Sunday 11 December 2016

How to feed your teens

Feeding kids can be a tricky business, especially when it comes to new tastes. But mum to six teenagers Sheila Kiely has come up with recipes the whole family can enjoy. She tells our reporter just how to cook for the hungry hordes

Aoife Carrigy

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Sheila Kiely, author of Enjoy! Photograph: Marta Miklinska
Sheila Kiely, author of Enjoy! Photograph: Marta Miklinska
Freekeh salad with beetroot and feta from Enjoy! by Sheila Kiely, photograph Marta Miklinska
Lamb parmigiana from Enjoy! by Sheila Kiely, photograph Marta Miklinska
Rhubarb and custard cheesecake from Enjoy! by Sheila Kiely, photograph Marta Miklinska
Sheila Kiely, author of Enjoy!, photograph Marta Miklinska
Full house: Sheila Kiely and her family.

With six teenagers all aged within five years of each other (two sets of twins is how that happens), a 30-hour-week admin job with husband Denis Kiely's food safety consultancy business, a popular food blog and a penchant for writing cookbooks in her spare time, Sheila Kiely is clearly some kind of super-woman. You know the kind, with book-loads of tips for busy mums, and only dying to share them.

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With six teenagers all aged within five years of each other (two sets of twins is how that happens), a 30-hour-week admin job with husband Denis Kiely's food safety consultancy business, a popular food blog and a penchant for writing cookbooks in her spare time, Sheila Kiely is clearly some kind of super-woman. You know the kind, with book-loads of tips for busy mums, and only dying to share them.

Right?

Actually it turns out that Sheila Kiely is too down-to-earth to be setting herself up as a paragon of domestic order. "If you could plan a week of knowing what you're going to eat every evening, you could shop for all of it in one go," she offers helpfully, before adding briskly: "Though I don't practise what I preach. I would love to be more organised and efficient but I'm just not that person. It's always a little bit hectic around here, rushing in the door after grinds, under pressure to get the dinner on."

Like a true Irish mammy, she is of course being modest. Nobody rears six hungry children without picking up a few tips along the way. And she has some good ones. "Try not to go in clueless into the supermarket. Write a list of some sort, or take a photo of the recipe with your phone. At least have a rough idea of what you're going to cook, or you'll be completely bamboozled."

Indeed Sheila's first cookbook, Gimme the Recipe, was written precisely to help frazzled mums cope with the insatiable demand for dinners that the family might actually eat. "It was about taking away that panic element and providing a reminder of some basic recipes, because you do go blank." The idea came from a running partner and neighbour of Sheila's in Ballincollig, Co Cork who was constantly on the look-out for simple and practical recipe ideas. "I wrote it for women like us, who needed real recipes for feeding the family."

But now that her kids are starting to make lives that don't revolve around her, Sheila is busy reclaiming her own life - and her kitchen.

Her eldest son Johnnie (19) is in first year in UCC's Sport Studies and Physical Education degree, and hopes to teach in a Gaelscoil. "He's at that stage where he's asking, 'Mum will you get me spinach leaves and kale?' for making smoothies - though he's a fiend for crisps, just like me, so he asks me not to buy crisps!"

His sister Ellie (who just turned 18) is doing her Leaving Certificate this year. "She's not having much of a life at the minute," Sheila says, "although she has a gorgeous group of friends who were over for her birthday recently. I cooked a big massaman curry for them, opened a bottle of prosecco and left them to it. They loved being treated like adults."

For identical twin sisters Eimear and Daire (who are nearly 17), life is all about events, whether that's being "out every night galavanting" with their friends who "are everything to them", supporting the local GAA matches that their brothers play in or the hurling team that their dad coaches, or training for the soccer pitch where they are budding stars in their own right.

Even Denny and Niall (14) who Sheila describes as "my babies" are "at the stage that if I'm out with them in the village, they'll want to drop me very quickly".

Which of course doesn't mean that they don't all come home hungry at the end of their active days and greet her with the familiar refrain of 'What's for dinner mum?' as they head straight for the fridge door.

"It can be really annoying actually!" Sheila exclaims with abundant sincerity. And she's quick to admit that, even with an older family with more adventurous palates, cooking can still be a thankless chore.

