Back in the day, when our family ate at least six main meals a week together, I used to aim for two days with meat, two days with fish and two days vegetables only. The latter really wasn’t easy. My children didn’t/don’t like any form of lentil, the only beans they’d eat were baked beans, and peppers, mushrooms and aubergines were all completely rejected. And woe betide me if I attempted to add even a tiny trace of anything spicy. Of course, these ingredients were the mainstay of the vegetarian dishes I’d been cooking and enjoying in my pre-children days. After a certain amount of trial and error I did manage to come up with some vegetarian dishes that my children tolerated, and even loved. For the rest, they made do with those ever reliable stand-bys — pasta, pesto and peas and jacket potatoes with beans and cheese.
Just for the record, the dishes that follow are not necessarily perfectly nutritionally balanced. I have no idea if they have the right amount of vegetable-based protein in them. That’s why I am not even calling them vegetarian. I served them as part of a diet that also included fish and meat. If your children eat only vegetarian food, I am assuming that you have done your research and will know what to add to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need.
Fully Loaded Macaroni Cheese
My kids liked macaroni cheese and they liked cauliflower cheese so putting the two together was a no-brainer. The sweet potatoes and leeks were later additions.You will need:
- 1 cauliflower
- 2 leeks, sliced
- 1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- 500g macaroni or any short pasta
- 300g mature cheddar, grated
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 500ml milk
- salt and pepper
Cut up the cauliflower into florets and place in a large saucepan of salted water. Bring to the boil and cook until soft.
To save on washing up, I use a long-handled colander to scoop out the cauliflower when it is ready. Then I top up the water in the pan, bring it back to the boil and put in the pasta to cook.
While the above is happening, put the butter in a deep frying pan over a low heat and add the sliced leeks and some salt. Cook very gently until the leeks are soft. Don’t let them blacken or brown.
While the leeks are cooking, peel and chop the sweet potato into smallish chunks. I usually microwave these, in a covered microwaveable dish with a tablespoon of water. You could boil or steam them — whatever it takes to get them soft and masheable. Once cooked, drain and mash them with a fork and set aside.
When the leeks are soft, remove from the heat and stir in the flour. Then add the milk and return to the heat, squashing any lumps that may form. Bring to the bubble, then turn down the heat and cook gently for a minute or two to cook out the flour taste. If it gets very thick, add a bit more milk. Season well, then add most of the grated cheese and stir until it is melted.
At this point I go against my usual attempts to limit washing up and get a really big mixing bowl into which I put the cooked pasta, cheesy leek sauce, cooked, chopped cauliflower, and mashed sweet potato and give them a really good mix. Then I tip the lot into an greased baking dish, top with the remaining grated cheese and bake in a moderate oven until golden and bubbling. You could probably do the mixing in the baking dish, if you have a big enough one, but when I do that I usually make a huge mess and/or don’t get everything mixed properly.
This is the ultimate comfort food and as such is rich and fairly bland. I usually add a liberal dose of chilli sauce to my plateful.
Our children came to live with us aged two and three. Overnight I went from cooking almost exclusively for adults to having to produce proper child-friendly family meals for four. Fortunately, one of my lovely sisters came to the rescue by sending me a tranche of her family’s tried and tested recipes. In fact, looking through “my” fuss-free family recipes, I see that most of them orginate from hers. This courgette bake is one of them. The original recipe includes bacon or ham, which I have taken out. But I’ve added sweetcorn to make it more substantial. It’s a good dish to serve with soup or with sweet potato wedges on the side. I cooked some halloumi fries to go with it the other day — delicious!You will need:
- Three grated courgettes
- One large onion, chopped and fried until soft
- One or two cloves garlic, finely chopped
- Tin of sweetcorn
- A cup of self-raising flour
- Half a cup of grated cheddar
- Salt and pepper
Mix, then add:
- Five eggs
- Half a cup of oil
I must admit, a food processor with a grating attachment is what makes this recipe truly fuss-free for me.
Mix it all together well and put it in an ovenproof dish and bake at 180ºC for 40-50 minutes. If you use a shallow dish, it will need the shorter time. You want it to be cooked through in the middle, but not dried out. Stick a knife into the centre and see what is on it when you pull it out. You don’t want any gloopy raw egg.
I mentioned that the only beans my children will eat are baked beans. For those not brought up on them, these are tinned haricot beans in a mild, smooth tomato sauce. I think the reason my (and most other British children) seem to like them is that the beans are small, thin-skinned and don’t have that mealy texture that bigger beans have. They also have an innocuous, sweetish taste (the latter might have something to do with the sauce, although nowadays manufacturers are trying to remove as much sugar and salt as they can without leaving them unpalatable.) So, if you can’t get hold of baked beans, maybe try substituting tinned haricots (called navy beans in the US, I believe) and adding a couple of tablespoons of passata.You will need:
- An onion, chopped
- Three carrots, peeled and chopped into small dice or grated
- Three courgettes, chopped into small dice or grated
- A 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
- A tin of baked beans
- Two tablespoons of something brown (I will explain what I mean further on)
- 1kg potatoes
- Cheese, grated (optional)
- Oil for frying
- Milk and butter for mashing
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or deep frying pan, heat the oil and fry the onions gently until soft. While this is happening I chop the other veg and add them as they are ready.
