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18 November 2009

Feeding the little ones...

Six o’clock on Saturday evening, and the McKenna kids are sitting at the dinner table, so tired that they cannot even talk to one another. It’s the end of another long week, with five days of school complemented by swimming lessons, drama classes, sailing lessons, hanging out, you name it.
This is the time for comfort food. So tonight I have made Italian potato pie, a typically elegant Italian solution where left-over bits of meat, left-over bits of sausage and chopped-up ends of salami are dressed up in a blanket of mash, with lots of grated cheeses, a couple of eggs, and breadcrumbs on the outside.
Grate in plenty of nutmeg, mix it all together, dot the breadcrumbs and slices of butter on top, then bake it in a moderate oven for half an hour. I give it to the kids, with some cooked batons of carrot mixed with baby sweetcorn, and within five minutes, the conversation is firing on all cylinders, the tired bodies and minds are full-on. Kids embrace this sort of food – cheap, tender, soulful, warming – as they embrace a hug. It not only sustains them, it does something else: it restores them.
Comfort food is the great healer. When we are low, it can bring us back from the brink, and it does so by providing tactile comfort, like a big blanket of warmth. Look at how much we like those other elegant solutions to left-over foods – shepherd’s pie and cottage pie – for instance. We know that beneath that helmet of mash, there is the tactile delight of minced beef in a rich tomato sauce, or diced, cut-up roast lamb mixed with carrots and peas.
When I need to fall back on comfort food for the family, the solution seems usually to rest with a blanket of spuds, or else a blanket of béchamel sauce, that simple flour, butter and milk sauce.
One of my children’s favourite things to eat, for instance, is called “Sausage Boats”. You make your mash, and you fry some good sausages. Then, you cut the sausages down the middle so that they open up – don’t cut all the way through – and you pile a pillow of mash into each sausage boat. Flash them under the grill for a few minutes so that the spud crisps and colours (this bit is optional), then with a cocktail stick and a piece of carrot or tomato, you decorate them with a sail (this bit is not optional, so get the kids to do it themselves).
Suddenly, spuds and mash has a whole new lustre, and rather than being the most clichéd of children’s dinners, it is a new adventure in flavour. But you, wise parent, know that it is no more than sausages and mash.
With bechamel, you can be even more laid back. Take Corn Cheese, for instance. What is it? A béchamel sauce simply has lots of grated cheeses stirred into it, again using up odds and ends and rinds. Then you drain a can of sweetcorn, stir it into the béchamel, put it into a baking dish and give it twenty minutes in the oven. I promise you that they will lick the dish clean.
The béchamel comes to the rescue also with left-over roast chicken, in a chicken gratin. You pile your sliced pieces of chicken into a dish, and pour plenty of béchamel over to coat the lot. Grate on some cheese – Parmesan is best – and shove it into the oven. Twenty minutes later you have a slightly burnt top – that’s the gratin bit – and underneath you have chicken transformed into a comfort zone that children go crazy for. You can also give them a blast of iron by adding cooked florets of broccoli to the chicken.
But if the Italians know how to make spuds into a restorative dish in the form of potato pie, they are also the masters of the most restoring comfort food: polenta, or maize meal.
I always enjoyed polenta, but never cooked it for my kids because I had always believed that making polenta involved stirring the corn meal in water for an hour - this is what virtually all recipes will tell you.
But then I discovered a fool-proof way to make polenta that doesn’t involve any stirring, and which involves almost no work. You butter a casserole dish, then tip in one cup of polenta. Pour in 4 or 5 cups of water, throw in a big piece of butter and a big pinch of salt, and bake for an hour at 180C. Your polenta will spoon out of the dish like molten sunshine, and you only need a few meatballs, or some minced beef in tomato sauce, or just a few sausages, and your kids will be brought back from the brink of exhaustion, and restored, and ready to do it all over again.