The answer, she is convinced, is to take a leaf out of the teenagers' handbook. "Kids are selfish," she states with characteristic matter-of-factness. "So I can be selfish too." Having spent years worrying about what everyone else might like to eat, her latest (and significantly subtitled) cookbook, Enjoy! Food You'll Love, is "all about the cook rather than the people that you're feeding".

It's a simple philosophy and one that works for her, she explains. "I tend to shop each day for that night's dinner and decide what we're having based on what we had last night," says Sheila, "but these days I'm thinking about what would I like to eat as opposed to what they would like to eat."

There are some things experience has taught her not to waste on picky eaters: expensive fish for example, such as fillets of sea bass, which she says can work out at twice the price of a chicken fillet. And so certain recipes - like her sea bass parcel with slow-roast tomatoes and green beans steamed in Sauvignon Blanc - are written specifically for entertaining more amenable adults.

But she has plenty of crowd-pleasers in her repertoire too. That massaman chicken curry never fails her, and is a great way of getting a huge amount of colourful, crunchy vegetables into everyone's diet - something she would have struggled with when the kids were younger.

Her cook-what-I-like approach has yielded some unexpected successes too, such as her jambalaya chicken. "Complaints were anticipated from the 'It's too spicy' and the 'Where's the gravy?' brigades," she says in the introduction to this sweet and spicy one-pot recipe, "but none were forthcoming." The dish features one of Sheila's favourite new discoveries, a north African spice blend called ras el hanout which her food hero Jamie Oliver raved about on his TV travels. "There's something about that blend," she enthuses. "Its heat is warming rather than burning… and the cinnamon is a surprise."

Sheila is clearly relishing her new-found freedom to experiment with flavours and ingredients, such as the box of high-protein, high-fibre greenwheat freekeh she spied in her local SuperValu and "just had to try". It turns up in a salad with beetroot and feta (see recipe, right).

Not everything is an instant hit with her teenagers' evolving palates, she says, but her experience has been that "if you keep giving it to them, they will eventually try it and their tastes expand." And she doesn't sweat it if one or two of the troop turn up their noses at what's on the plate, getting a laugh out of their antics instead. "We had couscous the other night with lemon and coriander and Mediterranean veg. Eimear was there trying to pick out the couscous grain by grain. I had to suggest to her that it might be easier to pick out the vegetables and just leave the couscous behind!"

Besides, all of her kids are now self-sufficient enough not to go hungry. The twin boys in particular are impossible to feed - "they're permanently hungry" - so she keeps the fridge and larder stocked up on "easy food that they can supplement their dinner with" including lots of healthy fruit as well as pasta and passata for a quick carb-fix. "I keep lots of spices within easy reach over the hob, so they'd cook up a tomato sauce with a jar of passata and experiment with throwing in herbs or spices."

The boys have even picked up a few tricks from Sheila's Sicilian brother-in-law, such as a passata sauce with balsamic and bacon. The Sicilian influence has lead to some of Sheila's more intriguing recipes too, such as her lamb parmigiana (see recipe, right) which she describes as having a "distinct nod towards Greek moussaka".

That willingness to experiment and have fun with flavours makes Sheila's approach refreshingly approachable. When her editor worried that readers might argue whether her pear and brandy galette was "a genuine French galette", this culinary magpie blithely quotes a bit of Nigel Slater in her defence, saying, "There is too much talk of cooking being an art or a science - we are only making ourselves something to eat."

And besides, Sheila adds, "galette sounds and looks romantic, and the sweet brandy sauce that bathes the pears is divine." You can't really argue with that. But if you were to argue with her, Sheila wouldn't be all that bothered. It's only food after all. And she's going to enjoy it.

Rhubarb and custard cheesecake

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Is this a cheesecake, or is it more of a fool served on a biscuit base? Traditionally I've made cheesecakes using a combination of cream cheese, jelly and cream, but lately I've tried some without the jelly and they've worked just fine. It hastens the preparation time, and anything that speeds things up gets my vote. I thought I was a bit of a genius coming up with the rhubarb and custard cheesecake combination, but a quick internet search told me that approximately 100,000 others had thought of it before me. But did they use a Custard Cream biscuit base?

For the uninitiated, Custard Creams are a vanilla and custard-flavoured sweet biscuit sandwiched together with a buttery cream filling.