Once the onion is soft, I add my “something brown”. This can be Worcestershire sauce, soya sauce, mushroom ketchup, even barbecue sauce — basically anything that will give that lovely dark savoury taste. I recently discovered an ingredient called liquid smoke, which would work really well for this. It is impossible to use the word “umami” without sounding pretentious, so I won’t, but you know what I am getting at.
Put a lid on, and simmer until all the vegetables are really soft.
In the meantime, boil the potatoes, drain them and mash them with some butter and milk. Don’t forget to season them. I also add grated cheese to the mash, but that is because I am greedy. It is not really required.
Add the baked beans to the cooked veggie sauce, then put it all into a greased ovenproof dish. Spoon over the mashed potato and smooth with a fork. You can draw fancy patterns with the fork and add some blobs of butter, or sprinkle over some more grated cheese.
Pop into a moderate oven and bake for about 20 minutes until bubbling and hot.
This dish is a bit risky for me, as neither of my children like mushrooms or peppers. I find I can get away with including them by chopping them really small. You can omit them or substitute other veggies if your children are less easily hoodwinked.You will need:
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- One onion, finely chopped
- One or two cloves of garlic, very finely chopped
- One red pepper, chopped small
- A punnet of mushrooms, chopped small
- A 400 g tin chopped tomatoes
- Two tablespoons of something brown (see my note on this in the recipe above)
- A cup of rice
- Half a cup of frozen peas
Take a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the oil and the chopped onions. Fry gently until soft.
Turn up the heat a little and add the peppers and mushrooms. Keep frying, stirring regularly, until the mushrooms let go of all their water and then reabsorb it. You want this vegetable mixture to be sticky and dryish, not watery. Add the garlic and after a minute, add the chopped tomatoes and the brown condiment of your choice (I use soya sauce in this dish, usually). Add extra seasoning to taste.
Increase the heat and, when bubbling briskly, add the rice, the peas and two cups of water. Give it all a good stir and bring back to the boil.
As soon as it is bubbling again, give it another stir, paying particular attention to the bottom which might have started to catch, then put on the lid and turn the heat right down, as low as it will go.
Check after 15-20 minutes. If all the water has been absorbed and the rice is soft, you are ready to serve.
I am not going to even try and pretend that this recipe is anything other than indulgent and probably very unhealthy. We have it every Boxing Day and I usually add chunks of leftover Christmas ham so then it is not even meat-free. The truth is, I have found that my children will eat almost anything wrapped in lovely, buttery puff pastry. And so will I. Now you know the answer to that age-old question: “Who ate all the pies?”
You will need:
- Swede, carrots, parsnips, sweet potato and potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks (please ignore the quantities in the picture above — I got a bit carried away — that amount of veg would make enough filling for three pies)*
- Two or three leeks, thinly sliced
- 50g butter
- 250g cheddar
- 500g ready-made puff pastry
- Salt and pepper
- One beaten egg
Cut the puff pastry block in half so you have two rectangles. Roll out one of the rectangles until you have an oblong about 40 cm long and 25 cm wide. Place it on a parchment-lined baking tray and prick all over.
Bake in a hot oven (200°C) for 10-15 minutes until cooked through and golden. Set aside to cool.
Put the chunks of swede, parsnip, and carrot into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Cook for about 5 minutes and then add the potatoes and sweet potato. You want all the vegetables to be properly tender, but not turning into mush. Drain really well when done.
While the veggies are cooking, melt the butter in a large, deep frying pan and add the sliced leeks. Cook over a very low heat — you don’t want any browning or bitterness. Once the leeks are soft, add the boiled vegetables and stir gently so everything gets covered in the lovely melted butter. Don’t forget to add salt at this point — maybe a bit more than you usually would.
It is worth leaving this mixture to cool for a bit if you can, as it makes the draping of the puff pastry over the filling easier. Once cooled, stir in the cheese, cut into chunks, or grated.
Get the baked puff pastry base (still on its lined baking tray) and spoon the filling down the middle, leaving a bare edge of about 3cm all round.
Roll out the other half of the puff pastry dough until it is big enough to fit over the hump of filling and with a bit extra so that you can tuck it under the base.
Brush the bare edge of the base with beaten egg, then using your rolling pin lift the raw pastry up and over the base and filling and tuck in the edges. Brush the whole thing with beaten egg. If you have any left over bits of pastry and you can be bothered, cut them into leaf shapes or plait them or do whatever you like to decorate, then glaze them with egg, too. You must remember to poke a few holes in the top of the pie to let the steam escape while it is baking.
Put it into the oven, preheated to 200°C, and bake for 25-30 minutes or until puffy and golden.
You could even make individual pies, if you wanted to go all out. *If you find you have made too much filling, add a couple of beaten eggs to the leftover mixture, form into patties and fry or bake. Another meat-free meal sorted.