Family feasts: Cooking? It's child's play

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The Government is planning to make cookery lessons compulsory for teenagers by 2011, reports Jerome Taylor. Can't wait until then? Mark Hix has eleven ways to get your kids started in the kitchen

Since Jamie Oliver stormed into our schools three years ago and exposed just how unhealthy school dinners were, the focus has been on how schools can clean up their act. Now the Government is hoping compulsory cooking lessons will get teenagers into the kitchen.

The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, announced new plans yesterday which will make it compulsory for all teenagers in state education to attend cooking classes by 2011.

On BBC Breakfast yesterday, Mr Balls said the lessons "will be about how you can use simple ingredients to do simple recipes so that children and young people can be prepared for adult life".

The Independent's resident food expert, Mark Hix, said: "I was taught the basics when I was at school, but nowadays that just isn't the case. The average school kid probably wouldn't be able to tell you the difference between a swede and a turnip. That's why it's important that the Government brings these measures in."

Hix, who has written a book of recipes specifically tailored for children, says parents should not be afraid to let kids run amok in an apron.

"Sometimes parents can be their own worst enemies and often fail to encourage their kids to get excited about cooking," he said. "Kids can be wonderful and very enthusiastic cooks if they are encouraged. Get them cooking something like chocolate mousse, where they can lick the bowl afterwards, and they'll love it. But it is worth remembering that they're not going to be overly excited about chopping up endless vegetables for a soup.

"As long as they're properly supervised, I see no reason why teenagers can't be trusted with things like chopping knives and gas hobs.

"I regularly judge eight and nine-year-olds in cooking competitions and they're perfectly capable of handling these things responsibly."

Here are 11 of Hix's recipes you can make with your children.

Real Fish Fingers

A bit more labour intensive than reaching into the freezer, but worth it nutritionally. Serves 4

250g firm fresh white fish fillet (cod, halibut or haddock)

60g plain flour

1 free-range egg, beaten

100g fresh white breadcrumbs

Vegetable oil for frying

Carefully check the fish for bones, cut it into fingers and season with salt and pepper. Spread the flour in one shallow dish, but the beaten egg into another and the breadcrumbs in a third. Coat the pieces of fish in the flour, then in the egg and finally the breadcrumbs. Heat some vegetable oil in a heavy-based frying pan and cook the fish fingers for about 2-3 minutes on each side until nicely browned. Put fish fingers on kitchen paper to soak up excess oil before serving.

Pasta Pomodoro

This fresh tomato sauce is really simple. It can be served cold as a dip or as a base to for other sauces – added to minced meat to make a quick Bolognese. Serves 4

200-250g pasta

A few sprigs of basil, chopped

Freshly grated parmesan cheese, to serve

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

Leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, finely chopped

2 teaspoons of tomato puree

10 large firm tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and chopped roughly, or a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a pan and gently cook the onion, garlic and thyme until softened but not coloured. Add the tomato puree, chopped tomatoes and half a cup of water and simmer gently for 25-30 minutes, until reduced and thickened. Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling salted until tender. Drain the pasta and mix with the sauce and fresh basil. Serve sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

Shepherd's Pie

An ideal dish to feed children – soft in texture and rich in protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals. Serves 4

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 small carrot, finely diced

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

Leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, chopped

Leaves from a few sprigs of rosemary, chopped

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

400g finely minced lamb

15g plain flour

1 tablespoon tomato purée

A dash of Worcestershire sauce

400ml chicken stock

600g potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

A knob of butter

Gently cook the onion, carrot, garlic, thyme, and rosemary in the vegetable oil until soft. Add the minced lamb and cook on a high heat, stirring constantly, until it begins to colour. Add the flour, tomato puree and Worcestershire sauce, stir well, then gradually add the stock. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for about 45-50 minutes. Season to taste, then transfer to an oven dish. Boil the potatoes until tender, then drain well and mash with the butter. Pipe or fork the mashed potato on top of the lamb mixture and bake in a preheated oven (200C/Gas Mark 6) for 35-40 minutes until lightly browned on top.

Toad in the Hole

Toad in the Hole is one of those comfort foods that we often forget about. It makes a delicious supper and children are usually amused by the name. Serves 4

3 eggs

160g plain flour

300ml milk

6 good-quality chipolatas

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 quantity of onion gravy

For the onion gravy:

2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced

Leaves from a sprig of thyme, chopped

1 tablespoons vegetable oil

10g butter

1 teaspoon tomato puree

20g plain flour

300ml chicken stock

Whisk the eggs in a bowl, then add half the flour and a little milk. Mix well, then add the rest of the flour and some salt and pepper. Gradually whisk in the rest of the milk to give a smooth batter. Leave to rest for half an hour. Meanwhile, lightly grill the sausages to colour them.

