priority. "They are sympathetic," says Contini. "But, frankly, they don't know what to do."

Some years ago Irvine and Contini started bread and pizza-making classes for primary-school children at the delicatessen, and found that the children jumped at the chance to learn how to cook. Their success prompted them to write the book.

Many books aimed at children are patronising, showing food teased into animal shapes, marked with funny faces, or stuck all over with Smarties. By contrast, Pru and Mary's book is exactly what it claims to be, real cooking for children who want to eat.

It is a serious attempt to set out the basic skills a young person will need in the kitchen. The recipes (tested by children at least seven times over) are good and easy to follow, with appealing soups, egg and potato dishes, pasta and pizza, muffins and chocolate mousse.

It's a serious, but not too serious, book and any school which feels it's wanting on the food front couldn't do better than order one for its school library.

POT AND PASTA SOUP

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 peeled clove of garlic

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

3 potatoes, peeled and chopped into cubes

1 tin of chopped tomatoes, sieved or a carton of passata (425g/15fl oz)

the empty tin filled twice with water

3 handfuls of chunky pasta

grated Parmesan

Heat the oil in a saucepan over a low heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook very slowly, stirring from time to time with the wooden spoon.

Add the tomatoes, potatoes and the water. Turn up the heat until the soup starts to boil, then lower it.

Let the soup cook very slowly with the lid on for about one hour, stirring it now and then to stop it sticking. When the potatoes are soft, add the pasta and a little more water. Stir it and cook for another 10 minutes. Taste it and add some salt if you want. Serve with Parmesan on top.

PIG AND FUNGUS SAUCE

a blob of butter

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

1 small onion, very finely chopped

150g/5oz button mushrooms, washed and thinly sliced

150g/5oz smoked ham, cut into strips or cubes

1 tin of chopped tomatoes (425g/15fl oz)

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh parsley

salt

Melt the butter in the saucepan over a low heat. Add the garlic and cook it until it begins to smell garlicky. Stir it with a wooden spoon while cooking it. Add the onion and stir. Cook it very gently for about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and allow them to cook for another 10 minutes. Add the ham, the tomatoes and the parsley. Let the sauce cook gently for about 30 minutes with the lid half on. Add some salt and check the flavour.

Serve this sauce with chunky pasta.

CORN CRITTERS

Ask an adult to help for with this recipe

Serves 2

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons of self-raising flour

2 tablespoons of milk

1 tin of strained sweetcorn (about 225g/8oz)

salt and pepper

about 6-8 tablespoons of corn or vegetable oil

Break the eggs into a bowl, sieve in the flour and add the milk. Mix together with a fork. Add the sweetcorn and a little salt and pepper. Mix again. Heat the oil in the frying pan. Add a tiny drop of the batter and when it sizzles the oil is hot enough. Put three separate tablespoons of the batter into the frying pan to make three pancakes. Cook them for about three minutes until they start to look brown underneath. Turn them over with a spatula and cook for another couple of minutes. Drain them on kitchen paper and keep in a warm place.

PRAWN MARY ROSE

125g/4oz pack of prawns

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons thick double cream

1 tablespoon tomato ketchup

1 teaspoon tomato puree

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Tabasco (you don't have to use this, but it makes the sauce spicy)

1 teaspoon of lemon juice

1 teaspoon of very, very finely chopped onion

Defrost the prawns (if necessary), then put them in the sieve and rinse them with plenty of cold water. This takes away any stale water they have around them. Allow them to drain.

Put everything except the prawns into a bowl and mix together. Taste it and add a little more ketchup if you want it sweeter, a little more lemon juice if you want it sharper and a little more Tabasco if you want it spicier.

Add the drained prawns and gently mix it all together.

CHOCOLATE MOUSSE

200g/7oz plain dark chocolate or 200g/7oz dark chocolate chips

300ml/10fl oz single cream

2 small free-range eggs

2 tablespoons orange juice

Roughly grate the chocolate on to a plate or chop it into small pieces.

Put the cream in the saucepan and, over a low heat, slowly bring it to the boil. Be careful it doesn't boil over.

Put the grated chocolate into a liquidiser or hand-held blender and its container and pour the hot cream over it. Whisk it for 30 seconds.

Break the eggs into the liquidiser or container, add the orange juice and whisk again.

Pour the mousse into four small glasses, cover them with clingfilm and chill them in the fridge for a couple of hours.

All recipes serve 4 unless stated

Recipes taken from `Easy Peasy' by Mary Contini and Pru Irvine (Ebury Press, pounds 12.99)

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