When Stephanie Alexander set up the first Kitchen Garden in inner-city Melbourne in 2001, she had no idea that a few vegetable plots and some cooking classes would change the way the whole country viewed food education.
Now more than 22 years later, with programs in more than 1600 schools and early learning centres across the nation, Alexander is as passionate as ever about how the simple act of cooking a dish from something you've grown yourself can engage children (and adults) in the world of food.
"The earlier you can get kids interested in what they're eating, the better," she says.
"Even if it's not happening at home, you only have to see the kids in the garden, proud of what they've grown, watching it grow, taking it into the kitchen, their confidence grows, their self esteem, the kids blossom and it's beautiful to watch."
And now she's put those lessons into a cookbook inspired by the program, Fresh, with more than 120 recipes and stories from over the years.
"This book has been written for families who like to cook together and eat together, and maybe grow some of the food they enjoy," she says. "The book is also intended as a resource for the educators in schools and community centres who are guiding and encouraging students to expand their palates to reflect our multicultural society and reinforcing the connection between planting a seed, caring for it, and the ultimate pride in a successful harvest."
She says there are plenty of simple things families can do at home to work with the same philosophy in mind.
"Grow some food even if it's just one or two pots, or a small patch in the garden," she says. "Encourage cooking together and expect a bit of mess; develop the habit of finishing a meal with a fruit bowl; encourage interest and experiments; make bread together; make pasta together; make savoury snacks for after-school hunger."
And it's never too young to start.
"There's always a way for kids to help in the kitchen, stirring, licking the basin, spooning batter into muffin cases, rolling bits of bread dough, shelling peas, spreading dips on crackers or lavosh, turning the handle on the pasta machine, choosing toppings for your own pizza."
And in the garden too. Many of the recipes in Fresh are plant-based, with a focus on vegetables which can be easily grown at home. If kids are growing vegetables are they more likely to eat them?
"Vegetable cookery has to be more than boiling them in water. Interest children in spices and braising and roasting and combinations of vegetables," she says.
The recipes in Fresh are deliberately fairly simple and family friendly, she says.
"Most can be achieved by an eight to 10 year old, with an adult on hand to oversee fire and knives and boiling water."
She suspects the first thing she ever cooked was a cake.
"My memory tells me I was about eight and Mum was out. I used plain flour without any raising agent and overdid the cochineal, ending up with a flat fuchsia-coloured heavy cake," she says.
"Mum helped me with my next cake. I quickly learned the basics."
These "sausage" rolls are easy to assemble and great for a party. The recipe is also very versatile. You could substitute carrot or sweet potato for the pumpkin, cooked cannellini beans for the chickpeas, and use your favourite greens and herbs. The olive oil pastry is easy to make and very different in texture and handling from shortcrust pastry. If time is short you could purchase all-butter puff pastry.
This is another good dish for young hands to exercise and hone their fine motor skills - chopping, mixing, rolling, assembling and sprinkling - as well as introducing a delicious plant-based alternative to meat-based sausage rolls.
Need more than a dozen? Encourage children to use their maths skills by doubling or even tripling the quantities needed.
This pastry is the one I also use for other fruit and vegetable tortes, where a very thin layer of pastry is stretched over quite chunky fillings. It is super flexible yet strong and will stretch in all directions. The work surface will need to be well floured, as will the rolling pin, and you will probably be surprised at the texture. The advantage is that the sausage rolls end up being about the filling, not a thick layer of pastry.
From the garden:
1. To make the pastry, mix the oil into the water in a measuring cup.
2. In a food processor, combine the flour and salt. With the motor running, pour in the water and olive oil mixture. Process for less than a minute or so until the pastry forms a ball. Scrape the rather sticky dough onto your well-floured work surface and give it a quick knead to bring it together into a silky smooth ball.
3. Put it in a bowl, cover with a cloth and leave for 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.
4. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced).
5. To make the filling, put the pumpkin in a bowl, drizzle with half the oil and stir to combine. Spread in a single layer on a small baking tray and bake for 30 minutes until a skewer easily slips through each piece. Remove the pumpkin from the oven (leave the oven on for the pastry) and straight away crush the pumpkin on the tray using a potato masher. Allow to cool. It is not expected to be completely smooth. Once cool, spoon into a large bowl.
6. While the pumpkin is baking, heat the rest of the oil in a small frying pan over medium heat and saute the onion, garlic and sage for three to four minutes until the onion starts to soften. Stir to prevent it sticking. Add the silverbeet or other greens, mix well, cover, lower the heat and cook for a few more minutes until the greens have wilted. Cool, then add to the mashed pumpkin.
