One good meal fits all

IN an ideal world, Renée Elliott would love to see seaweed in our cupboards – and not just as something to dunk in the bath for a healthful soak.

“I’d like to see seaweed used in soups and stews and wrapped around rice,” says the mother-of-three, author and founder of Planet Organic, Britain’s leading organic supermarket.

She longs to see families stocking up on things like seeds and nuts, using dried fruits instead of sugar, and moving away from sugary cereals.

“Don’t buy white pasta, buy wholemeal, don’t buy sugary cereals, buy porridge, don’t buy ready-made lasagne,” she exhorts.

White is no longer the colour of innocence as far as Elliott is concerned –— it’s very much in with wholemeal flour, rice and pasta and very much out, out, out, Maggie Thatcher-style, with the demon white versions.

And while you’re at it, isn’t it about time you started getting to grips with things like spelt, quinoa, barley, dried beans, spices and herbs?

“There’s no point cooking, and then cooking crap,” she declares.

“There’s no point cooking from scratch and making something from white flour because white flour isn’t supportive of the health of the body — it has the same effect as sugar.”

This, however, is no ranting food zealot — this is a busy working mother of three who genuinely worries about the way our diet has deteriorated and who is trenchant about what is and isn’t real family cooking.

“When you boil pasta and heat up a store-bought sauce I call that meal-assembly, not cooking from scratch,” says the American-born former journalist, who moved from Boston to England at the age of 21 because, she explains, she wanted to date a guy she met on a bus — a guy who, incidentally, later became her husband.

“Why has our diet become so poor? Part of it is about convenience and a very stupid move towards refined foods like white flour and white rice,” she declares.

Aimed at new mums or those who don’t know which end of a wooden spoon goes in the saucepan, Elliot’s new cookbook explains how to adapt one basic main meal — fish pie, lasagne or lamb tagine, for instance — to the needs of babies and young children.

She got the idea for the book after discovering how exhausting it was to juggle work and the needs of three small children — it left her so tired that cooking for herself and her husband Brian often became an afterthought:

“I’d make gorgeous meals for them and then wonder what on earth we were going to eat — and I was often too befuddled from the broken nights to figure it out.”

Her editor Grace, who had a baby and was going through the same experience, suggested a book showing how to cook meals for the family — meals which could be adapted for babies from six months up and which don’t take forever to get into the oven.

And so Me You and the Kids Too, was born.

It offers meals that take about 20-30 minutes to prepare and which incorporate special built-in dinners for the little ones.

Given Elliot’s organic background, however, — she serves on the Council of the Soil Association — the seaweed, the spelt and the seeds were going to be in there somewhere, babies or not.

But in an easy way, she says:

“There are a lot of family cookbooks out there but I read some of them and ask ‘Are you kidding me?’

“I have three kids and I work and some of those recipes are so complicated!

“Mine are very simple and even if you don’t cook and never cooked, it’s simple — there are no fussy sauces, for instance, because my goal is to get people back into the kitchen.”

This is about cooking from very simple ingredients — fruits and vegetables, whole grains, herbs and spices and yogurts.”

It’s not that people are “bad” or lazy, she says, it’s just that a lot of us don’t know what to do any more.

“The knowledge has gone. The cooking that the parents and grandparents did seems to have been forgotten.”

“People say ‘I work and I don’t have time to spend in the kitchen’ — but I work and I have three children and it only takes about half an hour to get a meal on the table.”

She pauses:

“People say ‘oh my kids won’t eat that’ or ‘my kids won’t eat vegetables’.”

“But I talk to my kids about food. I explain that they need to give fuel to the body and that what they eat now will affect them when they’re re older. I talk to them about it and I involve them in the cooking.

“I blindfold my kids and I get them to try 10 foods, some of which they already love, some of which they say they don’t like and some of which they don’t know.”

They taste, blindfolded, and generally love everything — even the things they thought they disliked:

“You have to try new things, you have to play with it and make it fun, you have to engage them and they all have to get a chance to cook!”

* Me, You and the Kids Too by Renée Elliott published by Duncan Baird Publishers, €18


Lifestyle

Rosscarbery antiques fair offers plenty of variety, writes Des O’Sullivan.See the value of rare notes and diamonds

More From The Irish Examiner