Want your children to eat veg?
Then get them growing their own, says Mark Hix
Saturday 06 June 2009
When I was at school one of the subjects we studied was rural science. We had a large patch of garden devoted to the propagation of potatoes, corn and other vegetables. We were taught how to prepare the ground and how to plant and sow – and then we patiently waited for the results.
We also kept chickens and we were taught how to kill, pluck and draw them. Home-grown chickens, as anyone raised on a farm will know, have a far better flavour than some of the additive-packed, cage-reared birds on our supermarket shelves.
A combination of rural and domestic science – instead of the more usual metalwork that boys studied – in the fifth year equipped me with a range of really useful skills, many of which sadly aren't part of today's curriculum.
Like most teenagers, my daughters Ellie and Lydia aren't particularly keen on helping to weed the garden, and the same applies when it comes to peeling and prepping vegetables. But I think it's so important that children learn about growing and cooking their own food from the youngest possible age – witness the amazing success enjoyed by the recent Independent on Sunday campaign "Let Children Grow".
More than 700 schools signed up to the scheme, which aims to reconnect children with the food they eat. Once you get children interested in growing veg, they'll be much more interested in cooking them too; and the health benefits are obvious.
I, like many others, fear that the UK could end up with a generation of children who have never grown anything.
Pea shoot, radish and spring onion salad with herb mayonnaise
All three of these salad ingredients can be easily planted by children or adults and will grow reasonably quickly; and what's more, there are quite a few varieties of radishes and spring onions on the market as well as from seed catalogues these days.
You can also plant a mixture of peas, sugar snaps and mangetout which will continue growing through the winter – some of which are known as snow peas, hence their ability to withstand the cold weather. Even the herbs for this mayonnaise can be easily grown by the children, so they can lay claim to the whole dish.
You could get the kids to help you make a homemade mayonnaise for this recipe, or just buy a good-quality version.
15-20 radishes, washed and trimmed
A couple of handfuls of pea tendrils, washed and dried
8 spring onions, cleaned
A couple of good pinches of sea salt
For the dip
2tbsp chopped green herbs (such as parsley, chives, tarragon or chervil)
3-4tbsp good quality or homemade mayonnaise
Mix the herbs with the mayonnaise and season if necessary.
Cut the radishes in half lengthways if they are large and the spring onions into two or three sections lengthways.
Arrange mixed or in individual piles on plates with the dip in a pot or spooned on to the plate.
Fried courgette flowers
All the squash and pumpkin family produce great flowers that can be harvested continually for a couple of months and then cooked. The flowers are best harvested when the sun is out and when they have fully opened – so you will have to send your kids out into the garden to pick them at just the right time.
I prefer courgette flowers that have been simply fried in Parmesan batter but you can also carefully stuff a little mozzarella or ricotta into the flower before frying; although you need to be careful as sometimes this creates too much moisture and makes the batter go soggy.
It's important to get the batter as thin and as crisp as possible and what works really well, too, is a packet of tempura batter mixed with a little finely-grated Parmesan, although the following recipe is easy enough.
You can serve these fried flowers on their own as a starter or appetiser, or make a mayonnaise-based sauce with, say, pesto mixed in to accompany them, or even a salsa with courgettes, peppers and tomatoes, etc.
8 large courgette flowers
120g self-raising flour
200ml ice cold water
20-30g finely grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying
To make the batter, slowly whisk the water into a bowl of flour until you have a smooth consistency. Add salt and pepper and the Parmesan and give it a final whisk.
Meanwhile, heat some vegetable oil to 160-180C in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan (but no more than half full). Test the oil by dropping a little batter into the oil. If it browns after a minute or so then it's ready.
Dip the flowers into flour first and shake off the excess before dipping into the batter. Cook them 3 or 4 at a time for a couple of minutes until they are crisp and light golden.
Remove the courgette flowers from the oil with a slotted spoon and put on a plate with some kitchen paper on it and lightly season with salt. If you have made a salsa, serve the courgette flowers on top.
Creamed sea spinach on toast with a poached hen's egg
It's important to get children out foraging so that they appreciate that not everything we eat has to be bought from the shops. Food for free is a great motivating device, whether it be for mushrooms, berries or sea vegetables. If you're struggling to find sea spinach, then you could improvise with a selection of spring vegetables, or even some baby spinach leaves, chard, cultivated sea kale, imported samphire, etc – though these tend to be a lot more expensive.
500-600g sea spinach, stalks removed, washed and dried
200ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices of bloomer loaf
4 hens' eggs
Cook the sea spinach or vegetables in boiling salted water for 3-4 minutes until tender, then drain and squeeze out as much water as possible, reserving a little to help blending. Coarsely blend in a food processor then transfer to a saucepan. Add the cream, season and simmer until the mixture is thick, re-season if necessary. Toast the bread on both sides and poach the eggs.
To serve, spoon the creamed sea spinach on the toast; place the egg on top.
Spaghetti with garden greens
My greens, herbs and salads often start bolting – ie coming into flower – if I slacken off on the cutting and feeding. I used to throw them on the compost, but they are great just wilted and tossed into pasta with butter, garlic and olive oil.
4 servings of spaghetti
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
100ml olive oil, plus extra
2-3 handfuls of bolted greens and herbs
2-3tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook the pasta in boiling salted water, according to the manufacturer's cooking instructions, then drain and reserve a little of the cooking water. Gently cook the garlic in the olive oil for a couple of minutes. Chop the greens if they are large and remove any woody stalks and add to the garlic with the butter; season and cook with a lid on for 3-4 minutes or until tender. Add a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid and toss together with the pasta and a couple of tablespoons of Parmesan. Re-season to taste; add more liquid or olive oil so the dish is nice and moist.
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