7. Drain the chickpeas through a colander, tip them onto a plate and roughly crush them with the potato masher. Add the chickpeas to the bowl with the pumpkin and silverbeet mixture. Season very well (see note).
8. For the glaze, whisk the egg and salt in a small bowl and have a pastry brush ready. Also have nearby a baking tray lined with baking paper.
9. Divide the pastry in half. Work with one piece at a time. On a well-floured work surface, roll the first piece out to a rectangle about 24cm long and 12cm wide. You will be able to pat and pull it into shape with your hands. Spoon half the filling down the centre of the pastry rectangle, leaving a 2cm border around the edges. Brush the exposed pastry with the egg glaze, then lift one edge of the pastry up and over the filling. Bring the other edge up and over to meet and overlap it to enclose the filling. The roll will seal readily. Gently turn the roll over and move onto the prepared baking tray. Repeat with the second pastry rectangle and the rest of the filling. Brush the entire surface of each log with the glaze. Cut each log into six pieces using a serrated knife. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, then bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack before serving.
10. Serve with tonkatsu sauce or kasundi-style tomato chutney, if desired.
Note: I use Warndu Feel Good Salt & Pepper to season savoury mixes like this. It is a mixture of Murray Valley salt, Tasmanian black pepper and ground saltbush.
Makes 12 rolls.
These fritters make great finger food for a party. Forks or toothpicks can be used but fingers are fine - if correctly fried these delicious fritters should not be greasy to pick up. When separating the florets from a head of cauliflower or broccoli remember that a bit of stem can be useful as a handle. I also like using broccolini where each spear becomes one fritter. Kitchen Garden kids learn that broccoli and cauliflower go together because they are both from the brassica family, and both are in season at the same time.
This is a good recipe to practise crumbing pieces of food without making a gluggy mess. Remember all the cautions for frying. Plenty of ventilation. Everything at the ready before you start - including a plate in a low oven in case you are frying in batches. And, of course, clean oil.
From the garden
1. Select a saucepan with a steamer insert. Half-fill the saucepan with water and bring it to the boil, with the steamer basket and its lid in position. Once the water is simmering and the steam is rising, drop in the prepared cauliflower and broccoli. Do not crowd them - you may need to steam the vegetables in batches.
2. Check after three minutes. A skewer should pierce the stem with some resistance. You want your vegetables to still have a bit of crunch. Transfer the par-cooked vegetables to a clean plate. Continue until all your pieces of vegetable are steamed and resting on the plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside to cool while you arrange the coating ingredients.
3. In a medium bowl mix the chickpea flour with the bicarbonate of soda and your chosen spice mix. In another bowl lightly whisk the eggs with the chopped parsley. Now tip the panko crumbs into a separate wide bowl or plate in a fairly thick layer. Have another clean plate at the end of this assembly line on which to place the coated fritters.
4. Preheat the oven to 120C (100C fan-forced). Place an ovenproof plate or a baking tray in the oven. Line another clean plate with paper towel.
5. Use a fork to coat the pieces of vegetable in the flour mix. Tap off the excess, then drop the vegetable pieces into the egg dish. Turn to coat, using the fork, then lift each piece up with the fork, allowing the excess egg mixture to drop back into the bowl. Now transfer the egged pieces of vegetable to the plate with the crumbs. Shake and shimmy the plate so the crumbs coat all sides of the pieces of vegetable. Finally transfer the crumbed pieces to the clean plate. Continue until all the pieces are prepared.
6. Pour the oil into a heavy-based pan over medium heat to a depth of 1cm. Check that it is hot enough by dropping a cube of bread - it should turn golden in 30-40 seconds. Using tongs, carefully place the pieces of vegetable in the oil - remember not to crowd the pan (you might have to cook in batches). Leave to cook for a minute, then turn using tongs or a spatula. Once golden on all sides, lift the fritters from the oil and move to the paper-towel lined plate to drain for a minute using tongs or an egg slice. Transfer to the plate in the oven to keep warm and continue with the next batch.
7. The fritters are delicious as they are but are also excellent accompanied by the dipping sauce or offered on a platter with a bowl of dukkah in the centre in which to dip your fritter.
Makes about 20.
