What’s your earliest food memory?
My late grandma’s special teas. My granddad used to take my brothers to the park to kick a ball about while I helped my grandma make ‘footballers cakes’, which I absolutely loved to do. I now realise that they were Battenberg-style cakes but she fondly named them footballers cakes for my brothers’ benefit and I thought they were totally her own creation. I was almost mesmerised by the chequered effect that the cakes made when they were cooked. Grandma would serve these on her best china with little sandwiches and chocolate biscuits. The sandwiches were usually jam, either apricot or plum. I still remember the smell of her pantry as I helped her to find her tin of chocolate biscuits and the doilies.There was also something very comforting about the fact that her teas were always the same and thanks to my grandma I can now make a mean Battenberg and my children, Ella, 11, Lola, 10 and Finley 9, are now learning to do the same.
What foods did you like as a child? And what did you dislike?
I liked most foods as a child. There wasn’t an option not to like it and there was never a choice. I can’t remember not eating a meal; my brothers and I just ate what we were given. I know I had favourite meals. I particularly loved my mum’s pancake cannelloni. She would make pancakes, fill them with chicken and ham in a herby sauce, roll up the pancakes and cover them with grated cheese and bake in the oven. I also loved her haddock with a crispy herb and breadcrumb crust served with a sweet and vibrant tomato sauce. Mum would invariably serve this with oven baked homemade chips, it was so good.
I didn’t like my grandma’s vegetables (sorry grandma). I didn’t know why at the time; now I realise it was because she added lots of salt to her cooking water. I was often left at my granny’s table when everyone else had finished and was once caught trying to hide my cabbage up the chimney. My mother never added salt. Mum believed that the food had enough flavour on its own and she was right. Mum also steamed her vegetables, which my grandma never did. I remember my grandma only had a three-ring gas stove so she was very excited when she could afford a slow cooker and she could cook a whole meal in one pan, but sadly I don’t think her vegetables improved at this point.
Who is your greatest foodie inspiration?
My mum was. Sadly, she died a number of years ago now. She was amazingly inspiring. She cooked a lot of Mediterranean-style food using olive oil, tomatoes, fresh herbs, vegetables and fresh fish before it was really fashionable. It was exciting helping her to cook as she would always ask me to taste things as they developed. She was also very calm in the kitchen, which I am sure was because she was a confident cook. It meant that I felt happy and relaxed when I was cooking with her. She taught me that cooking and eating uses all your senses. It was without a doubt because of my mum that I ended up with a career in food.
What was the first thing you ever cooked? How did it taste?
The first thing I remember cooking on my own was peanut chicken. I helped with many family meals before I made this recipe, but this was the first thing that I cooked totally on my own. I was eight years old at the time. I remember cutting chicken breasts into strips, bashing the chicken strips to flatten them with a rolling pin, spreading them with peanut butter and rolling them up and sticking cocktail sticks in to hold them together. I then baked them until cooked though. It tasted sweet and nutty and really scrumptious. I served it with rice and peas. I have the recipe still scribbled in my handwriting inside my old Mickey Mouse recipe folder. My brothers and parents loved it and I remember the overwhelming feeling of pride as they complimented me. I just wanted to keep cooking for them after that. I was also supplementing my pocket money at the age of nine with money from the sales of my lemon drizzle cakes that I sold to my parents’ friends.
What’s your worst cooking disaster?
I set fire to the cooker when filming for Channel 4’s Here’s One I Made Earlier. It was recorded live so that camera had to cut away and film someone else while we put the fire out!
What would be your perfect family dinner, including dessert?
My perfect family dinner would be food that my children have helped to cook. They particularly enjoy food that can be put into serving bowls and left in the middle of the table for everyone to help themselves. Fajitas and tacos are good examples; the children like to help chop and fry the ingredients and then spoon everything into bowls ready for everyone to tuck in. Pudding would definitely be a chocolate cake that the girls have made with some fresh berries to eat alongside, washed down by Finley’s lemonberryade or wine.
How often do you cook with your children?