Divide the oil between 6 Yorkshire pudding tins and heat for a few minutes in an oven preheated to 200C/gas mark 6. Cut the sausages in half, put 2 halves in the tins and fill with the batter. Return the tins to the oven and cook for 25-30 minutes, until crisp and well risen. Try to avoid opening the oven door as this may reduce the temperature and prevent the puddings rising. Serve with a generous helping of onion gravy.

For the gravy, gently cook the onions and thyme in the oil until soft, then add the butter, turn up the heat and cook for a few minutes more to colour the onions. Add the tomato puree and flour and stir well, then gradually add the chicken stock, stirring constantly. Bring to the boil and simmer for 25-30 minutes; the gravy should be quite thick and have a nice shine.

Tuna Bolognese Sauce

This is a great idea which Tony Allan and Christian Delteil have come up with for their restaurant, fish! If you are wary about BSE this recipe is both meat-free and very healthy. Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil

300g fresh tuna, very finely chopped

Double quantity pomodoro sauce

To serve:

200-250g pasta

Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan and quickly fry the tuna for one minute, stirring it occasionally. Reheat the sauce if necessary, add the tuna and simmer for five minutes. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling salted water. Serve with the sauce poured over and parmesan cheese if required.

Hamburgers

Fast-food methods have given hamburgers a bad name but, in fact, they can make for a healthy and delicious meal as long as they are made with good-quality meat. Serves 4

600g good-quality minced beef, including 20-30 per cent fat

16g tomato ketchup

40g American mustard

6 good-quality small baps

2 beef tomatoes, sliced

Dill pickles and slices of red onion

Mix the mince to ensure that the fat is evenly distributed, then season with salt and pepper. Mould it into six balls and shape by pressing it into a pastry cutter on a board.

Put hamburgers in a fridge to firm them up before cooking.

For the sauce, whisk together the tomato ketchup and American mustard. Lightly toast the baps and keep them warm until the burgers are ready. These are best grilled on a barbeque or on a ridged grill pan. Don't cook the burgers under a grill unless you have a red-hot American-style version, as this tends to boil the meat making it dry and flavourless. Serve the burgers in a bap with a slice of tomato, red onions, dill pickles and the sauce.

Homemade baked beans

For obvious reasons, making your own baked beans is better than buying them. Serves 4

1 onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

Leaves from a few sprigs of thyme, chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons tomato purée

6 large, firm tomatoes, skinned and chopped

2 teaspoons caster sugar

400g tin of haricot beans or similar, drained and rinsed

200ml vegetable stock

Gently cook the onion, garlic and thyme in the vegetable oil until soft. Add the tomato purée, tomatoes, sugar, haricot beans and stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little water if the liquid evaporates too soon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pancakes

You can incorporate your favourite foods as sweet or savoury fillings. Serves 4

120g plain flour, sifted

1 medium-sized free-range egg

1 teaspoon caster sugar (for sweet fillings)

300ml milk

A little vegetable oil for frying

Whisk the flour and egg, and sugar for a sweet pancake, with one third of the milk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining milk, then strain if necessary. Heat a non-stick frying pan, rub with a little vegetable oil, then pour in a little of the batter. Tilt the pan immediately so that the mixture spreads evenly in a thin layer. After about a minute, when the pancake is lightly browned underneath, turn it with a spatula or palette knife – or toss it. Cook for another minute, until lightly coloured underneath, then turn out and serve. Make the rest of the pancakes in the same way.

Eggy Bread

A classic French snack; add some slices of cheese or ham for a more substantial meal. This also makes a good breakfast or brunch with some grilled field mushrooms. Serves 4

6 thin slices of white bread, crusts removed

Vegetables oil for frying

2 free-range eggs, beaten

Cut each slice of bread into four triangles. Heat some vegetable oil in a heavy-based frying pan. Season the beaten egg with a little salt and pepper if you want, then dip the bread in it and fry for a minute or so on each side until golden. Drain on kitchen paper and serve.

Strawberry and Banana Smoothie

3 ripe bananas, peeled, chopped into small pieces and frozen

10 strawberries

300ml milk

Blend all the ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Serve in tall glasses with straws.

Lollipops

Delicious ices can be produced at home simply by puréeing fresh fruit and squeezing it in ice-lolly kits or similar containers, or by freezing fresh juices. You can make some great combinations like mango and kiwi if you layer them: half-fill the containers with one juice or purée and then freeze, then pour in the next and freeze until firm. Or make cocktails on sticks, like summer fruits or melon and grenadine. Grown-ups can add something a little stronger.

Recipes taken from Eat Up: Food for Children of All Ages, by Mark Hix with Suzi Godson. Fourth Estate: £12.99

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