When I was a teenager living in Sydney with just an inkling of a dream to become a cook, Stephanie Alexander, who would go on to become perhaps Australia's most celebrated chef, was still running her restaurant, Stephanie's, in Melbourne. No other restaurant changed the face of Australian cooking more than this place – an unprepossessing little establishment in a terraced house; an ex-librarian with a passion for beautiful food at its helm.
Stephanie, whose bestselling book The Cook's Companion is a staple in most Australian kitchens, has long since become a household name both in and outside of Australia, and earlier this year I was lucky enough to meet her in Melbourne. Like anyone meeting someone they've long admired, I was excited but anxious. I need not have worried; she was wonderful.
I was there to talk to her about her School Kitchen Garden Project, which she has introduced into local state primary schools. "The earlier children learn about food, the more likely they are to make positive food choices throughout their lives," she says.
Stephanie believes that good eating starts with a basic understanding of where food comes from and what it looks like in its natural form, and I share her beliefs and admire her efforts enormously.
I spent the afternoon at one of her school gardens, preparing a meal with the children. It was a joyful place, full of kids with contented smiles, proudly showing off their carefully tended vegetables. In the kitchen, they use their ingredients with pride: the food creates a cultural melting pot as, cooking dishes from their different ethnic backgrounds, they get to understand each other better.
What Stephanie has achieved is really remarkable; I would love to see projects like hers going on in Britain. Here, adapted from her child-friendly Kitchen Garden Cooking for Kids (Lantern), are the recipes we helped the children cook, and they're ones your kids will love to cook with you.
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627
Barbecued mixed vegetables
2 red or yellow peppers
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium aubergine
1 red onion
3 medium courgettes
6 flat chestnut mushrooms
3 large tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
3 x 3cm stalks of rosemary
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A handful of goat's cheese or feta to serve
Heat the barbecue (or your grill) to hot. Brush the peppers all over with some of the oil and grill until charred on all sides. Place the blackened peppers in a brown paper bag (or plastic bag) and leave to cool. When cool, rub off the blackened skin and remove the seeds, then tear or cut the flesh into big pieces. Brush the pieces with oil and transfer to a baking tray.
Cut the aubergine into thickish slices. Sprinkle lightly with salt and place on a plate. Cover with a tea towel and put something heavy on top of the tea towel (such as cans of tomatoes). After 30 minutes, rinse the aubergine quickly and pat very dry using a second tea towel. Brush both sides with oil and add to the baking tray.
Bring a saucepan of lightly salted water to the boil. Peel the onion and cut into six wedges. Drop the wedges into the saucepan and boil for five minutes. Drain and then dry the onion with the tea towel used to dry the aubergine. Brush the onion with oil and add to the baking tray.
Cut the courgettes into thick slices. Brush both sides with oil and add to the tray. Wipe the mushrooms on both sides using kitchen paper, then brush with oil and add to the tray. Halve the tomatoes, and again brush both sides with oil and add to the tray.
Now peel and finely chop the garlic. Place in a small bowl with the remainder of the oil. Strip the needles from the rosemary and chop finely. Add to the oil.
Now it's time to barbecue the vegetables. The aubergine and onion will take longest and the roasted peppers just need to be reheated. When the vegetables are ready, transfer them to a serving plate.
Add the lemon juice and balsamic vinegar to the olive oil, garlic and rosemary mixture and stir well. Brush all the grilled vegetables with this dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the vegetables with cubed or crumbled goat's cheese. Serve. '
Pumpkin gnocchi with sage-butter sauce
250g/8oz potatoes (use Nicola or Desiree)
300g/10oz pumpkin (use a dry-fleshed variety, such as butternut)
160g/51/2oz plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra for dusting
2tbsp grated Parmesan
20 large sage leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 120C/250F/Gas1/2 and place a serving dish big enough to hold the vegetables in the oven to keep warm. Peel the potatoes, cut into chunks, then place in a saucepan with a little salt and enough cold water to cover generously. Bring to the boil and cook for 15 minutes.
Peel and seed the pumpkin. Weigh to make sure you have 250g/8oz and cut into bite-sized chunks. Place a wok over a high heat and pour in enough hot water to come a third of the way up the sides. Rest a bamboo steamer on top (or do this in a smaller pan and with a covered, non meltable colander) and spread the pumpkin cubes out in it; cover and steam for 10 minutes. Set the pumpkin aside.Check the potatoes are tender with a skewer then drain, return to the saucepan, shake over the heat to dry out and tip into a bowl. In a separate, small bowl, place the flour. Set this aside until needed.
Put the oven on low and warm a serving dish in it. Flour the workbench, and have the measured flour close by. Squash the pumpkin and potato through the largest hole of a potato ricer, through the coarsest disc of a food mill or mash thoroughly, to form a loose mound on the bench. Sprinkle with a good pinch of salt. Sieve most of the flour over the vegetable mound and, quickly but lightly, combine. Knead briefly until the dough is smooth, using more flour if necessary.
Cut the dough into four pieces and, with your fingers, roll each into a sausage 2cm-3 cm wide. Cut each "sausage" into pieces 2cm long and place on a floured baking tray.
Fill a high-sided frying pan with water, add a teaspoon of salt and bring to the boil. Drop in as many gnocchi as will fit easily in a layer. Adjust the heat to a simmer. When the gnocchi rise to the surface (three minutes), lift out with a slotted spoon and slip into the warmed serving dish. Return to the oven after adding each batch of gnocchi. Scatter over the Parmesan.
Spread the sage leaves in a non-stick frying pan and add the butter. Fry until the leaves are crisp and the butter has become a medium-brown colour. Spoon the sage leaves and butter over the gnocchi in the serving dish and add some ground pepper. Serve.
Salad of tomatoes and beans with leafy greens
1 bunch of Swiss chard
120g/4oz fine green beans
50ml/2fl oz olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 perfectly ripe tomatoes
Wash and chop the chard and top and tail the green beans. Boil a large bowl of well-salted water. When the water reaches the boil, plunge in the chard and cook for two minutes. Remove using a slotted spoon and drain in a colander. Season with salt and black pepper and dress with half of the olive oil.
Plunge the beans into the water used to cook the chard and cook until tender for three minutes. Drain and dress the warm beans with the rest of the olive oil, salt and black pepper.
Slice the tomatoes into rounds and arrange the vegetables nicely in a bowl. We used fresh coriander and courgette flowers to dress the salad, but you could use thyme flowers instead or any other flowering herbs.
The Forager by Wendy Fogarty
Petersham's food sourcer on the best schemes to get your kids involved in...
You can find out more about Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation at www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au. Similar projects in the UK include The Kids Garden (www.thekidsgarden.co.uk).
Harrods Horticulture developed its Budding Gardeners scheme to support school garden initiatives. Its How To Guide (www.buddinggardeners.co.uk/ How2.aspx) is an easily accessible tool.
Rocket Garden's Dig for Their Future (www.rocketgardens.co.uk) aims to help 1m children in the UK plant, grow and eat some of their own organic vegetables by creating their very own organic kitchen garden within their school grounds.
The RHS's Open Future: Grow it! Cook it! aims to help young children learn how to grow and cook their own food (www. rhs.org.uk/news/flourisheatcook.asp).
Another great cookbook for kids is Alice Waters' Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child's Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes (William Morrow Cookbooks) – and for youth-worker professionals, try Digging Deeper: Integrating Youth Gardens Into Schools & Communities by Joseph Kiefer, Martin Kemple, Melanie Manaugh and Robin Wimbiscus (Food Works).