The title literally means "ranch-style" eggs, but we might translate it as "farmer's eggs". This simple dish is widely enjoyed in Mexico at breakfast. In this recipe the tortillas are spread with refried beans and topped with a spicy tomato salsa - "salsa" means sauce in Spanish (and Italian). It should be mentioned that much of the most exciting food in Mexico, often based on a tortilla in some form or another, is sold by street vendors. A tostada is a crisp tortilla fried and used like a small plate on which to pile other good things. A quesadilla (kay-sa-DEE-ya) is a tortilla also fried quickly and folded over a filling, often cheese but it can be mushroom, meat, or potato with chopped chorizo sausage. And flautas is a rolled fried taco filled with potato, beef or chicken, covered with guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and more cheese. This recipe uses crumbled feta, which is a good substitute for the sharp Mexican cheese queso fresca.
The warm tortillas are used where we might use toast or a muffin. You can make your own wheat or corn tortillas but our foodstores are full of all styles of tortilla - large, small, soft and hard - all of which are handy to have in the pantry. Some are made from wheat, some from specially treated maize flour, sold as masa harina. Note that these Mexican "tortillas" are not the same as the Spanish tortilla, which is a solid egg-based omelette.
How to say
From the garden
Cherry tomato salsa:
1. Preheat the oven to 120C (100C fan-forced) and put a large ovenproof plate or a baking tray inside - large enough to hold all the tortillas. Put your serving plates in the oven to warm them, too.
2. To make the cherry tomato salsa, saute the shallot or spring onion in the oil in a frying pan over medium heat until well softened. Add the chilli and cook for five minutes. Tip in the tomato and any juices and stir to combine. Add the lime juice and taste for salt. Cool to room temperature and set aside.
3. Warm the refried beans either in a saucepan over medium heat or in the microwave.
4. Heat a large non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add one tortilla to the pan and cook until it is heated through, softened and starting to puff, about 30 seconds. Turn the tortilla and fry the other side for a further 30 seconds. Transfer the tortilla to the plate or tray in the oven. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.
5. Add the oil and the butter to the pan over medium heat. Crack in the eggs and fry until the whites are a little puffed and crisped at the edges. You may need to cook the eggs in two batches, or use two frying pans.
6. To serve, remove the serving plates from the oven. Put two tortillas on each plate and spoon some warmed refried beans on top. Top each tortilla with an egg, and add a portion of the cherry tomato salsa. Sprinkle with the feta and coriander. Season with salt and pepper if needed and settle a lime wedge on the side of the plate.
These cinnamon scrolls are prepared in moments and bake in just under 30 minutes. Best eaten on the day they are made, they are the perfect afternoon tea treat. Not only are the scrolls delicious and very easy for young cooks to perfect, but in a class situation this is an excellent recipe to demonstrate the common instruction in recipes to "make a well".
When you mix plain yoghurt with self-raising flour (which has bicarbonate of soda in it) or flour plus baking powder, the acidity in the yoghurt reacts with the bicarbonate of soda to assist with rising. The direction to "make a well" in a mix of flours and other dry ingredients (sugars, spices etc.) means to tip the "drys" into a bowl and to give them a quick mix to make sure they are evenly dispersed. Then you make a hole in the middle large enough to hold all the liquids. The liquids must be mixed together before being added to the drys. Then you need to steadily draw the flour etc. into the liquids, until you cannot easily mix any more in. Some cooks prefer a fork, others a wooden spoon. Then you may have to complete the process by tipping the mix onto a work surface and giving it a short knead until it is well mixed and supple.
From the garden
1. Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan-forced). Line a baking tray with baking paper.
2. Mix all the filling ingredients together in a small bowl.
3. Put the flour in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre, then pour all the yoghurt in. Using a large fork, mix the yoghurt into the flour, working the fork to the bottom of the bowl to pick up as much of the flour as possible. Once you have mixed as well as you can with the fork, you will want to use your hands.
4. Tip the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and gently knead to a soft and slightly sticky ball. Flatten and roughly shape into a rectangle.
5. Flour a rolling pin, then gently roll the dough into a rectangle about 40 x 15cm and 1 cm thick. Brush generously with most of the melted butter, leaving two to three teaspoons for the final glaze. Sprinkle the filling over the dough, right to the edges. Immediately roll up the rectangle from the longest side to form a long cylinder. With a sharp knife, cut the roll into 12 pieces, each 3cm wide.
6. Arrange the pieces, cut-side up, on the prepared tray, close together but not squashed up. Slide the tray into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.
7. Meanwhile, mix together the ingredients for the glaze. The icing sugar may need to be pressed through a sieve to be sure there are no lumps.
8. Remove the scrolls from the oven. Spoon the glaze over them whilst they are hot. Allow to cool before enjoying them.
Swap: For those who love nuts, two tablespoons of roughly chopped toasted walnuts could be added to the filling.
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