Back to school, a busy and expensive time for so many families around the country and now there’s the challenge of school lunches. This week I’ll concentrate on packed lunches and in future columns I’ll have suggestions for college students. Meanwhile invest in a copy book or folder and gradually compile a collection of your kids favourite comforting recipes so they can leave home armed with a useful ‘survival kit’.
But back to school lunches, the bane of so many parents lives, yet phenomenally important not only to nourish our kids physically but to feed their brains and to help with concentration. Most school lunches seem to be bread based so if we agree with the fundamental fact that our food should be our medicine rather than doing us damage then we need to ditch the squishy sliced pan entirely out of our shopping basket. One of the very best things nowadays that one can do for our families is to make a daily loaf of bread. There are masses of easy ‘stir and pour’ recipes to make a grand little loaf that can be sliced easily and topped with many good things. I know sandwiches are a relatively easy option but try to keep bread to the minimum. I did a quick whizz around my grandchildren to get an idea of what they like to find in their lunch boxes.
A flask of hot soup in chilly weather or a chilled smoothie in warm weather is definitely a favourite. One grandchild, loves to have a gluten free wrap with lots of salad leaves and some scraps of chicken, bacon or smoked fish with a creamy yoghurt dressing and maybe some slices of ripe tomato. Chicken and cranberry sauce is also a favourite. Several of our grandchildren love brown meat so roast drum sticks or chicken wings are easy to munch and are great with a little garlic mayo or Ballymaloe Country relish as a dip. Raw batons of fresh cucumber or carrot (not those little pre-washed packs) with a little tub of hummus also got the thumbs up. Pickled carrot and pickled cucumber have also become favourites. Home-made potato crisps as an occasional treat score high on the ‘yum-yum’ scale.
Water, apple juice or fruit kefirs seem to be the drinks of choice, a piece of quiche or frittata also goes down well and some fruit is obligatory – banana, apple, peach, nectarines, a few cherries ….. whatever is in season. Dried fruit, peaches, figs, dates, prunes, cranberries or even a raisin, nut mixture, that’s if you school isn’t a nut free zone which many now are. A little tub of salad, lentils, cous cous, quinoa, chick peas, pearl barley or freekah, was surprisingly popular with dried cranberries, fresh herbs and maybe some diced cheese added. Understandably variety is important – cheese croquettes or cheddar chunks with whole cherry tomatoes, another favourite combo and half an avocado with a little sea salt to scatter over the top is an easy peasy option full of nourishment that will provide lots of energy.
Our grandchildren love Ballycotton shrimps in the shell with homemade mayo to dip but not having anything that your friends consider weird in your lunch box is also a consideration!
Keep the sweet things to a once or twice a week treat if at all possible. Here’s a recipes for Penny’s Coconut and Chocolate Bars and lots of other simple wholesome suggestions.
A little White Soda Bread Loaf
You can make it in the round traditional way or like this in a loaf tin which is more convenient for slicing or sandwiches
1 lb (450g/4 cups) white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon/1/2 American teaspoon salt
1 level teaspoon/1/2 American teaspoon breadsoda
sour milk or buttermilk to mix – 15 fl ozs (425 ml) approx
oatmeal, sesame seeds or kibbled wheat (optional)
First fully preheat your oven to 230ºC/450ºF/regulo 8.
Sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well in the centre. Pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary. The dough should be softish, but not too wet. When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well floured worked surface. Scoop it into the oiled tin, sprinkle with oatmeal and sesame or kibbled wheat seeds if you enjoy them. Place in the hot oven immediately turning down the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/regulo 6 for 45 minutes. Remove from the tin and return the bread to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes or until fully cooked. If you are in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: if it is cooked it will sound hollow.
Raw carrots are of course brilliant but for a change – these carrots are deliciously tangy and crunchy. We also pickle fennel and beets so good – don’t automatically assume your kids won’t like these, remember they learn their eating habits and prejudices from our reaction!
Makes 1 quart
2lbs (900g) baby carrots, well-scrubbed, peeled and trimmed or long batons.
16fl ozs (450ml/2 cup) hot water
8fl ozs (225ml/1 cup) rice vinegar
9 tablespoons (11 American tablespoons) sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons dairy salt
First make the pickling solution. Put all the ingredients into a bowl. Stir until the sugar and salt is dissolved. To pickle vegetables: choose quart size pickling jars, with sealable lids, wash, dry and sterilize. Pack the whole carrots or batons into the jar tightly. Cover with the brine. Refrigerate and mature for 2-3 days before eating. They will keep for about a month.