Makes 1 deep-filled 23cm cheesecake

You will need

5-6 stalks of rhubarb

50g caster sugar

2 tbsp water

2 x 150g packs of Custard Cream biscuits

100g butter

250ml fresh cream

500g (2 x 250g tubs) mascarpone

2 tbsp icing sugar

Poached rhubarb batons to decorate (optional)

Method

1. Rinse the rhubarb and chop the stalks, then place in a saucepan with the sugar and water. Cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, for approx. 8 minutes, until the rhubarb has softened and broken up. Set aside to cool.

2. Place the Custard Cream biscuits in a plastic bag and bash into crumbs with a rolling pin. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then take it off the heat and stir in the biscuit crumbs, mixing them well with the melted butter. Pour the crumbs into the base of a 23cm springform tin, patting down firmly into an even layer. Place the tin in the fridge to allow the biscuit base to begin to set while you prepare the filling.

3. Whip the cream in a bowl until it holds peaks and set aside. Mix the mascarpone with the icing sugar and the cooled rhubarb until smooth and well combined, then gently fold in the whipped cream. Pour this mixture on top of the biscuit base and allow to set in the fridge overnight.

Lamb Parmigiana

2016-04-23_lif_19866546_I3.JPG  

I was lucky enough to taste authentic Parmigiana cooked by my brother-in-law's grandmother in Sicily. Out of all the many, many amazing dishes cooked for us, it was the dish that I most wanted to recreate. I've added lamb to the Parmigiana so that it can feature as a substantial stand-alone dish, one which now gives a distinct nod towards Greek moussaka too. As Parmesan can be quite expensive, feel free to substitute a different cheese, such as a cheaper Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano.

Serves 6

You will need

Rapeseed oil, for frying and drizzling

500g minced lamb

1 medium onion

2 garlic cloves

2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes

2 tsp dried oregano

2 aubergines

50g Parmesan, grated (about half a regular-sized wedge)

Crusty bread, to serve

Method

1. Preheat a fan oven to 180°C.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pan over a medium heat and brown the minced lamb. While that's cooking, finely chop the onion and peel and crush the garlic. Push the browned mince to the side of the pan, add the chopped onion to the centre and allow it to soften for a few minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more before stirring in the chopped tomatoes and oregano. Leave to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in another large frying pan or griddle pan over a medium heat. Cut the aubergines into 1cm-thick slices and slightly brown the slices on both sides, drizzling over some extra oil so that they soften a little as they cook. Once browned, remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil. You may need to do this in a couple of batches.

4. Spread a layer of minced lamb in the bottom of a large baking dish and top with a layer of aubergine slices, then a layer of grated Parmesan. Repeat the layers, finishing with a generous topping of grated Parmesan.

5. Bake in the hot oven for about 15 minutes, until the cheese has melted and the meat is bubbling up underneath the aubergines. Enjoy with some crusty bread.

Freekeh Salad with Beetroot and Fetah

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I spied a box of freekeh in my local SuperValu and just had to try it. So what is it? The box says: 'High in protein and fibre, greenwheat freekeh is a nutritious toasted grain that makes a wholesome alternative to rice and couscous.' There you have it.

Serves 4

You will need

100g greenwheat freekeh

500ml water

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 tsp salt

2 small cooked beetroots (I buy mine pre-cooked and vac-packed)

1 block of feta cheese

Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, to serve

Method

1. Put the freekeh and water into a saucepan with the rapeseed oil and salt. Stir and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, until the freekeh is tender. Drain off any excess water and transfer the freekeh to a bowl.

2. Chop the beetroot and cube the feta, then add both to the freekeh. Serve with a scattering of chopped parsley. This is good hot or cold.

Sheila's top food waste tips

Sheila is proud to be a Stop Food Waste ambassador for the Environmental Protection Agency. "I hate throwing things away," she says, and her cookbook is full of practical tips for avoiding food waste.

Deter people from piling up their plates. Food left in serving bowls can be recycled into tomorrow's dinner or frozen as single serving portions.

Transform leftover fruit into chutneys, add fruit jams to dressings and sauces or bake bruised bananas into a delicious bread.

Be creative with vegetables and leaves. Lettuce pesto makes an affordable alternative to basil pesto and surplus herbs can be chopped up and frozen, while wilting rocket leaves can be finely chopped and scattered over dishes in place of parsley.

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