Belfast Telegraph

Why cooking for children is child's play

Guild of Food Writers British Food Award winner Mark Hix offers tips and tricks to get the little blighters tucking in

Fussy eaters? Cooking for children is child's play, says award-winning chef Mark Hix

When I was at Sir John Colfox School in Bridport, we used to study subjects such as rural science, woodwork, metalwork and cookery. In this day and age with health and safety policies, these subjects only exist as memories for many parents. In our early secondary school years we were taught how to plant vegetables and look after them until harvesting. We had to kill and pluck chickens, make chairs and produce wood carvings – and it all gave us such a sense of achievement and creativity. The one subject I did used to hate, though, was metalwork; but then there was the option of cookery. It didn't seem attractive at the time but about four of us did it anyway for the hell of it, and at least you got to eat what you'd made.

If only children were taught those subjects today, they would know a bit more about food and what it actually looks like when it's just come out of the ground. If school children don't learn about food and cooking then how can we expect them to respect ingredients in their pure form, and turn them into delicious, nutritious dishes?

For an after-school snack, do kids these days knock up something for themselves or throw something in the microwave or open a bag of crisps? My grandparents were not foodies, but a snack was often a plate of sliced tomatoes from the greenhouse with salt and Sarson's vinegar or a plate of stilton with a Dorset Knob and a home-made pickled onion.

My kids' cookbook, Eat Up: Food for Children of All Ages (Fourth Estate, £12.99), features recipes that don't compromise on quality – but which children will actually eat!

Fish fingers

Serves 4-6

Proper fish fingers are much tastier than frozen ones; white fish such as haddock, cod, pollack and coley all work well.

500g haddock or pollack fillet, skinned and boned

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3-4tbsp flour

2 eggs, beaten

50-60g fresh white breadcrumbs

Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying

For the mushy peas

A good knob of butter

1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped

150g frozen peas

50ml vegetable stock

A few sprigs of mint, stalks removed

Salt and pepper

Cut the fish fillet into fingers measuring about 5cm x 1-11/2cm wide. Season them and put them first in the flour, shaking off any excess, then into the egg and then the breadcrumbs.

To make the mushy peas, heat half the butter in a pan and cook the shallot until it is soft. Add the peas, vegetable stock and mint leaves, season and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Blend in a food processor until smooth. Before serving reheat the purée and stir in the remaining butter. Pan-fry the fish for about 3-4 minutes on each side in 1cm or so of oil or deep fry as follows: pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Fry the fish fingers in two batches, depending on the size of your fryer, and cook for 3-4 minutes until nicely coloured. Serve hot with the pea purée and wedges of lemon or malt vinegar.

Ox tongue, cheese and egg sandwiches

Serves 4

Trying to get kids to eat tongue these days is virtually impossible; in fact most grown-ups also turn their noses up at the stuff. I personally think it's one of the great cold cuts, especially when eaten with home-made piccalilli. If you present the children with a sandwich with melted cheese and a fried egg yolk poking out of the top they probably won't even question what meat is inside; after all, it looks like ham.

The idea of this sandwich came about when the editor-in-chief Simon Kelner took the boys to Tenerife on a golf trip for his birthday and it turned up on the table as a post-golf snack in the club house. If you really can't face tongue then you could also use ham.

8 slices of bread

Softened butter for spreading

Enough slices of cooked ox tongue to cover 4 slices of bread

4 or 8 slices of cheese such as Gruyère, Emmental or Cheddar

4 eggs

Vegetable or corn oil for frying

Lightly toast the bread on both sides then lay the tongue on 4 pieces and the cheese on top. Cut a hole in the tops of the other 4 slices, large enough for the egg yolk. Melt the cheese under the grill and fry the eggs in the vegetable oil. Then lay them on the cheese with the bread on top so that the yolk shows through the hole.

Spaghetti with bacon, mushrooms and Parmesan

Serves 4-6

This is more or less a carbonara, but mention mushrooms to some kids and their little faces will screw up in disgust. If, on the other hand, you chop the mushrooms into a creamy, cheesy sauce, they will go down unnoticed most of the time – just make sure your kids don't read these food pages...

4-6 servings of spaghetti

1 small onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped

60-80g thick-cut streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into 1/2 cm cubes

A couple of good knobs of butter

150-200g button or oyster mushrooms, cut into small dice

250g mascarpone

200ml double cream

2-3tbsp freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

1tbsp chopped chives

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently cook the onion and bacon in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft, stirring every so often, add the mushrooms and continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes with a lid on, stirring occasionally. Add the mascarpone, cream and Parmesan, season, bring to the boil and simmer for about 6-7 minutes until the sauce thickens to a coating consistency. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to manufacturer's instructions then drain in a colander. Add the chives to the sauce and toss with the pasta and re-season if necessary. Serve in warm bowls and let the kids help themselves to extra Parmesan.

Spring rolls

Serves 4

Crispy little snacks such as spring rolls, samosas and patties are great vehicles for disguising ingredients. Spring roll wrappers are pretty easy to find these days, especially in Asian supermarkets. I always keep a packet of them in the freezer for emergencies.

16 small spring roll wrappers

1 egg, beaten

Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying

For the filling

6 spring onions, shredded on the angle

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed

1 small piece of root ginger, peeled, finely grated

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely shredded

4 or 5 fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced

1tbsp chopped coriander

A few leaves of pak choi, shredded

1 chicken thigh cooked and shredded or 4-5 cooked prawns, chopped

1/2 tbsp sesame oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the sesame oil in a large frying pan and quickly fry all of the ingredients for a minute, stirring every so often, then season and transfer to a plate and leave to cool. Separate the spring roll wrappers; lay on a flat surface.

Place about a tablespoon of the filling in the centre of the end that is towards you. Fold over the two ends towards the centre then brush with the beaten egg and roll up as tightly as possible and transfer to a tray. They will keep in the fridge for a few hours but not much longer as they tend to go soggy.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer and fry the spring rolls for 2-3 minutes, turning them with a slotted spoon and draining on some kitchen paper. Serve with sweet chilli dipping sauce or similar.

Vegetable soup

Serves 4-6

Trying to get children to eat vegetables can be a complete waste of time; still, blending seasonal vegetables into a soup can be a tasty option which goes down well with the little blighters. You can vary the vegetables according to what you've got in the fridge.

1 onion, peeled, halved and roughly chopped

1 leek, halved lengthways, roughly chopped, and washed

2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

2 sticks of celery, roughly chopped

A couple of sprigs of thyme

A couple of good knobs of butter

1.5ltrs vegetable stock

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Cream to finish (optional)

Gently cook all of the vegetables in the butter in a covered pan for 3-4 minutes, add the stock, season, bring to the boil; simmer for 30 minutes. Blend as smoothly or as coarsely as you wish; strain through a sieve if necessary. Re-season and finish with cream if required.

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