Homemade Potato Crisps
Making crisps at home is definitely worthwhile – a few potatoes produce
a ton of crisps and nothing you buy in any shop will be even half as delicious. A mandolin is well worth buying for making crisps – but mind your fingers! Just in case of any misunderstanding these are very nutritious as well as delicious and can also be used with a dip.
450g (1lb) large, even-sized potatoes
extra virgin olive oil or beef dripping for deep-fat frying
Wash and peel the potatoes. For even-sized crisps, trim each potato with a swivel-top peeler until smooth. Slice them very finely, preferably with a mandolin. Soak in cold water to remove the excess starch (this will also prevent them from discolouring or sticking together). Drain off the water and dry well.
In a deep-fat fryer, heat the oil or dripping to 180ºC/350ºF. Drop in the dry potato slices a few at a time and fry until golden and completely crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat until they are all cooked.
Hummus has become a new basic – inexpensive to make and bursting with goodness. If you are pressed for time, it’s best to start with tinned dried chickpeas and cook them yourself. I often cook 2 or 3 times what I need ‘cos they freeze perfectly and can be used for salad or soups as well as a dip.
Serves 4-8 (depending on how it is served)
170g (6oz) chickpeas, cooked, save the cooking liquid or 1 x 14 oz can
freshly squeezed juice of 2-3 lemons, or to taste
2-3 large or small cloves garlic, crushed
150ml (5fl oz/generous 1/2 cup) tahini paste (available from health food shops and delicatessens)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
pitta bread or any crusty white bread
Drain the chickpeas, save the cooking liquid. Whizz up the remainder in a food processor with the freshly squeezed lemon juice and a little cooking water if necessary. Add the crushed garlic, tahini paste, cumin and salt to taste. Blend to a soft creamy paste. Taste and continue to add lemon juice and salt until you are happy with the flavour.
Willow’s Cous Cous Salad
Willow, loves to discover little cubes of diced cucumber, tomato and feta as well as freshly chopped herbs in her cous cous salad. The basic cooked cous cous can be kept in a sealed box in the fridge for several days.
12 ozs (340g) couscous
16 fl ozs (450ml/2 cups) homemade chicken stock or water
2 ozs (50g) dried apricots cut into 5mm (1/4 inch) dice (optional)
2 ozs (50g) pistachio nuts (or toasted almonds) halved, optional
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Put the couscous, apricots and pistachio nuts into a Pyrex bowl. Pour over the boiling water or stock, cover with clingfilm and allow to soak for 15 minutes. Stir with a fork and season with salt and freshly ground pepper and add some olive oil.
Additions & Variations
Instead of apricots and pistachio nuts stir in 2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons) of freshly chopped fresh herbs just before serving, eg. mint or coriander, parsley and chives, dried cherries, cranberries, raisins….
A little grated orange rind or lemon rind and freshly squeezed juice is also delicious.
Penny’s Coconut and Chocolate Health Bars
Makes 12 – 16 bars
8 ozs (250g) dessicated coconut
1 heaped tablespoon tahini (optional)
5 ozs (150g) dried dates
2 ozs (50g) butter or coconut oil
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
2 rounded tablespoon cocoa powder
2 large free-range eggs
3 tablespoon water
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/regulo 4.
8 inch (20.5cm) square tin, lined with parchment paper
Put all the ingredients into a food processor and whizz until the mixture comes together. Put into the tin and smooth the top. Bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven. Leave to cool slightly and then cut into bars.
Both the Midleton Food & Drink Festival and the Waterford Harvest Festival are on Saturday 13th September.
In Midleton there will be over 60 stalls this year in the open air food and drink market. Enjoy the carnival atmosphere with street performance artists, craft exhibitions, whiskey and wine tastings and a full programme of food and cookery demonstrations. www.midletonfoodfestival.ie/
Visit the Waterford Harvest Festival at www.waterfordharvestfestival.ie to see the incredible line up of events. Rory O’ Connell and I are both doing a cookery dem on the Saturday at Grow HQ in the Blackfriars Ruins in Waterford City Centre.
Game -the game season will open again in September, Premier Game Limited in Cahir, Co Tipperary have a pretty amazing selection of game from September to February. Tel: 052 67501/086 838 4700.
Wild Food – this is a fantastic year for damsons and sloes, go foraging in the countryside, then have fun making damson or sloe gin, jam, jellies or tarts. Check out Forgotten Skills of Cooking for lots of recipes.