Most days, at least one of them will help with something in the kitchen. My approach is not to turn it into a big thing; just ask them to help with something and then let them cook something that they want to cook as often as possible. Cook School is full of easy recipes that children like to cook and it’s this sort of food that my children like making. Whenever we are on school holidays, the children like to choose recipes tthey each want to cook – these include Lola’s sweets, Finley’s lemonberryade, tasty bread tarts, pizzas and bumblebee cakes.
At what age did they start, and what things do they enjoy cooking?
My children started to cook as soon as they could stand. Washing vegetables, counting, stirring… If ever I needed to keep the children busy whilst I made supper, I would give them something to do in the kitchen like pass them some garlic cloves to peel. At two years of age, Lola once peeled two whole bulbs of cloves whilst I cooked pasta for tea. She was very happy and I was delighted to have ready peeled garlic in a jar in the fridge. Like most children, they do love to make sweet foods but I think they seem to be much happier when they have cooked a meal that everyone can share. Finley showed most interest in the kitchen when there was something electrical making a noise, like a hand-held whisk or blender. He always came rushing to press the buttons.
Any cooking disasters with your children? Luckily not.
What are the benefits of encouraging your children to cook?
The benefits of cooking with children are huge. It really is essential that we teach our children to cook. It is a life skill. We all have to eat every day and if you learn how to cook, you are likely to have a much more enjoyable life ahead as you can help make good food for you and your friends and family. It is also sociable – cooking and eating are both enjoyable things to do with others. And, of course, it also allows children to practise numeracy, literacy, geography, art and science as well.
What’s your food guilty pleasure?
Homemade ice-cream. I used to develop ice-creams and frozen desserts, including Loseley Dairy ice creams. I love creating new ice-cream flavours. Top favourites include Crunchie Bar ice cream; strawberry and rose water ice cream and Kea plum ice cream (made with plums from a small area in Cornwall where my mother-in-law lives). There is always at least one tub of ice cream in our freezer and if you are lucky there might even be a tub of chocolate flakes in the pantry too
What would be your last supper?
A meal with my family. Scallops with bacon, garlic and cream to start, then fresh steamed asparagus dressed with a little of the Egans’ olive oil (friends of ours, who have a house in Italy and make their own oil), served with some local baked fish and my brother-in-law’s freshly dug new potatoes. This would be finished with my children’s homemade strawberry and rose water ice cream.
Do you dine out with your children? And where?
Yes, but not often enough as it is so expensive. Although we do try to go out as much as possible, we try to keep the cost down by ordering soda water with lime for the children instead of expensive fizzy drinks and we just have main courses and puddings to share. If the children choose, we end up going for sushi. They all LOVE it, but it has to be a sushi bar with a conveyor belt. The last time we went, Lola wrote a message to the chef and sent it on the conveyor belt to thank him for the lovely sushi and he sent back some complimentary puddings. Finley normally spends most of his meal trying to work out how the conveyor belt works. We also tend to have at least one meal out when we are on holiday, too. For example, we go to the Isles of Scilly every year and the children remember one meal in particular in the restaurant High Tide. They chose their main courses from the main menu and the chef served them smaller portions. It was presented so beautifully that they didn’t want to eat it until I had taken a photo. It was a few years ago and I think they really loved the fact that they were eating food that look liked the food we were eating. They often talk about that meal.
What would you do if your child had a tantrum in a restaurant?
I would definitely try not make a big scene. Keep calm and try to calm the child down. I hardly ever become cross or flustered. I am a firm believer that if you keep calm the children will calm down, too.
Do you think families should be more encouraged to dine out in restaurants?
Yes, if you allow children to learn to eat in restaurants, nine times out of ten they will rise to the occasion and behave well and you will all enjoy the experience. To help make sure that it is good fun for everyone, take some crayons and sketch books or a favourite book to help keep them amused whilst you wait for the food. I prefer restaurants who serve smaller portions from the main menu for children; it is much more exciting for the child, and how can we except them to enjoy good food if they are not allowed to taste a variety of different flavours? On the continent, the children just choose of the main menu. I love watching Italian children in restaurants dipping their polenta into tomato sauce. The more opportunities that we give to the children to enjoy good food the more likely they are to grow up eating a varied diet.
Amanda Grant is author of Cook School (Ryland Peters & Small, £14.99)